In advance of early voting for the Nov. 7 General Election, the Chronicle editorial board offers the following endorsements on three bond packages specifically relevant to Travis County. There are also seven constitutional amendments, pertaining to ad valorem taxation, home equity loan financing, service time for gubernatorial appointees, constitutional challenges, charitable raffles organized by the foundations of professional sports teams, and the ability of financial institutions to award prizes by lot to promote savings. We'll issue endorsements for each of those in next week's issue. City of Austin voters won't vote on any specific races this election, though a number of suburbs within the county do have public seats up for grabs. We haven't issued any endorsements in those races, though we do urge residents of those areas (Manor, Elgin, Pflugerville, Sunset Valley to name a few) to show up and vote – and for Austin residents to thoughtfully consider each bond that's up for consideration.
Proposition A: $93.44 million for roadway, drainage, bridge, bicycle, and pedestrian projects: Yes
Proposition B: $91.49 million for parks and land conservation projects: Yes
The slogan of the Travis County bond campaign is "More Parks, Safer Roads" (www.travisforward.org), and that's a reasonable summary of this relatively modest bond package (www.traviscountytx.gov/cbac): about $185 million split between road projects (most of them east of I-35) and various parks projects (spread fairly evenly throughout the county). The road projects, with a couple of exceptions, add needed capacity to existing highways; the drainage and stream-crossing projects should lower the number of dangerous or closed roadways at high water; the bicycle and sidewalk projects begin to integrate access that should no longer be an afterthought. The most interesting parks proposal is a 19-mile greenway along Gilleland Creek from Northeast Metro Park (also to get an upgrade) south to the Colorado. Other projects (Arkansas Bend Park, Bee Creek sports complex) address recreation needs in the Northwest and support ongoing conservation easements. If approved by the voters, the bond projects will cost the average homeowner ($305,000 homestead) a very reasonable $24 a year – call it one cheap date for countywide benefits. The county's internal polling shows strong support, and we urge readers to turn out and vote for both Travis County bond propositions.
$1.05 billion for new schools and classrooms, districtwide renovations: Yes
"To vote against the bond is to vote against public education." That's the blunt conclusion of Austin Independent School District Trustee Ted Gordon at a recent public meeting, and it's hard to disagree with him. Austin's school district finds itself in dire need, with nearly $5 billion looming in renovation and expansion. It has old and collapsing campuses, and students crowded into spaces designed to take a fraction of their number. What this $1 billion bond does is provide a little bit of relief for every single campus, and a lot for the most needy campuses and communities. The most controversial point of the bond is the great East Austin switch: giving the LASA magnet its own campus at the former Johnston High, moving Eastside Memorial High to the renovated Old Anderson campus, and allowing LBJ High to expand into the rooms currently occupied by LASA, as well as adding a medical track. Opponents call it a racist plan that further segregates East Austin. Supporters see it as way to give both LASA and LBJ room to expand, and perhaps heal the scars left when Old Anderson – Austin's first high school for African-American students – closed down. The two sides have been at loggerheads on this, but it's one component of a massive plan, and should not capsize the entire deal. Ultimately, AISD's bond represents a moral question for Austin voters: Do they want students to be stuck in old, ill-suited buildings, or do they want them in safe, modern campuses that are suited for a modern education? Moreover, voting against this bond will not prevent underenrolled schools from closing; it just means that students enrolled there will have nowhere to go when those schools do close. There is still a lot of work to be done on district facilities, but this is a long-overdue first step. We encourage AISD residents to vote for the bond and for public education.
$454 million for growth, improvements, safety: Yes
AISD's growth problem is that its campuses are old, and are in neighborhoods where students no longer live. Leander's is that it never had enough campuses, and desperately needs more. The fastest-growing school district in Texas doubled in enrollment over the last 20 years, and is still adding roughly 1,200 students per year. As housing construction continues in the area, this bond will let them plan for that inevitable growth. Adding three elementaries and one middle school, setting the groundwork for a seventh high school, and making a series of districtwide health and safety improvements are essential investments. The fact that this is LISD's first bond in a decade suggests that the district will eke every last cent out of a proposition. We fully endorse this bond.
We oppose the legislative practice of substituting constitutional referenda for representative government, and of cluttering up what should be a bedrock set of state principles – voters should feel free to respond with a blanket No to all seven propositions. Nevertheless, here are specific recommendations for anyone who prefers more detail.
Proposition 1 (Allow partial tax exemption for disabled veterans): Yes
This is a cleanup amendment of an earlier amendment that didn’t allow for exemptions when a charitable donation provided only partial homestead cost. It would allow a property tax exemption for disabled veterans (or spouses) who had received only partially charitable support for their homestead. While support for disabled veterans is understandable, It’s also arguable that such tax carve-outs only shift the tax burden and make the state property tax system even more unfair.
Proposition 2 (Amend law governing home equity loans): No
The amendment would revise several complicated provisions of home equity law – lowering maximum interest rates while enabling other fees, allowing a shift to less restrictive home loans, loosening refinancing standards, and opening home equity loans to agricultural homesteads. This seems a textbook example of legislation that does not belong in a constitution, nor on a ballot.
Proposition 3 (Create term limits for appointed boards): Yes
The amendment would create firm term limits (effectively the end of next regular session) of gubernatorial appointees for volunteer boards and commissions, making more certain that appointees would be subject to regular Senate confirmation.
Proposition 4 (Delay court decisions on constitutionality): No
The amendment would impose a notice requirement and waiting period in litigation that would challenge the constitutionality of a state law, requiring a court to wait 45 days before declaring a law unconstitutional (enabling the attorney general to appeal). A 2013 statutory version of this amendment was declared unconstitutional, so the Lege is now asking the voters to overrule the Court of Criminal Appeals. Hell no.
Proposition 5 (Expand “charitable raffles” for sports teams): No
Currently, 10 major state sports franchises’ foundations are allowed to sponsor “charitable raffles.” This amendment would open the door to more major and minor sports franchises and their “foundations” – with the likely result of both cheesier and potentially more fraudulent exercises in “charity.” The slope has been made quite slippery enough.
Proposition 6 (Allow tax exemption for survivors of first responders): Yes
The amendment would provide a homestead property tax exemption to the surviving spouse of a first responder killed in the line of duty. The arguments for and against such exemptions for veterans or their spouses apply here as well; they help one set of taxpayers at the expense of all the others, and dodge the responsibility to create a fair state revenue system.
Proposition 7 (Enable “savings lotteries” at credit unions): No
The amendment would allow credit unions (and other financial institutions) to create “savings lotteries” (i.e., awarding a random prize to some depositor(s) who have “entered” the lottery by depositing a certain amount in a savings account). It’s not quite “gambling” – instead, a promotional gimmick to encourage savings, which is not lost. Does it belong in a Constitution? Well, neither do the rest of these effluvia.
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