PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered on Friday the Invest in Education proposal be removed from the November ballot because multiple violations occurred while getting signatures, but the legal battle isn't over.

According to the court ruling, supporters gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot, but many didn't count because of how they were collected and what was said while getting the signatures. Judge Christopher Coury said in the ruling that the 100-word description on the petition left out critical parts of the proposal. The summary focused on increasing teachers' salaries but Coury said it omitted parts like a new and permanent tax, an increase in the tax rate on certain individuals and more.

"Defendant Invest in Education circulated an opaque 'trojan horse' of a 100-word description, concealing principal provisions of the initiative," Coury said in the ruling.

Arizona's Family talked to Phoenix attorney Dan Barr, who says the bulleted list of what the judge says was wrongfully omitted from the "Invest in Ed" 100-word summary on the petition is 127 words. That shows it would be impossible to provide a 100-word description of the initiative that would comply with the statute. 

In addition to the misleading description, the judge also found people who gathered signatures received bonuses based on the number of signatures collected, which is illegal. Those weekly bonuses included a competition where two circulators would go head to head and whoever got the most signatures received a cash prize. The court said there were 146 incidents where signature gatherers received improper payments for signatures. 

They got bonuses for getting a certain amount of "sets," which is a set of signatures for multiple ballot proposals. But he declined to remove all petitions gathered by the company, instead ruling some were invalid but not enough to block the measure.

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The ruling is a huge blow to proponents of the Invest in Education Act, who saw it as a way to pump about $940 million a year into the state’s underfunded school system. The proposed initiative backed by many educators and the state teachers union would have imposed a 3.5% tax surcharge on income above $250,000 for an individual or above $500,000 for couples.

"We have families that are struggling through this pandemic that have struggled through quarantine that lost today," said Amber Gould, a high school English teacher in Glendale who collected signatures and signed on as a chain in the "Invest in Ed" initiative. "We have over a million Arizona students who lost today because of what the judge decided." 

This is the second time the proposal has been removed from the ballot. In 2018, the same thing happened and supporters lost the appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. The head of the Arizona Education Association blasted the decision on Friday and said the organization will appeal to the state's highest court.

"These are the same parties with the same dispute from two years ago. And the Supreme Court told the parties how to put such an initiative onto the ballot and the dispute here is whether the 'Invest In Ed' people failed to do that or not," said Barr. 

"Our state has more than 1.1 million K-12 students that Judge Coury let down today with his judicial activism – and that's shameful," said Joe Thomas, president of AEA. "435,669 voters signed this petition during the COVID-19 pandemic and triple-digit heat to let voters decide how to fix the Arizona education crisis. Instead of respecting the voters, Judge Coury inserted his own political views throughout his baseless ruling. We will appeal immediately."

House Democratic Leader Charlene Fernandez echoed Thomas' feelings.

"Our public schools deserve better than this," said Rep. Fernandez, D-Yuma. "Voters knew exactly what they were signing with Invest in Ed, we've been talking about this issue for years. There was no confusion. This judge held Invest in Ed to an impossible standard where a ballot measure must – in effect – use its opposition's talking points and include minor aspects of the proposal that can't possibly fit in 100 words. Arizona schools and teachers have been disrespected for too long, and the Arizona Supreme Court should right this wrong as soon as possible."

State Rep. Jennifer Jermaine tweeted out that the Arizona Legislative Council approved the 100-word summary before the petitions went out.

"There is a bigger problem with the process," Jermaine said.

Coury oversaw three days of testimony that ended Thursday. Witnesses for a petition circulation company denied they paid collectors per signature, although they acknowledged paying bonuses partly tied to the number of petition sheets they collected. Lawyers for the opponents argued the bonuses ran afoul of a 2017 state law.

The initiative was the latest outgrowth from a teachers strike two years ago that highlighted low wages for educators and a slow rebound from budget cuts enacted during the Great Recession. The walkout secured higher wages for teachers, but many education interest groups said it fell short.

Three other initiatives that filed enough signatures to qualify for the ballot also face court challenges. Initiatives legalizing marijuana, forbidding surprise medical billing and overhauling the state’s criminal sentencing rules face similar challenges in upcoming court hearings.

The secretary of state is reviewing the petition sheets for all four initiatives and will send a sample to county recorders for verification before certifying that they have enough to make the ballot.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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