Amend This!

Government By Referendum Is No Government At All

Elsewhere in today's issue, the Chronicle publishes its endorsements for the state constitutional amendments to be balloted Nov. 6. By statewide standards, we (the News staff, the editor, and the publisher) are a dour bunch, mustering up just enough enthusiasm to recommend half-hearted Yes votes for only four of the 19 propositions (two of which overlap).

By contrast, the Houston Chronicle (citing the amendment numbers only, not bothering to include even the language that will appear on your ballot) endorsed all but two of the propositions. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram rejected only one, while the lion-hearted Dallas Morning News cast a cold eye on three. (Unlike its weak-kneed Cowtown competition, the News just can't abide extending the firefighters' pension fund commissioner's term to four years.)

On the other hand, our mealy-mouthed Austin American-Statesman couldn't quite manage endorsements at all, exactly. Instead, it listed all the propositions, but dolefully introduced them with a some-say-yes-some-say-no editorial that sort of endorsed land title resolution, paid government service for teachers, highway bonds, and state agency bonds. The editors dithered a bit about special interest tax breaks -- without actually rejecting them. Finally, the Statesman ringingly supported $2 billion in water-project bonds (Prop. 19), in stentorian language that shall go down in journalistic history: "Water is a crucial issue, and the state can't afford to postpone action. The bonds would be a start."

To the barricades!

Just Saying No

Faced with such pundit unanimity, why are we Chronicle cranks such a bunch of naysayers? Well, in the first place -- like the Legislature before them -- not a single one of our august daily publications bothered to make more than a cursory case for these propositions. The editors are content to argue that, well, the Lege thought these amendments would be a good idea, and that's good enough for us. The Chamber of Commerce mantras long repeated in printers' ink and concrete -- highways, buildings, dams, progress -- are considered sufficient unto the day, and with the voters now staying away from the polls in droves, it's likely that they will be sufficient unto Nov. 6 as well. That would be too bad.

Despite the widespread editorial squeamishness, it needs to be said that at least 13 of these amendments don't belong in a constitution and should never go to the voters at all. A professional Legislature with a modicum of backbone would deal with them directly and not waste time and money asking citizens to vote on, for dismal example, firehouse equipment donations or granting special tax breaks to the travel-trailer industry.

A far more serious matter is that the Lege, for lack of honesty or courage or both, increasingly wants to stuff onto the ballot (and into the constitution) the sticky matters it doesn't want to deal with responsibly and directly. The Lege continues to use the amendment ballot to fund major public investment in infrastructure and government programs -- in building the community of Texas -- without actually acknowledging the expense.

The plain truth is that effective "government" -- that is, democratic community -- costs money, from all of us. But today's political opportunists are firmly committed to the idea that we can have everything we want -- highways, buildings, dams, progress -- without acknowledging, in action, that such things must be paid for, with real money. A modern state with an honest Legislature should, rather, have an efficient, fair, progressive tax system, and full and open debate about where, why, and how that tax money will be spent.

Their Word Is Not Their Bond

Our legislators prefer a shell game, whereby taxes can only go down and "essential" government services of unspecified purpose, cost, and duration will be funded by long-term bonded indebtedness to be repaid in some dim future out of revenues imagined only in the minds of perpetual-motion soothsayers for whom the economy is always "growing" its way out of recession. A few years ago, when Texas had money, Gov. George W. Bush insisted upon giving it away in the service of ... his presidential campaign -- and in bipartisan frenzy, the Lege enthusiastically concurred.

Now we're busted, with essential state services going begging, and the Lege wants to continue building massive concrete monuments to waste, inefficiency, and pork-barrel development, with the bill to come due, oh, some time after the current generation of politicians has retired, moved to Congress, or eagerly joined the concrete lobby. Why? Because in Texas, we've always done it that way.

In that tradition, voters could approach the booth Nov. 6 in the castor oil spirit of the Statesman, which sagely counsels that these pointless and boondoggling constitutional amendments represent "the 'spinach' of the state's political feast (nourishing, but definitely not dessert)." You could swallow your castor oil and your pride and vote for what the politicians and pundits say may unfortunately taste bad but is certainly good for you.

Or, you could stand with the knee-jerk cranks at the Chronicle, take a whiff of the whole damn package, and declare: "I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it!"

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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More Capitol Chronicle
Sore Winners
Sore Winners
The GOP seems determined to make representative government a game of 'winner-take-all'

Michael King, Dec. 3, 2004

The Price of an Education
The Price of an Education
As the Lege looms, don't bet the house on new money for schools

Michael King, Nov. 26, 2004


Endorsements, Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman, bonds, legislature, constitution, amendments, George W. Bush

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