Ballot returns for the May 18 tax-hike proposal are showing heavy voter interest already.

Early voting just started April 22 on Proposition 100, the temporary, 1-cent sales-tax increase that would raise $1 billion to help offset cuts to education and public safety.

By Wednesday, Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said more than 33,000 early ballots had been returned, out of more than 164,000 her office mailed out.

Since votes won't be tallied until Election Day, there's no telling, of course, how those voters are leaning. The pro campaign has been organized and visible, with backing not only from the education lobby, but from major business players such as the state and local chambers.

But a new factor may be coming into play. Some activists are questioning whether Arizona's controversial new immigration law may have an impact on the election.

Farrell Quinlan, a tax-increase opponent and state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said he's hearing people infuriated by Gov. Jan Brewer signing the immigration bill are flirting with sending her a message with a "no" vote, since she pushed the tax measure on to the ballot.

That's the problem, he said, with politicians being too closely identified with an issue that should have been built on a base of broader support.

Two-thirds of the $1 billion generated by the sales tax is intended to go to education, while the remainder will be divvied up between public safety and health care.

"Yes on 100" campaign consultant David Leibowitz said he's heard talk of a boycott-Arizona movement but doesn't have the impression it's any sort of widespread or organized effort.

While the immigration issue has drawn a passionate response, Leibowitz said, "Don't punish the schoolchildren, or the people who need a safety net, or those who want safe neighborhoods."

And John Hartsell, a spokesman for the Arizona Education Association, said he hopes the two issues don't become linked in voters' minds. "It's about providing additional resources to education, health care and public safety. It has nothing to do with immigration, he said."

Meanwhile, the opposition is about to become more visible.

Eric Ruden, a spokesman for the Tucson First Coalition of small business, said 350 signs will go up around town Friday. "The reality of it is it will cut consumer spending, which is going to impact businesses during a tough economic recession," he said. "As consumer spending goes down, jobs will be lost in the private sector."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or rbodfield@azstarnet.com

The Tax Foundation takes state and local taxes, including property taxes, from Census data and counts out-of-state tax payments in the state of residence instead of the state of collection and divides total tax payments by total income to calculate the "tax burden."