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Fri, Nov. 22

Ballots: Who writes this stuff? - Language on PUSD ballots set by state law; can be confusing

PRESCOTT - As voters in Prescott Unified School District vote in the district's bond and override election, they'll notice the words used by opponents and supporters are missing from the text on the ballot.

School officials trumpeted the word "maintain" as they shopped the bond and override at community forums and civic organizations.

But that word's not on the ballot.

Opponents have used words like "restrict," "demonstrate" and "privatize."

Those words aren't on the ballot either.

Voters won't even find the word "taxpayer." That's because the language on the ballot is dictated by state law.

School elections for bonds and overrides are governed by state statutes, which sets out specific requirements for what needs to be included in the ballot text, and even requires certain sentences to appear verbatim.

"We have very little say in what we can say on the ballot," PUSD Superintendent Joe Howard said.

Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter explained the language on the ballot is drafted by the district's bond attorneys along with consultants his office hires to ensure legal accuracy.

"The statute dictates the information contained in the ballot text," Carter said.

He said that's why voters reading the ballot text can come away with different views on whether the bond and override will increase taxes.

Carter said a voter who argues that PUSD's proposal is a new tax is correct - the 2004 bond is expiring, and so is the amount for the school district property taxpayers see on their current tax bills.

But Carter said a voter who says it's a continuation of the existing tax rate is correct too - the tax rate for the combined bond and override remains at or below current levels, so the amount property taxpayers pay won't go up if voters approve the bond and override.

"I think people can put a spin on it based on how they want it to sound," Carter said. "I can see why people argue it both ways."

He also noted the language used in ballot text can carry certain bias - an issue argued year after year in the Legislature.

In Arizona, terms connected to local school taxes include "school improvement bond," "budget override" and "secondary tax rate," among others.

The state's neighbors to the north in Utah use terms like "discretionary property tax levy," while in New Mexico, it's "direct levies" - each word meaning essentially the same thing but giving voters a slightly different message.

Carter also said the ballot text makes no mention of how much funding a school actually receives in capital funds from the state compared to what it would receive if fully funded.

"If you look at the amount of capital funding schools receive today, it's a fraction of what it was 10 years ago," he said.

But that fact isn't in the ballot. Instead, the ballot simply says the proposed capital improvement bonds "are to exceed the State standards and are in addition to monies provided by the State."

The ballot says PUSD "is entitled to State monies for new construction and renovation of school buildings in accordance with State law" - but it doesn't tell voters whether the district actually receives the funds.

It's that kind of information voters can find in the arguments for and against - though there aren't any official arguments against either the bond or override included in the voter informational pamphlet, nor any arguments in favor of the two questions allowing the district to sell Washington and Miller Valley schools.

Carter said the language on the ballot is intended to inform voters.

"There is such an emphasis - at least from the legislative level - to try to protect the taxpayer," he said. "The Legislature has done a good job of protecting the taxpayer in Arizona."

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9305.

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