PHOENIX - A judge on Wednesday sharply rejected Secretary of State Ken Bennett's decision to keep a proposed sales tax increase off Arizona's November ballot because of a paperwork error.
If the judge's ruling stands, it means the proposed penny-on-the-dollar increase goes on the ballot. That's if pending checks of initiative petitions confirm that supporters submitted enough voter signatures.
Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said a decision will be made within days whether to appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.
If approved by voters, the measure initially would provide approximately $1 billion of new money annually for K-12 schools, universities, transportation projects, social programs and health care. The revenue figure would increase over time with growth in the state's population and economic activity.
The tax increase would begin in mid-2013 with the expiration of a temporary one approved by voters three years ago.
Bennett had declared the initiative petitions were invalid because a paper copy of the initiative submitted to his office by supporters omitted two paragraphs.
The two paragraphs specify how some of the revenue would be spent. Without them, there would be smaller increases in funding for universities and transportation projects and bigger increases for K-12 schools. All would get additional funding with or without the omitted material.
Judge Robert Oberbillig of Maricopa County Superior Court said what was important was that all the copies attached to petitions for voters to sign had the full and correct text. ``There's no dispute about that,'' the judge noted.
Initiative campaign leader Ann-Eve Pedersen said after the hearing that Oberbillig's ruling upheld the rights of voters and that Bennett shouldn't appeal.
``It was very clear today what the court thinks of his arguments, and they don't think much of them,'' Pedersen said.
Sometimes scathing in tone, Oberbillig used almost all of the half-hour hearing to grill Bennett's attorney, Assistant Attorney General Michele Forney, and to state his assessment of the case.
``You know what the full and correct text is. You know it, and your office knows it,'' Oberbillig told Forney at one point. ``How can you dispute what's correct and what's not correct?''
Forney said Bennett's office believes the printed version was the official version, but Oberbillig says state law doesn't specify that.
``There is nothing in the statute that requires him to reject this particular photocopy because it was missing part of a page,'' he said.
Oberbillig said Arizona Supreme Court rulings make it clear the most important factor to consider is whether something creates confusion for voters.
Citing his own court's willingness to accept corrected filings in pending cases, Oberbillig said Bennett apparently wasn't willing to acknowledge human error.
That unwillingness would invalidate 290,000 voter signatures ``because of a photocopy error,'' the judge said.
Once he learned of the mistake in June, Bennett could have asked the initiative's supporters to provide a corrected printed copy to post on his office's website or he could have just used a digital version, which was correct, that was submitted back in March, the judge said.
If some petitions had one version of the proposal and others had another, ``you'd have a whole different case,'' Oberbillig told Forney.
Ann-Eve Pedersen, head of the initiative campaign, said after the hearing that a clerical worker for a lawyer working on the initiative printed an outdated version of the proposal when supporters were preparing their March 9 filing to launch the initiative campaign.
Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Bennett's office, said it had completed screening of the petitions to prepare a random sample to send to county recorders to check signatures of individual voters.
While Bennett had declared the petitions invalid, he had his office screen them anyway because of uncertainty created by the court case, Roberts said.
Initiative supporters needed to submit 172,809 voter signatures to qualify it for the Nov. 6 ballot, and the petitions they submitted July 5 had 290,849 signatures.
With the rejection of some petition pages for technical reasons, 273,870 signatures remained on sheets deemed valid and 13,694 of those signatures will now be checked by recorders, Roberts said.