by Max Brantley
Supporters will have 30 days from today to gather more signatures.
Needing 62,507 signatures, the petitioners for the Committee for a Fair Severance Tax turned in 69,774. But the office found that only 21,347, or about 30.5 percent, were verified as signatures of registered voters. That's a huge failure rate and a big gap to close, which Sheffield Nelson, leader of the effort, readily acknowledged.
"I was very surprised and totally disappointed. I never thought in terms of those percentages. I thought we'd at least have 60 percent."
He said the committee would decide by Monday whether to continue its drive. "Realistically, it's a difficult gap." He said he thought the goal was still possible with commitments from other partners, such as the Arkansas Municipal League, but he said he'd have to meet with them first. "I've never quit anything in my life," Nelson said. "I don't see myself starting that process today."
The letter from Secretary of State Mark Martin indicated whole pages of signatures were disallowed for "concerns about the facial validity of the signatures." In short, at a glance they appeared to be bogus. This could be a ground for contest by backers of the petitions, but if all obviously looked to be signed by the same hand it would be vain effort.
Nelson seemed to accept that bogus signatures were filed and he said that had "ramifications." If canvassers turned in full pages they'd signed themselves, despite sworn statements they'd witnessed signatures by others, he said it was "a concerted effort to defraud. ... Somebody lied. ....If they were writing signatures in, they broke the law."
He said he wanted to review "thousands" of additional signatures gathered since the July 6 deadline to assure the practice hadn't been repeated.
The campaign, anticipating some signatures would be disqualified, had continued to have canvassers in the field. The gas industry-financed campaign to oppose the tax has been busy, too. Nelson says gas industry-hired workers have been attempting to block people from reaching canvassers and he also says he's received reports of paid canvassers who've had their petition sheets bought for a higher price by anti-tax operators.
The committee formed to beat the severance tax, headed by Randy Zook of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and financed almost exclusively by major gas producers, reported this week that it had already spent $1.6 million. It has raised almost $1.8 million — including $700,000 from Southwestern Energy, $450,000 from XTO Energy and $600,000 from Stephens Production.
A statement from the group follows:
Leaders of Arkansans for Jobs and Affordable Energy (AJAE) say they are not surprised the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office found only 21,347 of the nearly 70,000 signatures turned in by Sheffield Nelson for his natural gas severance tax initiative to be valid. Nelson has 30 days to collect additional signatures.
“Given the questionable petition practices Mr. Nelson used, it’s not surprising so many of his signatures had to be thrown out,” said Randy Zook, chairman of AJAE. “In fact, we recently started our own review of Mr. Nelson’s petitions and detected hundreds of fraudulent signatures ourselves,” said Zook. “For example, we found pages and pages of petitions from Mississippi County that simply list residents in alphabetical order — all in what appears to be the same handwriting,” said Zook. “AJAE has contacted several of those individuals, who confirm they did not sign the petition. Petition fraud is a serious offense, and we trust the appropriate authorities will conduct a full investigation into the matter.”
“Despite using paid petitioners, and having help from the Arkansas Municipal League, Mr. Nelson just wasn’t able to get the support he needed. This is bad policy, and we will continue to educate Arkansans about the negative impact this measure would have on our state,” said Zook.