Texas Voters to Decide City Elections, Amendments

It's Election Day, and voters across the state will decide whether to add 10 amendments to the Texas Constitution. Voters in several cities also will be picking mayors and city council members.

Local elections could draw voters to what has so far been a sleepy election. Only 2.1 percent of the state's registered voters turned out for early voting in the state's top 15 counties, according to the Texas secretary of state. It was slightly higher in Travis and Harris counties, but in El Paso and Hidalgo counties, fewer than 1 percent voted early.

Various local elections might boost turnout a bit. District 14 in Brazos County has a special election to fill the House seat vacated by state Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan. Three Republicans, a Democrat and a Libertarian are vying for the seat. Cities around the state, meanwhile — including Houston, Corpus Christi, Odessa and Midland — are electing mayors and city council members.

Hector de Leon, a spokesman for the Harris County clerk, says that even though people are coming out to the polls to vote in the citywide election, the early voter turnout from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4 for the county was 27 percent lower than it was in 2009.

“You find that the turnout is driven by contested candidates. So here in 2009, the mayoral race was an open contest, but this year that’s not the case,” he says. Houston Mayor Annise Parker won in 2009 and is now running for re-election. De Leon says he isn’t sure how the low early voter turnout will affect the general election.

 

There has also been recent controversy surrounding Texas’ voter ID bill, which will require Texans to show a valid photo ID to vote. Harris County election officials were initially given instructions that voters had to show a photo ID, but “that instruction is flat out wrong,” said Rebecca Robertson, a spokeswoman for the ACLU. The law doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2012.

State voters will decide on 10 constitutional amendments. The proposals:  

Prop 2 would allow the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), the state’s water-planning agency, to lend up to $6 billion via a bond fund dedicated to building and fixing water infrastructure. Props 2 and 8 are the two water-related ballot initiatives.

The proposal would raise the water board’s outstanding bond limit by $4 billion. Proponents, including business heavyweights and environmentalists, say the current board’s bond authority will be insufficient to keep up its responsibilities through the next two-year state budget period and won’t allow it to keep up with the state’s water and wastewater needs.  The TWDB says it can issue loans at more cost-effective rates than are available in traditional markets due to the state’s high credit rating. 

Critics, like former Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina’s We Texans,  worry that the measure will allow the water board to assume much more debt than the $6 billion limit indicates, according to a report by the House Research Organization (HRO). Once the board retires some of its debt, it could take on new debt, as long as the total outstanding debt isn’t higher than $6 billion. This means that the cumulative debt could raise much higher than what the voters had initially approved.

“Prop 2 is probably the worst because it’s giving a huge amount of money to an appointed board in perpetuity,” says Medina, who opposes amendments 1 through 9. “Most of the other amendments are doing local harm to local people, but Prop 2 is statewide with an appointed board with a lot of money that they can pass out to their friends for projects.”

Prop 3 would allow the Higher Education Coordinating Board to issue bonds that would fund low-interest student loans for college students without seeking voter approval every four to six years.

Right now, the board must ask voters before raising its bond capacity. If this amendment passes, the board would be able to continue issuing bonds without seeking renewed voter approval as long as the amount doesn’t exceed $125 million.

 

According to the HRO, supporters say the proposal is necessary because budget cuts to financial aid programs at the state and federal level will most likely raise the demand for such low-interest, fixed-rate loans. Increasing low-cost options for students would support Texas’ goals for closing the gaps in higher education by improving student access to opportunities for success.

According to Medina, neither Prop 2 nor Prop 3 “get the message that citizens are tired of runaway spending.” The opponents cited in the HRO report say that if the economy faltered or didn’t get better and caused a high rate of default on the loans, the cost to the state could be “considerable.” They say the Legislature and voters should keep their oversight authority to approve the issuing of new state bonds periodically in order to determine the need for this level of state borrowing.

Prop 4 would authorize the Legislature to let a county issue bonds to finance the development of underdeveloped, unproductive or blighted areas, pledging repayment from property tax revenues. Cities already have that authority.

Supporters say that allowing a county to designate a “reinvestment zone” for transportation projects would enhance tools for local governments to reduce congestion (such as road, rail and bicycle mobility projects) in both cities and unincorporated areas of counties, according the HBO report.

Terri Hall, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom's executive director, says that the group is against Prop 4 because it would use property taxes to build toll roads.

“The big ballot wording makes it unclear for voters to know what they are voting on,” she said. “Transportation isn’t even listed on the ballot.”

Hall argues that the measure would create an incentive for counties to increase property tax rates and enter into bond debt without coming to the voters. Counties say they can build projects now, but only by taxing all of their residents; among other things, this amendment would allow them to tax only the residents of the area being improved.

Prop 8 would authorize property tax breaks for landowners who practice good water stewardship.

This proposal has bipartisan support and the backing of many environmental groups. Supports say it will create an incentive for landowners to manage their property in a way that conserves and protects water for the future. According to the Nature Conservancy, Prop 8 can help with the 13-month drought currently plaguing Texas by encouraging landowners to partner with the state to protect water quantity and quality without impacting the state’s finances.

Opponents say landowners in Texas already enjoy “several tax breaks,” so expanding an existing exemption to include water conservation practices would be “excessive” and “unnecessary.”

The other amendments include:

Prop 1 would allow the surviving spouses of 100-percent disabled veterans to continue claiming an exemption from state property tax after the veteran dies.

Prop 5 would authorize the Legislature to allow cities and counties to enter into contracts with other cities and counties by easing tax assessment requirements currently in place. 

Prop 6 would increases Texas schools' revenue by allowing the General Land Office to distribute revenue from the Permanent School Fund and increase that fund’s market value. It would also authorize up to $300 million a year to be transferred directly from the State Land Board to the Available School Fund. 

Prop 7 would allow a conservation and reclamation district to be created in El Paso County to maintain and create parks.

Prop 9 would authorize the governor to grant a pardon to a person who successfully completes a term of deferred adjudication. Under the current Texas law, the governor may only pardon people who are convicted of a crime. If this proposal passes, it could give people convicted of more minor crimes the chance to ask for reprieves.

Prop 10 would require certain elected officials after announcing their candidacy for another office to resign if their current term does not expire within one year and 30 days.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. The city of Laredo is not holding elections today. The Texas Municpal League initially told the Tribune the city was having elections because Laredo officials told that organization it was holding an election. That information was incorrect.

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