|Updated: 7/19/2012 7:32 pm
||Published: 7/19/2012 4:32 pm
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Supporters of a proposed severance tax hike on natural gas will be given 30 more days to circulate petitions after more than two-thirds of the signatures they submitted to qualify for the ballot were invalidated, Arkansas election officials said Thursday.
The secretary of state's office said that only 21,347 of the 69,774 signatures submitted by the Committee for a Fair Severance Tax were valid. The group needed at least 62,507 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the November ballot.
Since the proposal cleared an initial count of signatures, backers have until Aug. 20 to gather more signatures to qualify for the ballot, the secretary of state's office said.
The proposal by Sheffield Nelson, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and ex-natural gas executive, would raise the tax to pay for road improvements throughout the state. A disappointed Nelson said he was inclined to continue gathering signatures but planned to talk with other supporters of the hike and make a decision by Monday.
"As it is now, that is a rather challenging mountain," Nelson said. "We're certainly going to look at it and evaluate it and talk with everybody to see what the consensus is."
Wells are now taxed at between 1.25 percent and 5 percent of the value of the gas being taken from the land. The measure would increase the tax to 7 percent.
The proposal has faced heavy opposition from the natural gas industry, which says it would jeopardize jobs connected to the state's Fayetteville Shale natural gas formation. Arkansans for Affordable Jobs and Energy, a group funded by natural gas companies to campaign against the measure, has spent more than $1.6 million urging Arkansas residents to not sign petitions.
The group opposed to the effort said it also had found hundreds of "fraudulent" signatures in its own review of Nelson's petitions and hoped authorities would investigate them further.
"This is a big con job on a pretty incredible scale," said Randy Zook, chairman of the group opposed to Nelson's proposal. Zook is also president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.
The tax hike also faces high-profile opposition from elected officials on both sides of the aisle. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat who negotiated an increase in the severance tax in 2008, has said he's opposed to the measure.
This is the second time supporters of a proposal for this November's ballot have been given more time to gather signatures. Last week, backers of a proposal to legalize medical marijuana were given 30 days to circulate more petitions after falling short of the signature requirement.
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