Arizona officials are calling on Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to expedite the signature-counting process for the referendum against Arizona’s Universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) law, including the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Ben Toma (R-Maricopa).
“We expect that your office will have formally rejected the referendum petition as legally insufficient no later than the opening of business on Friday morning,” Toma said in a letter to Hobbs. “If the full and effective implementation of H.B. 2853 continues to be obstructed, the Arizona House of Representatives will exercise its constitutional oversight function in order to find facts and ultimately to determine what, if any, legislation may be required to prohibit, deter, and penalize such dishonesty in future campaigns and administrations, and to ensure that the statutory procedures for filing and processing ballot measure petitions cannot be manipulated to enable such misconduct.”
The Arizona Sun Times reached out to the secretary of state’s office (SOSO) to ask if it would comply with Toma’s request but did not receive a response.
In his letter, Toma explained why he believes the referendum submitted by Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) did not preset the necessary 118,823 signatures to send HB 2853 to the 2024 ballot. He points to evidence like the 8,175 petitions submitted by SOSAZ, despite initial claims that the number was 10,200, and a petition review conducted by the Goldwater Institute which revealed the likely number of signatures was 88,866. The SOSO also uses petition review software, which Toma alleged should have already confirmed the shortfall. Moreover, Beth Lewis, Director of SOSAZ, told AZ Central that “we just got something wrong” when questioned about the potential shortcoming.
“In short, there is no colorable, good-faith basis for believing that the committee filed 118,823 or more signatures,” Toma said.
Today a Citizen Referendum has filed with our office to refer part of HB2853 to the ballot! The committee is reporting 141,714 signatures which is above the min required: 118,823 signatures.
So what happens next? 🧵 1/8
— Secretary Katie Hobbs (@SecretaryHobbs) September 23, 2022
Since the referendum was submitted, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) put all applications under the “universal” category on hold until it receives notice from the SOSO. The office currently shows the referendum’s status as “TBD” – still to be determined.
Universal applications opened on August 16, and 10,906 families had applied for the program by September 19. Toma claimed the organization had “an incentive to falsely report the number of signatures on the petition” to keep HB 2853 from going into effect.
He said this is particularly troubling because the deadline to apply for Q1 funding is Friday, September 30. The SOSAZ’s seemingly false claims could prevent thousands of Arizona families from immediately accessing the ESA program.
Ultimately, Toma said he fears Hobbs’s delay could be to “please her political allies” and further a “scheme to interfere” with the state government, which is why he threatened legislative action against Hobbs if she does not reject the referendum by Friday.
Moreover, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) called Hobbs out in front of a crowd at the State Capitol.
“So, the time has come for us to put this [HB 2853] into law. The date has passed. I am calling on Secretary Hobbs to expedite the signature verification project,” Ducey said. “Secretary Hobbs, now is not a time for politics. It’s a time to put these parents first. Arizona is going to be a state that funds students, not systems.”
We need to get Arizona’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program started for our kids. Joined families at the Arizona State Capitol to echo their call for Secretary Hobbs to expedite the verification process of signatures. pic.twitter.com/JI3VCXI7sB
— Doug Ducey (@DougDucey) September 28, 2022
The state Senate also got involved in the situation Wednesday as President Karen Fan (R-Prescott) sent a letter to Hobbs. She said that because Hobbs has the “compelling evidence,” she is complicit with the SOSAZ’s misreporting unless she immediately rejects the referendum.
This morning, @FannKfann calls upon @SecretaryHobbs to end the uncertainty and confusion for families wanting to take part in Arizona's Universal ESA School Choice Program. The hold on this funding for students is unjustified and unnecessary.
Read more… pic.twitter.com/lom1VsI1qb
— AZSenateRepublicans (@AZSenateGOP) September 28, 2022
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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Katie Hobbs” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Background Photo “Arizona Capitol” by JoeAuH2O. CC BY-SA 3.0.