Supporters of universal vouchers file suit to try to stop referendum drive

At issue is whether voters will get the chance to decide if vouchers of tax dollars to attend private or parochial

PHOENIX — Supporters of universal vouchers filed suit Friday in a bid to keep a referendum from getting to the ballot.

The lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court contends some of the people who circulated petitions to force a public vote did not comply with state elections law, which requires that they register as paid circulators and not be felons.

If a judge agrees, all the signatures gathered by those circulators could be disqualified.

Whether that would be enough to quash the referendum depends on how many valid names remain. Backers turned in more than 111,000 signatures on Tuesday; they need 75,321 of these to be found valid to give voters the last word on legislation to allow any student to get a voucher of state tax dollars to attend private or parochial schools. The referendum drive is led by a group called Save Our Schools, which opposes universal vouchers.

Meanwhile, voucher supporters are also working on a backup plan that, if successful, would void all the signatures and make the referendum drive disappear.

In a letter Friday to state Elections Director Eric Spencer, attorneys Thomas Basile and Tim La Sota, representing interests who want to expand the voucher program, contend all petitions are invalid. That’s because the petitions say the law targeted by the referendum drive was enacted by the “fifty-third session of the legislature.” But technically speaking, the legislation, SB 1431, was approved during the “first regular session of the fifty-third legislature,” with each “legislature” taking up two years.

There will be two regular sessions of the fifty-third legislature — 2017 and 2018 — as well as the possibility of one or more special sessions of this legislature.

La Sota, whose clients include the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, said this isn’t a question of whether the people who signed the petitions were confused by that language. He said the law clearly requires petitions to refer legislation to the ballot to identify in which legislative session it was approved.

He said that entitles Spencer to use his authority to invalidate all the petitions based on the error.

Spencer said late Friday he is reviewing that request. But he said that, based on his preliminary review, he will not kill the referendum.

He noted that does not preclude La Sota from raising the same issue with a trial judge, however.

There was no immediate response from the attorney who has been representing Save Our Schools.

The legal maneuvers come amid questions of whether voters support the vouchers plan enacted by state legislators.

Until now, vouchers, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, have been limited to those in special circumstances, like having a disability or attending a school rated D or F. About 3,500 students now get vouchers out of approximately 1.1 million children in Arizona public schools.

SB 1431 removes all those preconditions, though supporters had to agree to a cap of 30,000 vouchers by 2023 to get the votes; the cap can be removed by legislative vote at any time.

The referendum, if it gets to the ballot, would prevent the law from taking effect until the November 2018 general election. It would then be up to voters to decide whether to approve the new law or veto it.

Supporters have defended the expansion, under which the vouchers would be available to families who already can afford to send their children to private schools. Gov. Doug Ducey, who signed the law, said this past week he wants the program even if it means tax dollars will be used for children to get a religious education.

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