Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gas tax group alleges poll intimidation UPDATE

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 2:46 PM

INTIMIDATION: People carrying this logo allegedly tried to discourage gas tax petitioners at the polls.
  • INTIMIDATION: People carrying this logo allegedly tried to discourage gas tax petitioners at the polls.
Sheffield Nelson, who's leading a grassroots campaign to increase the severance tax on natural gas, said petition canvassers at primary polls yesterday were intimidated by representatives of the industry-funded group fighting the tax increase.

I reported earlier that the anti-tax group, operating publicly as Stop the Gas Tax AR, seemed bent on intimidation with a call on its website for reports of any place petition gatherers might be spotted. I speculated on what they might do with that information.

Nelson said people wearing or carrying Stop the Gas Tax Ar material had repeatedly gone to canvassers around the state — his group, Committee for a Fair Severance Tax had dispatched 125 to 130 — and told them they could not gather signatures at polling places and must leave. Petitioners, of course, may gather signatures as long as they don't encroach on a small neutral zone around each poll.

"Some of our people, not knowing any better, did leave," Nelson said. "Some of them said to go to hell." He said a woman named Felicia in Forrest City had scared canvassers into leaving by pulling a badge, identifying herself as a federal official and telling them she wanted them off the premises. She carried Stop the Gas Tax material, he said.

The campaign "expresses dismay" at the reports, Nelson said. He said it would pursue all possible remedies. He noted that impersonating a law officer, if that happened, could be a criminal offense.

I've asked a consultant for the campaign, organized under the name Arkansans for Jobs and Affordable Energy, and also Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce head and chair of the committee, if they'd like to comment, but so far haven't heard back. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce is a leader in the campaign, with support from chambers in the shale zone, among others. It has raised and spent more than $1 million already, with most of the money coming from Stephens Production and Southwestern Energy.

UPDATE: Randy Zook called back. He said first, "This is serious." He added that it "gets old when he [Nelson] throws this stuff out without evidence. If he has evidence of it he should produce it forthwith and turn it over to authorities as soon as possible."

Zook said his group indeed had people all over Arkansas yesterday, both paid and volunteers. Had they in any way been encouraged to discourage others from lawful canvassing? "Absolutely not," he said. Zook said their instructions were to "distribute material, take note of any activity and that's it." He said efforts on the website and in instructions to take note of any activity had no ill intent. "It was just to give us feedback of the likelihood of success of the ventures and how much of this was going on."

I spoke this morning, too, with Don Zimmerman, head of the Arkansas Municipal League, which is working with Nelson on gathering signatures. Their efforts continue, he said.

The tax initiative, to raise the existing rate from 5 to 7 percent, would require almost 63,000 signatures to reach the November ballot. The group has until the first of July to gather them.

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