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In a few weeks, voters from across the state will be asked to weigh in on more than a dozen proposals to amend the state’s constitution.
Known as the “constitutional election,” the biennial survey follows the work of state lawmakers in Austin, who must now persuade voters to approve their recommendations to the state’s guiding document.
To help voters understand some of the issues on the statewide ballot, The Texas Tribune hosted a half-day event at Angelina College on Oct. 5. Below are brief summaries of the three discussions. You can also replay each conversation, which were taped.
“Economic miracle” at stake in election, East Texas lawmaker says
Texas’ economic future is at stake this election, a state lawmaker said.
Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican and who led on several of the constitutional amendments that voters will consider this fall, said the state would fall behind if voters don’t approve three key infrastructure questions.
“I think we run the risk of losing our Texas economic miracle,” Ashby said.
The money allocated for each of the infrastructure propositions — water, broadband and energy — has already been allocated toward their respective projects, but can only be utilized if voters pass each amendment. The funds created allow money to be placed outside of the general treasury to be used past the biennial budget created every legislative session.
Considering implementation, Beaumont Enterprise editor Kaitlin Bain said voters need to consider how propositions can be implemented equitably
“I hope that’s part of the conversation moving forward: Not only how can we build out this infrastructure, which is obviously vitally important particularly here, but how can we make sure that the lowest financial earners in our community can also afford it?” Bain said.
Ken Wink, associate dean of the college of arts & sciences at the University of Texas at Tyler, said the amendments are getting out in front of problems that could become more significant in the future, especially in regard to broadband access.
“These are creeping problems, but I think if we can get some of these things past we can get ahead of the game,” Wink said.
State would buy down local property taxes if voters say OK
Three of the 14 amendments on the ballot this November have a direct impact on property taxes.
One of the most discussed amendments is Proposition 4, which stands to cut property taxes by a historic $12.7 billion. If approved, the state would buy down the property taxes collected by local school districts using state sales tax.
Rod Bordelon, distinguished senior fellow for regulatory affairs at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said using the state’s surplus toward buying down property taxes is a sustainable practice, even if future surpluses are not as robust as this past session’s record $32.7 billion. Bordelon said the buying down could be continuously applied over the course of several years to drive the costs of schools on taxpayers down to zero.
Another amendment would also set appraisal caps on non-homestead properties, a decision John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance at the Baker Institute, called “bad policy.” Diamond also noted that renters do not benefit from the homestead exemptions provided in the proposition either. Almost 4 million people rent in Texas.
Vidor Independent School District Superintendent Jay Killgo expressed concern over how shifting property taxes could affect revenue for schools, especially as schools look to try to increase wages for teachers amid a national shortage and rising inflation. Almost 80% of Vidor ISD’s budget is spent on faculty and staff, and Killgo said this is becoming the norm for districts across the state.
Panelists also shot down the idea of an income tax being presented in the Texas legislature any time in the near future and attributed Texas’ growth in part to its lack of an income tax. The state constitution already prohibits such a tax.
“Anything you can do with an income tax you can do with a consumption tax and it’s more efficient,” Diamond said.
“An opportunity to vote for rural”: infrastructure experts discuss accessibility and sustainability for East Texas support
Administrators and researchers of several infrastructure groups discussed the difficulties of providing modern and reliable broadband, energy and water supply to rural communities in ways that will last long-term.
Much of the groundwork for current infrastructure across the state is over 40 years old, said Joshua Rhodes, research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Rhodes said the aging of these crucial infrastructure elements combined with the need to accommodate Texas’ rapid growth requires an intentional effort to update.
“If we’re going to change the system while also increasing the amount of energy that we're going to consume, we're going to have to make sure we have that infrastructure to do it,” Rhodes said.
Panelists discussed the higher cost of building out infrastructure in rural areas, specifically regarding rising water costs and broadband installation. Etex Telephone Cooperative CEO Charlie Cano noted that the exponential increase in broadband usage over the next decade will require the fiber to be replaced more rapidly than other infrastructure to stay on pace with demand.
Angelina-Neches River Authority General Manager Kelley Holcomb said that water infrastructure needs significant attention, not only for rural areas but because of a sharp increase of demand on the horizon. Holcomb said the state is projected to be 7 million acre feet of water short by the year 2070 due to population growth.
“This billion dollars that’s going to be infused into the water industry is hopefully the first step, the first real step in going toward funding rural water in the state of Texas, which is sorely needed,” Holcomb said.
Kelty Garbee, executive director of Texas Rural Founders, said better broadband access doesn’t just come with new infrastructure, but also by considering how accessible the infrastructure becomes once it is in place. Garbee said in some rural areas Texans pay over double the amount their urban counterparts do for half of the internet speed.
Proposition 8 would provide $1.5 billion in a fund to help update and create better broadband and telecommunications access in rural areas, where 7 million people are without access. Garbee said the money will help access the $3.3 billion allocated to Texas by the federal government and that state money will “flow faster” than federal grants.
“I look at it as an opportunity to vote for rural,” Garbee said.
Disclosure: Angelina College, Texas Public Policy Foundation and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.