Top of the Props: Constitutional Amendment Ballot Features the Good, the Bad, and the Silly
By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 22, 2003
Last week I took a look at Proposition 12, the worst of the constitutional amendment propositions facing Texas voters on the Sept. 13 ballot. Under the fig leaf of protecting doctors from malpractice lawsuits, Proposition 12 would gut the open-courts provision of the Constitution. Nothing much new to report there, except that over the weekend, tort-reform ramrod Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston -- beneficiary of a friendly $313,000 Farmers Insurance mold settlement -- shamelessly flogged Proposition 12 in the Houston Chronicle. The campaign now hits the home stretch, so expect to hear a lot more on TV and radio about poor beleaguered doctors -- while remembering that standing behind the "doctors" and paying for the ads is an assembled financial army of private hospitals, big insurers, pharmaceutical companies, nursing-home chains, and a whole cabal of special corporate interests hoping to buy their way to a liability-free future.
There are, however, 21 more propositions, a serious handful that can probably best be sorted into overlapping categories of the Good, the Bad, and the Silly. (I considered adding the Incomprehensible as well, but that applied to so many propositions as written that it ceased to be a meaningful distinction.) Most often the bad and the silly coincide, but not exclusively. For example, Proposition 10 -- "The constitutional amendment authorizing municipalities to donate surplus fire-fighting equipment or supplies for the benefit of rural volunteer fire departments" -- seems perfectly reasonable, until you stop and realize that under Texas law it requires a constitutional amendment to accomplish what any enterprising group of PTA mothers would manage by a neighborhood petition drive and pickup pool.
Even more amusing is the helpful information, provided by the House Research Organization, that we've already passed an amendment allowing fire-equipment donation to foreign municipalities (that is, in Mexico), but this new amendment should be complementary: "Volunteer fire departments in Texas often have higher standards for equipment than fire departments in Mexico, so there would be little concern about potential conflicts between these two initiatives." That is, now we can give the good stuff to the Greater Tuna VFD, and send the outmoded and the substandard across the border. Gracias.
What else is on the silly list? There's Proposition 5, reconfirming the Lege's commitment to exempt personal travel trailers from property taxes (apparently, after the last session some localities read the new law to require taxation of nonresidential trailers). This is an unnecessary giveaway to a small special-interest group (snowbirds) and it may not even work, but the real reason for the proposition is tucked away in the HRO notes: "Travel trailer owners are a tight-knit community; they notify each other quickly about policies affecting their interests." There's also the desperately necessary Proposition 11 -- allowing wineries to sell wine by the glass in "dry" areas (on second thought, for some poor folks Proposition 11 probably is desperately necessary). Propositions 8 and 18 are a dubiously paired set, each allowing an unopposed candidate to assume office without an election, or in some cases even without a ballot. Not only do supporters defend this folly by reference to a Bexar Co. ballot that was two whole pages, but Gov. Perry has already vetoed the enabling legislation for Proposition 18. Take a free shot.
Folly by the Dozen
Proposition 21 would allow current or retired public-college faculty to receive payment for serving on water-district boards. You may consider that either double-dipping or only fair -- but why should it require a constitutional amendment? Similarly, Proposition 22 would allow the personal appointment of a replacement when a "public officer" is called into the active military. Setting aside that we survived several major wars quite well without this provision, just what is it doing in the Texas Constitution? (My best guess is that Californians get to vote on stupid stuff, and we want to, too.) Others among the 22 (see Proposition 19) are too silly even to describe.
There are a few propositions that appear to have genuine (if not constitutional) merit. Proposition 1 would allow use of Veterans' Land Board assets to help underwrite new veterans' homes. Propositions 6 and 16 would allow the elderly to use their homes for reverse mortgages and home-equity loans (if this one sounds familiar, that's because we voted for it previously but the Lege bungled the job). Allowing short-term bond issuance for highways (Proposition 14) or bonds for economic development in "defense-related communities" will probably be financially productive -- but only because the Lege considers highways and military bases worthy of investment, while hospitals and children's health care go begging.
The Rest of the Rest
The ballot moves from the nugatory to the dubious. Selective property-tax freezes for the elderly and disabled (Propositions 13 and 17) sound charitable enough -- but when made constitutional they become thoughtless giveaways made without regard for ability to pay, and they hamstring strapped local taxing districts. (It hardly matters -- phrased innocuously and favorably, they will pass.) There are also a couple of real stinkers hidden in the verbiage. Proposition 3 would allow property-tax exemptions for certain property owned by "religious organizations" (e.g., HPBC Inc.). Make 'em pay like any other business. Proposition 4 would give parks and recreation taxing authority to municipal utility districts in nine urban and suburban counties. MUDs already have too much independent power and are increasingly turning into fiefdoms for runaway developers -- annex every last bloody one of them.
There is a handful more, unintelligible or abominable. Writing only of arguments against Proposition 22 (subs for soldiers), the HRO makes a sufficient case against all the rest: "It is unrealistic to expect the Constitution to anticipate a contingency for every possible situation that might arise. Rather than amend sections of an out-of-date document each legislative session and ask voters to approve piecemeal constitutional changes every few years to deal with anticipated special situations, it would make more sense to overhaul the document. The Constitution needs to be a leaner, more responsive document that would serve Texas as a blueprint for government in the 21st century."
Don't hold your breath.
For more on the propositions, see the secretary of state's Web site at www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/2003sepconsamend.shtml. The Chronicle will include its specific endorsements for the Sept. 13 election in next week's issue.
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