- Associated Press - Friday, October 21, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A judge cleared the way Friday for Washoe County voters to decide in next month’s election whether to raise the local sales tax to pay for badly needed improvements in the increasingly overcrowded public schools serving Reno and Sparks.

Washoe District Court Judge Scott Freeman rejected an emergency petition from a school-district critic who wanted to pull the measure from the November ballot.

Jeffrey Church claimed the explanation and ballot arguments on both sides of Washoe County Question 1 were crafted illegally and stacked in favor of those who support the tax hike.

Freeman disagreed. He concluded after a two-hour hearing county officials were in “substantial compliance” with the law. He said even if they weren’t, he has no authority to prevent voters from deciding the matter at the polls Nov. 8.

“I wanted to give Mr. Church his day in court to make his arguments, but from a legal perspective, they all fail,” Freeman said.

Friday’s hearing came a day before early voting begins across the state. Absentee voting by mail already is underway.

The measure would permanently raise the local sales tax from 7.725 percent to 8.265 percent.

School officials estimate it would create $780 million in bonding authority over the next 10 years to help combat a $1.1 billion backlog in capital needs over the next decade.

Washoe County voters have rejected every school bond measure presented to them over the past 12 years. But there’s no organized opposition this time around and a political action committee, the Coalition to Save Our Schools, has raised $1 million for an advertising campaign backing the increase.

Church was one of two members on a committee created to write the opposition argument to appear on the ballot along with the pro-argument drafted by a four-member panel.

His petition said state law dictates three members be appointed to each committee. He argued the fact that the anti-panel had only two members prevented them from coming to an agreement on their rebuttal language.

Because they missed the deadline for submitting the language, Washoe County Voter Registrar Luanne Cutler determined last month the neutral explanation of the measure would be accompanied by arguments for and against, but only a rebuttal argument for the side supporting the tax increase.

The ballot itself notes that no rebuttal to the argument in favor of the tax was submitted - something Church’s lawyer argued Friday “is in itself lopsided.”

“It has stacked the deck in favor of those who in favor,” Reno attorney William Kendall said. “It creates an inference to the average voter reading this that the argument in favor is better than the argument against,”

Kendall also argued the ballot’s general explanation is misleading because it states a ‘yes’ vote will allow the district to raise the “funds necessary” to meet the district’s needs without proving such a necessity. It states “a ‘no’ vote means the funds necessary to address the overcrowding and repair needs … will not be raised.”

“It should have said a ‘no’ vote means the measure fails, not that you’ll deprive the school board of the money it needs to educate your children,” Kendall said. “It’s not fair. It’s argumentative.”

Coalition to Save Our Schools lawyer Adam Hosmer-Henner said Church was “trying to win this election before it even starts.”

Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Herb Kaplan said approximately 5,500 absentee voters in the county - including many in the military - already have cast their ballots.

“It’s too late,” Kaplan told the judge.

Freeman said the law establishes “very narrow circumstances” under which he could consider voiding the measure. He said that’s limited to instances where someone challenged a voter registrar’s decision to reject proposed language based on a conclusion it was “libelous or factually inaccurate.”

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