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Arizona school voucher bill will become law after not enough signatures gathered to let voters decide

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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, center, signs the Empowerment Scholarship Account bill that allows universal vouchers of public funds for 1.1 million public school students to attend private and parochial schools.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Universal vouchers of public funds for 1.1 million public school students to attend private and parochial schools are on their way to becoming legal in Arizona.
Backers of a petition drive to give the last word to voters acknowledged Monday they apparently did not submit enough signatures to force a vote. And that means the law, approved by the Republican-controlled legislature earlier this year, can take effect as soon as Secretary of State Kate Hobbs verifies the petition drive came up short.
Hobbs has 20 days from Friday's petition filing to do a preliminary check.
But an aide confirmed to Capitol Media Services that Save Our Schools submitted just 8,175 petition sheets. And there are a maximum of 15 signatures allowed per page.
Theoretically, that would still allow for up to 122,625 signatures, slightly more than the 118,823 that must be found valid to put the law on hod until a public vote in 2024.
But Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, said that the actual number of signatures on all of the sheets is short of that 15 per page. And that, she said, leaves the petition drive short.
She had no final number. And Lewis said she is still waiting for that official word from Hobbs.
But the Goldwater Institute, which supports universal vouchers, said its own review of copies of the petitions show there are just 88,866 signatures.
That is a far cry from the 141,714 signatures that Lewis said on Friday had been collected and submitted. But Lewis told Capitol Media Services there was no intent to deceive anyone, calling the disparity "human error.''
"People don't really understand the 'hair on fire' nature of having a campaign like this,'' she said.
Lewis noted voucher foes had just 80 days from the time Gov. Doug Ducey signed the legislation to gather the necessary signatures. The figure is based in 5% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
And there are various legal requirements beyond getting signatures.
"We were getting people notarizing (petitions) at like 2 in the morning,'' she said. Lewis said as late as Thursday people were driving up to the Navajo Nation "to pick up stray petitions.''
And she said the chaos continued into the Friday deadline.
"We had people meeting us at the Capitol shoving petitions into boxes,'' Lewis said. And then, she said,there was a call at 1:45 p.m. Friday -- 75 minutes before the papers were due to be submitted -- from someone who said there were 130 petitions there that had never been picked up.
"I just want to make clear there was no intentional lie here,'' she said. "The numbers were what we thought they were.''
Lewis said there are several possible moves going forward.
One is an initiative drive as an alternate way to put the issue to voters. But there are key differences from a referendum.
First is that the law remains in effect in the interim. And an initiative requires twice as many signatures as a referendum.
But backers would have until July 2024 to get those signatures.
More immediately, Lewis said the focus is on the November election.
"We need to elect a new legislature and governor that aren't going to keep pulling these shenanigans and will honor the will of voters,'' she said.
That refers to the last time lawmakers approved a massive expansion of the program, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which provides vouchers of tax dollars that parents can use to send their children to private or parochial schools. The vouchers, worth an average of about $7,000, also can be used by parents to cover the cost of home schooling.
Save Our Schools launched a referendum drive on that 2017 law, putting the issue on the 2018 ballos. Voters overruled the legislature by a 2-1 margin.
Lewis said there also could be a legal challenge.
Only thing is, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the program, originally limited to students with special needs, did not violate a state constitutional provision forbidding aid to private schools. The justices said that is because the money goes not from the state to the schools but instead to the parents who choose how to spend it.
Since then, the Republican controlled legislature has enacted a series of expansions to where vouchers are now available to foster children, children of those in the military, students living on reservations, and students attending any school rated D or F.
This new law opens the door for any of the 1.1 million students in public schools.
The failure of the ballot measure was cheered by Victor Riches, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.
"Arizona families have rejected special interests' attempts to take away their ability to choose the education that best meets their child's unique needs,'' he said in a prepared statement.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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