State Constitutional Election, Sept. 13, 2003

This year's proposed list of 22 constitutional amendments is more than usually cumbersome. The Chronicle editorial board (an extremely informal institutional fiction) takes a dim view of the sort of legislative effluvia burdening what should be a bedrock document of common principles of government. We recommend that our readers at least consider voting a resounding "NO!" on all the propositions.

We do offer our readers the following distinctions among the propositions: A few are less dumberer than others, but Proposition 12 is Most Outrageously Dumb of All. This year the Legislature scheduled the constitutional election for Sept. 13, two months ahead of the normal general-election date, with the cynical intention that fewer people will vote. They dearly hope that will make it more likely that Proposition 12 -- gift-wrapped "tort reform" for current and future corporate defendants -- will pass. We encourage our readers to take the time and energy to prove them wrong, and whatever else you choose, vote "NO!" on Proposition 12.

Beyond that, the propositions are frankly not worth the voting screens they're printed on, and we didn't want to waste precious Chronicle page space either. See the sidebar "Full Ballot Language With Extended Endorsements", to find the 22 amendment propositions -- as they will appear on the ballot -- followed by the Chronicle's endorsements. What follows below is a checklist version of the propositions -- helpfully but skeptically translated by the Chronicle News editors -- and our individual endorsements. For those of you who can't bear another word, we found only eight propositions of sufficient value to merit a yes vote -- and then only if our arms are twisted: If you must, vote "Yes" on propositions 1, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 21.

For more info on the propositions, together with detailed arguments for and against, consult the House Research Organization Web site at www.capitol.state.tx.us/hrofr/frame9.htm or the Texas Legislative Council analysis at www.tlc.state.tx.us/research/analyses072403/sept13amd.htm .

Yes: Good Law, Even If

Not Constitution-Worthy

Proposition 1: Use Veterans' Land Board assets to underwrite veterans' homes. In 2001, voters approved using similar "excess" funds (that is, not already earmarked for other uses) for veterans' cemeteries. It seems only logical -- particularly in light of national cuts to veterans' benefits -- to provide assistance to the vets before they begin pushing up daisies. (We don't get to vote on whether the empire requires the manufacture of so many veterans, for such dubious purposes.) YES

Proposition 7: Permit a six-person jury in a district-court misdemeanor trial. Most misdemeanor trials are heard before a six-person jury; for technical reasons, when a misdemeanor case lands in district court, it requires a 12-person jury. The amendment would save money and fuss for some rural counties, although opponents say public officials charged with misdemeanor misconduct should get the protection of 12-person juries. A misdemeanor is a misdemeanor is a misdemeanor. YES

Proposition 10: Allow donation of surplus fire-fighting equipment to volunteer rural fire departments. Does not belong in a constitution, but might save a few lives. YES

Proposition 21: Permit current or retired faculty members to be paid for service on water boards. Pay people for their work -- this needs an amendment?! YES

Yes With Reservations:

Probably Good Law, but Shouldn't Be in the Constitution

Proposition 6: Permit home-equity-loan financing with reverse mortgage (seniors only). Together with Proposition 16, this amendment loosens the Texas rules restricting borrowing on home equity. Proposition 6 applies specifically to homeowners 62 or older and allows them to borrow against their equity in order to continue to live in their homes. It doesn't belong in a constitution, but it would help elderly people without other resources. YES

Proposition 11: Allow wineries in dry counties to market their wares. About half the wineries in Texas (a couple of dozen) operate in "dry" counties that don't allow direct sale (or even free samples) of liquor, hampering economic development. We're being asked to fix that from above, in the constitution. Were they breweries or distilleries, which can locate anywhere, we wouldn't care, but since wineries are more geographically limited, we're willing to give 'em a pass. YES

Proposition 13: Permit local taxing districts to freeze property taxes on homesteads of the disabled or elderly. Carving out tax exemptions based on category of citizen rather than on ability to pay restricts the flexibility of local governments and increases the burden on everybody else. But this proposition would only permit such freezes, not require them. The decision to pursue a tax freeze is properly a local one. YES

Proposition 14: Allow short-term borrowing for highway projects. The pols are eager enough to pour concrete that they've abandoned the reflexive "pay-as-you-go" tradition that has handicapped highway funding in Texas for years. Unfortunately, they expect to repay these short-term bonds (two years or less) with tolls or similarly regressive fee schemes. Plenty of state regions (not this one) do need highway funding, and this appears to be the only way they're going to get it. YES

No, With Reservations:

Questionable Law, but

Not as Bad as Proposition 12

Proposition 2: Extend tax redemption period for mineral rights to two years. Does not belong in the constitution; moreover, it would protect no homestead interest and would make it more difficult for government entities (for example, school districts) to recoup the lost revenue via tax sales. NO

Proposition 9: Spend capped percentage of capital gains of Permanent School Fund. Might be defensible if the amendment language were even remotely intelligible. This proposition says literally nothing and should be rejected on those grounds alone. Moreover, should it pass in the absence of public-school-finance reform, it might well increase already disastrous school inequities across the state. NO

Proposition 15: Guarantee that certain benefits under certain local public retirement systems may not be reduced or impaired. This one is difficult, because while it would rightfully guarantee earned benefits that are vested, it would not provide any insurance if a local fund were in trouble. That burden would fall entirely on active workers, and it would increase the temptation for governments to increase their contributions or cut their prospective benefits. Again, that trade-off is not even implied in the ballot language, and therefore does not allow an informed vote. NO

Proposition 16: Allowing general home-equity credit lines. Proposition 6 seems measured and reasonable, but Proposition 16 throws wide the door to loan hustlers. NO

Proposition 17: Prohibit any increase in school-district property taxes on the homestead of a disabled person. Making such decisions at the constitutional level is bad, and hitting school districts when they are down is worse. NO

No. Bad Law. Bad, Bad Law.

(But Still Not as Bad as Proposition 12)

Proposition 4: Giving park and recreational taxing authority to municipal utility districts. Government by municipal utility district is bad enough, without empowering the MUDs to enact taxes and build suburban kingdoms beyond the reach of public institutions and citizen control. If a MUD is big enough to have taxing authority, it's time to annex. NO

Proposition 5: Fix the travel-trailer exemption the Lege bungled in 2001. If snowbirds really need this tax exemption, we should fix the tax code, and keep it out of the constitution. NO

Proposition 8: Declare sole candidates elected without election. Paired with Proposition 18 (local only), this would list candidates on the ballot as "declared elected" if unopposed. Unnecessary, anti-democratic, and trivial. NO

Proposition 18: Permit sole (local) candidates to assume office without election. Like Proposition 8 (which would apply as well to state offices), this is anti-democratic, trivial, and Gov. Perry vetoed the enabling legislation. Would be a pointless scar on the constitution. NO

Proposition 19: Repeal legislative authority to create rural fire-prevention districts. Under a separate new law (SB 1021), RFPDs will be converted to emergency-services districts, with slightly different functions and more flexible taxing authority. A dead horse needs no beating. NO

Proposition 20: Economic-development bonding authority for "defense-related communities." The state economy is already militarized quite enough -- let 'em hold a bake sale. NO

Proposition 22: Allow legislators and other officials to appoint temps to fill their places if they are called up for active military service. Have all our elected officials decamped to Iraq? Seems unlikely. If they were all laid end to end ... it would be a very good thing. NO

Hell, No!

Proposition 3: Property-tax exemption on land owned by "religious organizations" that is "intended" for educational or religious use. This is rubbish -- a flagrant attempt to extend the unfair tax exemptions that religious organizations already enjoy for explicitly religious property to property they own for speculative purposes. If this passes, we should all declare ourselves "religious organizations" and file for the exemption. NO

Proposition 12: NO, NO, NO "The constitutional amendment concerning civil lawsuits against doctors and health care providers, and other actions, authorizing the legislature to determine limitations on non-economic damages." This is the worst item on the list (not for just this year, but for many years to come) and would not simply cap noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice lawsuits, but potentially in all civil lawsuits (that's the meaning of the bland "and other actions"). Does anybody really believe the lobby's greed has been slaked, or that given the opportunity the Lege won't continue to feed the beast? This is bad policy and bad law, legally and constitutionally suicidal. Like we said: NO, NO, NO. n

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