Full Ballot Language With Extended Endorsements

State Constitutional Election, Sept. 13, 2003

In case you're wondering, since the Texas Constitution was first enacted in 1876, voters have approved 410 amendments. That's averaging a little more than six per biennium, so this year's proposed list of 22 is more than usually cumbersome. The Chronicle editorial board (an extremely informal institutional fiction) traditionally takes a dim view of the sort of craven legislative effluvia burdening what should be a bedrock document of common principles of government. Once again, we recommend that our readers at least consider voting a resounding "NO!" on all the propositions. (We are also painfully aware that should the current crop of Texas politicians take it into their heads to do a major constitutional revision -- particularly in an era of "homeland security" hysteria -- there is no guarantee that the result would be an improvement.)

We are, however, sufficiently ingenuous about civic-mindedness to offer our readers the following distinctions among the propositions: A few are less dumberer than others. This year we are especially annoyed that 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.

The following are the 22 amendment propositions -- as they will appear on the ballot -- followed by the Chronicle's endorsements.

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.

Proposition 1: YES: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the Veterans' Land Board to use assets in certain veterans' land and veterans' housing assistance funds to provide veterans homes for the aged or infirm and to make principal, interest, and bond enhancement payments on revenue bonds."

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. (Whether the empire requires the manufacture of so many veterans, for such dubious purposes, is the subject of another election.)

Proposition 2: NO: "The constitutional amendment to establish a two-year period for the redemption of a mineral interest sold for unpaid ad valorem taxes at a tax sale."

This amendment would apply to mineral interests the legal redemption period (for nonpayment of taxes) that already applies to residence homesteads and agricultural land. That sounds reasonable -- but 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.

Proposition 3: NO: "The constitutional amendment to authorize the legislature to exempt from ad valorem taxation property owned by a religious organization that is leased for use as a school or that is owned with the intent of expanding or constructing a religious facility."

This is rubbish -- a flagrant attempt to extend the unfair tax exemptions religious organizations already enjoy (for explicitly religious property) to property they own for speculative purposes, under the hypocritical guise of fostering education (while in the process, undermining funding for public schools). Proposition 3 probably violates the First Amendment (or at least it should); it is certainly unjust, and bad public policy.

Proposition 4: NO: "The constitutional amendment relating to the provision of parks and recreational facilities by certain conservation and reclamation 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. "Parks and recreation facilities" sound so cozy and family-friendly -- like those billboards flogging gated bedroom communities outside the cities whose resources they use but don't care to support. The amendment would apply to only nine counties in major urban/suburban areas -- one more mechanism to transfer public goods and subsidies to the people who need them least. Annex the fugitives, and they can pay for park bonds like the folks they left behind.

Proposition 5: NO: "The constitutional amendment to authorize the legislature to exempt from ad valorem taxation travel trailers not held or used for the production of income."

Snowbirds screech at the drop of a tax exemption, and they're screeching louder this year because a 2001 amendment intended to give them this one was bungled. Now the voters are supposed to go back and fix it, allowing local jurisdictions to exempt literal travel trailers (as opposed to mobile homes) from property taxes -- a benefit mysteriously garnered earlier for more-expensive recreational vehicles. Welcome to the confounding world of the Texas tax code, too complicated for the experts to understand. Fix the tax code, and keep it out of the constitution.

Proposition 6: YES: "The constitutional amendment permitting refinancing of a home equity loan with a reverse mortgage."

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.

Proposition 7: YES: "The constitutional amendment to 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 receive protection of 12-person juries. A misdemeanor is a misdemeanor is a misdemeanor.

Proposition 8: NO: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit a person to take office without an election if the person is the only candidate to qualify in an election for that office."

This is paired with Proposition 18 (local only), and would list candidates on the ballot as "declared elected" if unopposed. Unnecessary, anti-democratic, and trivial.

Proposition 9: NO: "The constitutional amendment relating to the use of income and appreciation of the permanent school fund."

This "total-return" accounting change -- to enable the spending of a capped percentage of the capital gains (as well as the dividends and income) generated by the PSF -- might be defensible if the amendment language was 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.

Proposition 10: YES: "The constitutional amendment authorizing municipalities to donate surplus fire-fighting equipment or supplies for the benefit of rural volunteer fire departments."

Instead of adequately funding community needs, we rely on charity. Proposition 10 does not belong in a constitution, but it might save a few lives.

Proposition 11: YES: "A constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to enact laws authorizing and governing the operation of wineries in this state."

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. Those of us who live in sane communities are 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.

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 it 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.

Proposition 13: YES: "The constitutional amendment to permit counties, cities and towns, and junior college districts to establish an ad valorem tax freeze on residence homesteads of the disabled and of the elderly and their spouses."

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. Having said that, this proposition would only permit such freezes, not require them. The decision to pursue a tax freeze is properly a local one.

Proposition 14: YES: "The constitutional amendment providing for authorization of the issuing of notes or the borrowing of money on a short-term basis by a state transportation agency for transportation-related projects, and the issuance of bonds and other public securities secured by the state highway fund."

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.

Proposition 15: NO: "The constitutional amendment providing 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.

Proposition 16: NO: "The constitutional amendment authorizing a home equity line of credit, providing for administrative interpretation of home equity lending law, and otherwise relating to the making, refinancing, repayment, and enforcement of home equity loans."

We endorsed Proposition 6 (above), and Proposition 16 includes the substance of that amendment as well. But it also establishes a broader slippery slope of home-equity borrowing (a potential bonanza for bankers and a potential disaster for homeowners) that Texas has avoided since the Great Depression. Proposition 6 seems measured and reasonable, but Proposition 16 throws wide the door.

Proposition 17: NO: "The constitutional amendment to prohibit an increase in the total amount of school district ad valorem taxes that may be imposed on the residence homestead of a disabled person."

Voters should reject this proposition for the same reasons we cite regarding Proposition 13; making such decisions at the constitutional level is bad, and hitting school districts when they are down is worse.

Proposition 18: NO: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit a person to assume an office of a political subdivision without an election if the person is the only candidate to qualify in an election for that office."

Like Proposition 8 (which would apply as well to state offices), this amendment would automatically elect unopposed candidates -- but wouldn't even note the election on the ballot (supposedly to save money). It was rendered even more pointless when Gov. Perry vetoed the enabling legislation. Would be a pointless scar on the constitution.

Proposition 19: NO: "The constitutional amendment to repeal the authority of the legislature to provide for the creation of rural fire prevention districts."

Under a separate new law (SB 1021), on Sept. 1 RFPDs will have automatically converted to emergency-services districts, with slightly different functions and more flexible taxing authority. A dead horse needs no beating.

Proposition 20: NO: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds or notes not to exceed $250 million payable from the general revenues of the state to provide loans to defense-related communities, that will be repaid by the defense-related community, for economic development projects, including projects that enhance the military value of military installations."

Some towns get economic development, some towns do not. Some towns have bigger guns. All we have is Camp Mabry. The state economy is already militarized quite enough -- let 'em hold a bake sale.

Proposition 21: YES: "The constitutional amendment to permit a current or retired faculty member of a public college or university to receive compensation for service on the governing body of a water district."

If other members of the board are paid for their services, a faculty member should not be punished for teaching.

Proposition 22: NO: "The constitutional amendment authorizing the appointment of a temporary replacement officer to fill a vacancy created when a public officer enters active duty in the United States armed forces."

Have all our elected officials decamped to Iraq? Seems unlikely. Should they all be laid end to end ... it would be a very good thing. n

  • More of the Story

  • Endorsements

    State Constitutional Election, Sept. 13, 2003

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