Part 1 of this article appeared in last week’s Blanco County News.
Proposed Constitutional Amendment No. 9 would authorize the legislature to exempt all or part of the residence homesteads of totally disabled veterans from ad valorem taxation. Because the Texas Constitution requires that taxation be equal and uniform and that all property be taxed in proportion to its value, to extend exemptions for certain members of the public based on their status, an amendment is needed to extend public policy further in this area.
The Texas Constitution already provides various partial exemptions and limitation from ad valorem taxation for residence homesteads. The most generous exemptions and limitations currently authorized are available to elderly and disabled persons, but a homeowner eligible for such an exemption or limitation is still subject to taxation on the portion of the homestead that is not exempt.
Under current law, disabled veterans are assigned to categories corresponding to a range of disability ratings for purposes of determining the amount of the ad valorem tax exemption to which they are entitled. A veteran who is certified as having a disability rating of not less than 10 percent nor more than 30 percent may be granted an exemption from ad valorem taxation of up to $5,000, a veteran having a disability rating of more than 30 percent but not more than 50 percent may be granted an exemption of up to $7,500, a veteran having a disability rating of more than 50 percent but not more than 70 percent may be granted an exemption of up to $10,000, and a veteran having a disability rating of more than 70 percent may be granted an exemption of up to $12,000.
Supporters of the amendment say that a veteran with a disability rating of 100 percent or totally disabled is unemployable and has limited means of earning an income. Under current law, such a veteran qualifies for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of only up to $12,000, which the person may apply to the person’s residence homestead or another property. Supporters say the current exemption no longer provides significant relief from ever-increasing ad valorem taxes. A full exemption from taxes on the residence homesteads of such veterans would be a gesture of gratitude on the part of the state and would ensure that those who have sacrificed for their country are not forced to sell their homes because they cannot afford to pay the taxes on them.
Opponents say that a total exemption from ad valorem taxation of the residence homesteads of totally disabled veterans would significantly reduce the revenue available to local governments and would require the state to provide additional state funds to school districts to the extent that the exemption reduces the amount of ad valorem tax revenue collected by school districts. And even if ad valorem taxes continue to increase, the school district taxes imposed on the residence homesteads of totally disabled veterans are already subject to the tax freeze available under current law to other disabled homeowners and the elderly. In addition, limitations on tax increases have been adopted by many other local governments to benefit disabled homeowners.
Hooray for one “merely housecleaning” proposition. Everyone should get behind Amendment 10 and abolish the office of inspector of hides and animals.
Proposed Amendment No. 11 would require that a record vote be taken by the legislature on final passage of any bill, other than certain local bills, resolutions proposing or ratifying a constitutional amendment, or nonceremonial resolutions, and provide for public access on the Internet to those record votes.
Since both houses of the legislature have adopted procedures to record most final votes, there was little opposition to this proposition. Opponents say it does not go far enough because it fails to require the recording of all votes on preliminary approval of a bill or resolution, which is arguably the most critical phase in the passage of legislation, as well as votes on amendments, substitutes, and procedural decisions such as a motion to table or postpone a bill or to take a bill up out of its regular order. Opponents say failure to require record votes on amendments and other motions other than final passage deprives the voters of critical information when a record vote is not specifically requested on the motion.
Critics do not like granting an exception to the record vote requirement on final passage of local bills, saying local bills are extremely important to the affected locale and there is no compelling reason to allow either house to pass local bills without recording each member’s vote.
Proposed Amendment 12 would authorize the issuance of $5 billion in general obligation bonds by the Texas Transportation Commission to provide funding for highway improvement projects.
In 2001, voters approved a proposition modifying the state’s “pay-as-you-go” policy for transportation funding to allow transportation officials to borrow money to construct new roads instead of waiting until money to build was appropriated. The Texas Department of Transportation has since moved in the direction of borrowing money to finance transportation projects. In 2003, the voters approved a proposition allowing TxDOT to issue bonds backed by the state highway fund. Amendment 12 would provide a new source of revenue that the state could use to secure bonds for transportation projects.
Supporters say the bonds would not have a significant effect on the state’s fiscal standing because Texas has a comparatively low rate of state debt. Bonds backed by general revenue would likely have a lower interest rate than those backed by the state highway fund because the bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the state, not just the money in the state highway fund.
Other states and local governments use general funds to secure bonds for transportation projects. Texas has traditionally used general obligation bonds to fund various types of infrastructure in this state and should use them for funding transportation infrastructure as well.
Opponents say borrowing increases the state’s costs from interest lost on cash balances and interest charges for new borrowing, and transfers those costs to future taxpayers and legislatures. They say the state cannot afford to pay the interest on the bonds authorized by the proposed amendment, even with low rates. The policy of the state has traditionally been to fund transportation projects through dedicated funds and minimize burdens on general revenue for debt service; therefore, the state should continue to pay for the highway construction it can afford rather than encumber scant resources and drive up the cost of already expensive projects.
Some opponents question trusting TxDOT because they believe the agency has not been straightforward regarding its expenditures and it would be irresponsible to provide the agency with even more money not subject to the legislature’s appropriations process.
Critics believe transportation projects should be funded through the state highway fund and that it is not in the state’s best interest to obligate money to debt service for bonds to build highways when that money may be needed for other state needs.
Opponents suggest that the state should use other approaches to put more money into the state highway fund such as raising gas tax rates or vehicle registration fees or dedicating other revenue streams to the state highway fund, including motor-vehicle sales taxes or vehicle inspection fees.
Proposed Amendment 13 would allow a judge to deny bail to a person who violates certain court orders in a felony or family violence case.
The Texas Constitution provides for the right of any defendant charged with an offense, other than a capital offense where the proof is evident, to be released on bail. Consequently, a defendant charged with a non capital offense may not be denied release on bail unless another provision of the constitution specifically authorizes that denial.
For instance, the Constitution authorizes a judge to deny release on bail to defendants who have been indicted for or convicted of a prior felony or who are on parole for a prior felony.
The proposed amendment would extend a judge’s authority to deny release on bail to a defendant charged with an offense involving family violence, regardless of whether the offense is a felony or misdemeanor, if the defendant is released on bail and the bail is subsequently revoked or forfeited for a violation of a condition of release related to the safety of a victim of the offense or the safety of the community.
Supporters say the proposed amendment would allow a judge to determine whether a defendant poses an unacceptable threat to a victim of domestic violence or to the community and, if so, to deny the defendant bail, which would protect the victim and the community in a way that a bail bond, community monitoring, or electronic monitoring could not. Domestic situations are often inherently volatile and subject to rapid escalation of violence. For that reason, a victim of domestic violence may be in need of extra protection.
Opponents say the right to bail is an important constitutional protection that should not be taken away lightly, particularly in the absence of an act of violence or a threat. Amending the constitution to authorize a denial of bail establishes a means to punish defendants through confinement before they are found guilty by a jury.
As a practical matter, opponents say the state should not curtail the right to bail because bail is an invaluable tool in preventing jail overcrowding.
Proposed Amendment 14 would permit a judge who reaches the mandatory retirement age while in office to serve the remainder his or her current term.
The state constitution was amended in 1965 to require the mandatory retirement of a judge on the date the judge reaches the age of 75 years, or an earlier age prescribed by the legislature that is not earlier than the age of 70. The 1965 amendment also created a commission that established procedures for removal of a judge for incompetence or misconduct. Before this amendment, the state did not have a practical way to remove a judge from office for incompetence or misconduct.
Amendment 14 includes a limited exception providing that a judge who is serving a six-year term of office and who reaches age 75 during the first four years of the term of office must vacate the office on December 31 of the fourth year of the term to which the judge was elected. This provision was added to the proposed amendment to ensure that a judge elected to a six-year term of office is treated in the same manner as a judge elected to a four-year term of office.
Supporters say allowing a judge to complete the term of office to which the individual was elected fulfills the intent of the electorate. A judge is elected to serve a specific term of office, and in electing the judge the voters have expressed a desire for the judge to serve the entire term of office.
The proposed constitutional amendment is a compromise between arguments supporting mandatory retirement and arguments opposing mandatory retirement. The amendment does not eliminate mandatory retirement but rather extends the service of a judge who has reached mandatory retirement age until the end of the elected term of office or until December 31 of the fourth year.
Opponents say that mandatory retirement is a way to remove an aging judge who is continuing to serve despite ineffectiveness. The protections of incumbency often make it difficult to remove an aging judge. Timely retirement on reaching the mandatory age ensures a capable and alert judiciary for the state. This extension allows judges to serve past their 75th birthday and delays the election or appointment of new judges who may be better versed in current developments in the law.
Other opponents say mandatory retirement for judges should be eliminated and this amendment does not accomplish this goal. They say sufficient protections are in place to ensure the professional quality of judges and mandatory retirement is not needed. Voters should be allowed to elect the judge who is best qualified to serve, and that judge should be allowed to serve without regard to age. The federal government and many states have abolished mandatory retirement and Texas should as well.
More public attention has been focused on the proposed Amendment 15 than any of the other amendments this year. The amendment would create the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and authorize the issuance of up to $3 billion in bonds payable by the state for research to find the causes of and cures for cancer.
The Texas Constitution prohibits generally the creation of state debt. The issuance of general obligation bonds by the state, in any amount, creates state debt, so it is necessary to seek voter approval to issue the bonds. Voters have previously approved constitutional amendments authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds for purposes such as purchasing land for resale to veterans, making home mortgage loans to veterans, establishing various water development projects, building correctional facilities, and issuing student loans.
Supporters of Amendment 15 say the state has a significant interest in finding a cure for cancer. Cancer is the number two killer of Texans, killing more than 35,000 Texans each year. Each year more than 77,000 Texans develop cancer. Cancer has a substantial economic impact on the state, costing Texans more than $4 billion each year. Grants made by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute would provide the cancer research and treatment community with up to $300 million each year for 10 years at a time when cancer research funding is being cut on the federal level.
Supporters argue that the amendment only authorizes the issuance of $3 billion in general obligation bonds, but the state is not required to ever actually issue the bonds. The state may still finance the cancer research program in other ways, including by making biennial appropriations for the program in the general appropriations bill. The amendment gives the state another option and more flexibility in financing the cancer research program.
Although the state would have to pay approximately $1.6 billion in interest to issue the $3 billion in general obligation bonds for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, that extra cost to the program would be offset by royalties, income, and other intellectual property benefits realized by the state as a result of projects developed with grants of the bond proceeds and by the economic impact resulting from new jobs created in the state and the decreased direct and indirect costs of cancer that would result from any cures, treatments, or other medical advances developed with grants of the bond proceeds.
Opponents say the state should not borrow money to finance a cancer research program while the state has a fiscal surplus and could pay for the program out of general revenue. By borrowing $3 billion to pay for the cancer research program, the state would end up paying $4.6 billion for the cancer research program. The extra $1.6 billion would be used to pay the interest on the general obligation bonds instead of being used for cancer research. The extra $1.6 billion could be better spent by providing other benefits to the residents of the state, such as expanding the CHIP program, paying for schools, or building roads.
Critics say finding a cure for cancer is an international issue. Coordinated national and international efforts are needed, and Texas should not provide a disproportionate share of the research funds needed for finding a cure for cancer that will benefit all mankind. Furthermore, the state should not put a higher priority on cancer research over other state issues including public education, higher education, and other health and human service issues. The state should not limit funding to cancer research when there are many other diseases that affect Texans, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Proposed Amendment 16 would provide for the issuance of $250 million in general obligation bonds by the Texas Water Development Board to provide assistance to economically distressed areas.
The Texas Water Development Board operates the economically distressed areas program which provides financial assistance in the form of grants and loans to political subdivisions to bring water and wastewater services to economically distressed areas primarily in rural communities and along the Texas-Mexico border. The political subdivision that requests the financial assistance must pay for the maintenance and operation of each project.
Supporters say that despite the success of the economically distressed areas program, many Texas residents continue to lack water and wastewater infrastructure. Unless additional funding is provided, many residents of unincorporated and economically distressed areas will be forced to continue to live in communities lacking basic infrastructure.
The program has administered more than $500 million in state and federal funds to provide assistance to economically distressed communities located primarily along the Texas-Mexico border. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that economically distressed areas program communities require an additional $5.4 billion to meet those communities’ water and wastewater infrastructure needs. The board, however, has only $12 million in bond authority remaining, and the federal government has reduced its funding for the construction of water and wastewater projects along the border.
Supporters argue that extending water service to unincorporated and economically distressed areas would benefit the economy in those areas. Many of the communities that lack adequate water and wastewater infrastructure are poor. Building water lines would enable businesses to move into those communities, improving the tax base and creating jobs for residents.
The program would benefit the environment by reducing the amount of polluted wastewater discharged into state streams and bays.
Opponents say the economically distressed areas program should not be expanded. Since 1989, when the program was created, the Texas Water Development Board has received more than $500 million in state and federal funds. The problem the program was intended to address, however, has not been resolved. Continuing to extend water lines to unincorporated areas could even prove to be counterproductive because this action encourages people to move into regions that are costly to serve.
And that, Texas voters, is a wrap of participatory democracy for this election cycle.