Travis County Bond Propositions
Proposition #1: The issuance of $36,015,000 of road bonds and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
This package provides for repair of substandard roads and bridges throughout the county. While county road bond proposals typically set off our "city-subsidized sprawl" alert, this particular proposed money allocation appears soley to improve specific trouble-spots rather than develop new feeder routes to the burbs. We fervently wish, however, that in the future, the burden of funding these repairs would not fall disproportionately on city -- as opposed to county -- taxpayers.
Proposition #2: The issuance of $19,110,000 of park bonds and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
As Commissioner Valerie Bristol put it, "We should never want to build more jails than parks." It may be too late for that in Texas, but this package will help somewhat. Rapid growth out in the county has left lots of people without access to recreational facilities, and has threatened to swallow up much-needed greenspace where people can just be people and dogs can just be dogs. Of course, it also threatens to swallow up areas where farmers can just be farmers, and wildlife can just be wildlife, too, but that's another story.
Proposition #3: The issuance of $16,045,000 of criminal justice and jail facility bonds for facilities at the county's Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
This will allow the county to add a 100-bed "intermediate sanctions center" to its Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center. Depressing statistics bear out the need for more places to put the county's burgeoning population of young offenders where they can begin receiving preventive counseling and treatment. The center would provide a level of services that exceeds what is currently offered though Gardner-Betts's 32-bed Leadership Academy, including drug treatment, anger management, and family mediation.
Proposition #4: The issuance of $1,620,000 of park bonds for the construction of the MKT hike and bike trail (MoKan Trail), and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
This measure would provide $1.6 million in bond money to carve out a 4.5-mile trail in an historically under-served area of East Austin. The trail route would start near the Cameron Road and Sprinkle Cutoff intersection, and amble along southward along the MoKan Rail right-of-way to the proposed YMCA East Community Branch. The Y's dream site is located on donated IBM property, just northeast of the US183/Martin Luther King intersection. Y officials hope to begin turning dirt on the ambitious $3.5 million project in October 1998. The trail would also provide a link to new bike improvement projects proposed under Part II of the city's bike plan, which the Austin City Council is scheduled to adopt soon. (For more on the bike plan, see the 12-page pullout this issue.) Trails, of course, are a welcome alternative to city sidewalks (where sidewalks exist, that is), and we welcome the opportunity to support a measure that promotes foot and bike traffic in this car-dependent town.
Proposition #5: The issuance of $4,000,000 of road bonds for the acquisition of right-of-way by the county in connection with the proposed State Highway 130 project, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
Proposition 5 is a down payment on Travis County's $62 million share of the right-of-way costs for the proposed SH130, a six-lane, 90 mile-long freeway that would run parallel to (and east of) I-35 from Georgetown down to Seguin. Although this highway is still being marketed, both here in Texas and in Washington, D.C., as a bypass of I-35, SH130's design so far suggests that it will more likely serve, at least in the near future, as another route from Austin's suburbs into its central city. Unfortunately, we can't be sure about the design, because the state has yet to finalize the route for the highway, and in no way will this proposition ensure funding for the sections of SH130 that lie beyond Travis County. In addition, there is currently no guarantee that traffic will not be allowed to shoot through East Austin neighborhoods between I-35 and the proposed SH130. We encourage SH130 boosters to get back to us when they can assure us that money will go exclusively to lighten the traffic load on I-35. We want a bypass, not another feeder road to the suburbs, and certainly the Eastside doesn't deserve to have dangerous traffic whizzing through its neighborhood streets.
Proposition #6: The issuance of $3,525,000 of road bonds for the acquisition of right-of-way by the county in connection with the proposed State Highway 45 project, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
How many times do we have to say it? No roads over the Aquifer. Also known in some circles as the return of the living boondoggle, Prop 6 would allow the county to purchase right-of-way for the proposed SH45, which would extend MoPac across more of the Edwards Aquifer and down into Hays County, apparently continuing Loop 1's piecemeal march toward I-35. Proposition boosters aren't even pretending that this road has any universal benefits for the city; it's being marketed as a "safety issue," as a route to alleviate truck traffic on Brodie Lane that cuts through the Shady Hollow neighborhood. If that's the case, let's invest in traffic-calming measures, not subsidize sprawl in the environmentally sensitive southwest.
Proposition #7: The issuance of $2,035,000 of county buildings bonds for emergency services and communications facilities, including the purchase of necessary sites therefor, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
Because the county does not have adequate hangar space, one of Starflight's two helicopters has to be parked on the landing pad at Brackenridge Hospital. (The other lies at the soon-to-be-closed Mueller.) The proposed bond money would be used to build a new hangar, crew quarters, and a training area for both EMS choppers and crew members. Due to cost and potential air traffic conflicts, the county says it would cost more to build it at Bergstrom than at a stand alone site east of the city. This proposal makes sense if for no other reason than to protect the county's investment in the helicopters, which are scheduled for replacement next year at a cost of $5.8 million.
Proposition #8: The issuance of $13,700,000 criminal justice and jail facility bonds for facilities at the county's Del Valle Correctional Complex, and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.
Yet more jails? Unfortunately, yes, and this ain't the kind that takes in prisoners from other states. We've got plenty of adults who have been sent to serve time right here in Travis County. This proposition will allow for the second phase of construction at the county's Del Valle jail. Voters may recall approving $67.7 million four years ago for the first phase of jail construction and the construction of a criminal justice center. Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier wanted about $7 million more than the $13.7 million she's getting this time, arguing correctly that shortchanging the county's jail capacity now would only lead to another jail bond election in the near future. But county commissioners were determined to keep the total November bond election to around $90 million, with an eye on limiting the ensuing property tax increase. What could happen if we don't fund this? Inadequate services, a lack of safety for the inmates and the guards, and federal lawsuits down the road making us pay for all these things we didn't want to pay for, with lawyers' fees to boot.
Special Municipal Election
The second important component of the Nov. 4 election is the Special Municipal Election, in which Austin voters will be asked to decide whether to enact major city campaign finance reform. The citizens' group A Little Less Corruption (ALLC) managed to put the proposed initiative on the ballot after gathering more than 20,000 signatures of registered Austin voters. Unfortunately, our editorial board was strongly divided on this issue, so we are making a split endorsement.
Proposition #1: Shall the City charter be amended to regulate political fund raising and expenditures in City elections?
Arguments in favor:
In a world where the rich admittedly use their wealth to gain access to those in political office, equating money with free speech is a fallacy. Under the current system, a monied person's so-called free speech rings louder in the ears of a candidate seeking to hold, or hold onto, public office than a poor individual's voice. Supposedly the system is such that we can overcome any undue influence with the one-man, one-vote paradigm, but just as power corrupts absolutely, then big money can absolutely corrupt those in power. Still, many argue, there is no proof that big money has corrupted Austin politicians; thus, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
But an examination of the last two city council campaigns by the non-profit Texans for Public Justice shows some alarming trends that the campaign reform initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot rightly seeks to halt. For example, data from the last two city council elections shows that one quarter of the $3.1 million total raised came in amounts of $1,000 or greater -- that's a large portion of big money contributions. Under the proposed initiative, individual and PAC contributions to candidates for mayor and city council would be limited to $100. Limits would serve to level the playing field for those who have less money to give a candidate. The initiative would ensure that the Don Henleys and the business/developer PACs would no longer command more attention than the average voter -- each contributor and PAC would be allowed to give just $100. Any pressure -- or perceived pressure -- to grant future favors to large donors would be alleviated. Voters might even be more willing to open their pocketbooks if they thought their small donations actually mattered as much as those of their big money counterparts. Taking PAC influence out of the process is especially significant, in light of the fact that nearly $700,000 was raised in the last two elections from businesses and PACs. Only PACs that limited their contributions to $25 and less per member would be allowed to give candidates more than $100; they could give up to $1,000. Small donor PACs such as these, under the initiative, are designed to amplify the voices of citizens who may only be able to afford to make small contributions.
Another alarming statistic from the 1997 and 1996 city elections shows that nearly $700,000 of the $3.1 million raised by the 18 candidates came from out-of-town sources -- from people, PACs, and businesses, all of whom may not have had Austin's best interests in mind when they gave so freely. The proposed initiative, which caps at $15,000 the aggregate funds candidates can receive from sources outside Austin, would end all that. Out-of-towners would no longer be called upon to single-handedly fund the Cold War between big business and environmentalists on the battlefield of Austin's city elections.
Critics of campaign finance reform point out that, under the proposal, even though a PAC could only contribute $100 to a candidate, PACs such as the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) would still be allowed to spend as much as it cared to on commercials and literature on behalf of a candidate. That's certainly true -- a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects campaign expenditures as pure acts of expression under the First Amendment. (By the way, campaign contributions were found to be acts of political "association," not expression.) So it does appear to be business as usual with RECA spending its money any way it likes as long as it does not coordinate the use of that expenditure with the candidate. (That means no communication between PAC and candidate representatives; currently there are no such restrictions on that kind of communication.) Still, there is another very basic -- and very significant -- difference under the new reform scenario: A PAC would be allowed to accept just $100 per member -- currently, there are no PAC-member contribution limits. While the proposed initiative cannot limit spending, it would at least force the group to find more popular support. To fight RECA's influence, some other $100-apiece citizen-funded PAC would have to form to disseminate campaign propaganda of its own. S.O.S., anyone?
Another critical reform posed by this initiative has to do with "measures" PACs which form to promote a particular issue or ballot measure. Under the current system, private corporations such as Freeport-McMoRan can spend as much as they want to promote, for example, a county bond proposition to build more roads leading to its developments.The campaign reform initiative on the table would prohibit companies -- as well as associations and labor unions -- from giving one dime to a measures PAC. That means S.O.S., when it wants to promote a referendum, for example, wouldn't get any help from corporate interests either. And, under the reforms, individuals who gave to a "measures" PAC would not be allowed to contribute more than $100.
The longterm interest of campaign finance reform is democracy -- giving the little guy the same access as the big guy to government. Does this initiative take steps towards that goal? Yes.
Arguments in opposition:
To be opposed to finance reform is like being against stopping wife beating; it's the current American answer to many political problems. The stated aims are noble: opening up the political process; freeing it from the grasp of special interests who may try to influence elections for their own personal gain; and upping voter turnout by giving citizens more of a personal stake in the process and outcome.
Make no mistake, however, those aims are not what we are voting on here. We're voting on a specific proposal -- one which amounts to the worst kind of political demagoguery. The power of big money is frightening but much of what is being proposed in ALLC's proposition will do little to cure it. The prop limits our right to donate money to candidates in its quest for a level playing field, but it addresses problems that don't really exist.
Has big money polluted Austin City Council elections? No, it hasn't. Candidates who have spent lots of money have lost, candidates who have spent less money have won. There is little evidence that big outside money has unduly influenced Austin elections except for Don Henley, and when some of the people behind this campaign finance reform initiative took big money from out-of-town developers to defeat the baseball stadium. Certainly, big money and out-of-town money by their very nature are odious, but they are not inherently anti-democratic. Has big money adversely impacted Austin, yes, but more often in the Legislature, the courts and through lobbyists than in elections.
The system is working, although awkwardly; candidates have to, and do, work groups and citizens, and citizens groups have bearing on the elections. Look at Austin's recent history. Kirk Watson didn't win because he had the most money, he won because he was the best candidate. Max Nofziger did not lose because he had less money, he had less money and lost because he was a weak candidate.
Restricting how much we as individuals can give restricts our rights, even though it does this, the proposition argues, because it is good for us. We are sick of the government doing things because they are good for us.
This proposition empowers PACS, who can independently spend money in support of a candidate, making them the biggest players in local elections. This gives independently wealthy candidates and/or candidates with an established name a considerable advantage.
Democracy is an ugly, sloppy thing, it works but neither smoothly or with grace. Still, whenever they start restricting your rights (because it's good for the health of the beast), use your vote.
State Constitutional Amendments
Along with the important bond propositions and the radical city charter amendment, voters are faced with the challenge of deciding no less than 14 propositions to amend the Texas Constitution. And, after a thorough going-over, we can honestly say that voters should be seriously vexed about it. Our blanket position is that the state constitution is a mess. Scrap the whole darn thing. We wish we could claim credit for coming up with this brilliant solution, but we are just one among many groups and individuals crying out for our elected leaders (the Legislature) to take this unwieldy amendment process off our shoulders. The League of Women Voters of Texas has put it best this election season. "Our state constitution needs revision, not continual amendment," said League president Julie Lowenberg in an October 13 press release. "We are the people. We are not the legislature. Public participation in government is critical to democracy, but it is not a substitute for representative government."
The League also points out that we've changed our state constitution 364 times, and the November 4 election will bring to 550 the total number of proposed amendments presented to the voters since 1879. The U.S. Constitution has only been amended 27 times to address critical issues such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage. Among the "important" amendments we're being asked to consider this time around is one that would renumber sections of the constitution because in some years, voters have passed two separate amendments making different changes pertaining to the same section. As a result, the present constitution contains sections on different subjects with identical numbers. And they need to ask us about this?
Even though we have just made fun of them, the Chronicle, like the League of Women Voters, urges citizens to inform themselves about these 14 proposed state constitutional amendments. An excellent place to educate yourself is at the League's website at www.main.org/leaguewv/home.html, where you will find not only the full text of the propositions, but arguments pro and con that the non-partisan group has spent months putting together. A League voter's guide will be available in local public libraries starting October 18.
Of the three charter endorsements the League bothered to make, we would like to add our endorsement to Proposition 3, for which the League makes the following argument:
Proposition 3 permits a taxing unit to grant a tax exemption on property on which a water conservation initiative has been implemented. This proposed amendment would give local jurisdictions optional methods to promote water conservation and reuse of water. It would be implemented at the local level with local input from citizens who are in the best position to know what is best for their community. It may also act as an incentive for local communities to become involved in water conservation.
For more information about the campaign finance amendment, see last week's story, "Targeting the Fat Cats," and check out the Chronicle's website for all of our endorsements and elections coverage.
By the way, early voting begins Saturday, October 18 and ends Friday, October 31. For a list of early voting locations and polling hours, call Travis County Elections Divisions, 473-9553 or visit the Travis County website at http://www.co.travis.tx.us/election