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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Texas Election: Overview of Texas Constitutional Amendments

    This rundown of the Texas Constitutional Amendments comes from Burnt Orange Report.

    * Proposition 1: Military Buffer Open Space

    Proposition 1 is largely a procedural question dealing with whether towns and counties have the constitutional authority to purchase open space near military bases. This amendment could result in cities and counties choosing to take on additional debt to pay for the land purchases. The amendment could also lower the amount taxable property in a given municipality, thus potentially necessitating an increase in property taxes. While military installations with extensive artillery or aeronautical exercises might be disruptive to folks in the area, an equally valid solution is to cease developing areas that encroach on military bases.

    It is not the duty of every homeowner to subsidize the continual sprawl that has encroached upon our military installations and made this measure necessary, and at a potential cost to all, not just those who chose to live by the bases. The Burnt Orange Report recommends a NO vote on Proposition 1.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: NO. "We've had quite enough of state-subsidized militarism (and the Lege didn't even bother to authorize the bonds). Let the bases rub up against the neighborhoods where they live."

    El Paso Times: YES. "Care would have to be taken to ensure that governments didn't use this power to unnecessarily raise property taxes, particularly in these tough economic times."

    * Proposition 2: Homestead Appraisals

    Proposition 2 allows for a residential property to be appraised for taxation solely on its value as a homestead, rather than as hypothetical commercial development that could be built in its place. Traditionally, properties are appraised on their "highest and best use," regardless of what is actually built there.

    There is already a cap on appraisal increases at 10% per year. Furthermore, this measure could well have the unintended effect of lowering the property tax base in school districts, thus hurting a significant source of their funding. There is also concern that it will not have the same effects in rural and urban areas. This amendment also does not address development of higher-cost residences in residential neighborhoods, which also can have a negative impact on homeowners. The Burnt Orange Report recommends a NO vote on Proposition 2.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: NO. "Just another backdoor way to slash taxes on valuable property, thereby undermining the public schools and other community needs."

    El Paso Times: YES. "These would help partially reform the out-of-control residential appraisal system."

    * Proposition 3: Statewide Appraisal Process

    Proposition 3 would remove the constitutional requirement that enforcement of appraisal standards originate in the county where the tax is imposed. It would also provide for meaningful state oversight of the appraisal process, and allow the state to address inequities and inconsistencies in the process. The proposition is intended to enable the Legislature to enact laws that would require properties in all Texas counties to be appraised in the same manner. However, the Legislature did not enact the laws that would determine the nature of statewide uniformity of local appraisal. This also raises questions of ever-changing statewide appraisal standards as the political winds shift. Furthermore, there are concerns that residents would need to travel extensive distances to protest appraisals. Thus, it seems problematic to allow the Legislature this authority without knowing exactly what kind of standardizations might be passed.

    Clearly, there are problems with the appraisal process in Texas. This amendment could well be a good effort, but should be more specific and accompanied by a concrete program to enact this oversight and standardization before it's written into the state constitution. The Burnt Orange Report recommends a NO vote on Proposition 3.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "but trivial. If constitutional authorization is needed for uniform standards, the government's doing it wrong."

    El Paso Times: YES. "Prop. 3 would establish uniform appraisal standards statewide."

    * Proposition 4: National Research University Fund

    Higher education in Texas is desperately in need of a serious infusion of funds. This proposition, which will direct money specifically towards institutions striving to become Tier 1 Universities-nationally respected institutions that conduct over $100 million in research per year-will be a huge boon to our state. These funds will attract top researchers and students to Texas, where they will conduct ground-breaking research that in turn can create the innovations and new industries of the future. Prop 4 will stimulate the economy through new innovations, and enable more Texas students to reach higher levels of educational achievement.

    Opponents of the measure suggest that innovation should come from the private sector, rather than public funds. Unfortunately, our Governor has been particularly hostile to efforts to bring this innovation to Texas. What our state has lost in Perry's rejection of clean energy businesses and the battery consortium can be somewhat regained in cutting-edge research conducted by leading scholars who will be drawn to our new Tier 1 institutions. Furthermore, Proposition 4 will be funded by using money the state already has, and will not cost the taxpayers any additional money.

    Furthermore, this presents an opportunity for greater geographic dispersion of Tier 1 institutions across Texas. UT Austin, Texas A&M, and Rice University are fairly close together. If UTEP or UT-Arlington are able to qualify, this will bring top research education opportunities physically closer to more Texans. For undergraduates and graduate students that need to study close to home, these funds can create the opportunity for a top-notch education they otherwise could not receive.

    We must cast one note of caution: Texas doesn't currently fund UT and A&M at the level needed to maintain their competitiveness. Serious budget cuts are resulting in a loss of faculty and graduate students, which will hurt not only research output but also the quality of education received by undergraduates. Thus, while the effort to create new leading research institutions is important, we cannot overlook and underfund the existing economic and educational powerhouses we already have. And we cannot let these future Tier 1 institutions eventually fall victim to the same fate.

    This proposition, if used and maintained as intended, will have a transformative effect on Texas. The Burnt Orange Report strongly encourages a YES vote on Proposition 4.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "A valiant attempt to provide potential research funding to institutions other than the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, in the hopes of eventually expanding the number of major research universities statewide. Good luck, since we don't fund the ones we have."

    El Paso Times: YES. "In UTEP's case, it could help the university in its quest for Tier 1 status. Best of all, the National Research University Fund would be funded by transferring the balance of the Higher Education Fund to the NRUF -- no burden to taxpayers."

    * Proposition 5: Consolidated Boards of Equalization

    Again, it is clear that there are problems with the appraisal process in Texas. This amendment will enable adjoining counties to form consolidated appraisal districts. In rural areas, this is a particularly necessary measure, as there is apparently a shortage of qualified people willing to serve on these boards. While this is likely not a trivial matter to folks in rural counties who are facing delays in their appraisal protests, this amendment raises the larger issue of the seeming need to amend the Constitution to make any and every procedural change to our government. Nevertheless, the Burnt Orange Report recommends a YES vote on Proposition 5.

    Some other opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "But entirely trivial. If you need to do this by constitution, you don't have one."

    El Paso Times: YES. "Consolidating appraisal review boards could help, particularly rural counties, find more-qualified people to sit on the boards."

    * Proposition 6: Renewing Veterans' Land Bonds

    Proposition 6 enables Texas to keep our promise to our veterans. The larger dollar amount of the loans would enable Texas to provide even more veterans buy a home. This amendment helps Texas keep our promise to those who serve our country. Furthermore, this amendment enables the Veterans' Land Bonds to roll over, rather than requiring a special authorization every time. In that sense, it might actually decrease the number of procedural amendments we vote on every two years: a double win. The Burnt Orange Report recommends a YES vote on Proposition 6.

    Some other opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "But regulatory. This allows rollover bond authority without a special authorization every single time; it's not a constitutional matter."

    El Paso Times: YES. "This will allow the Veterans Land Board to continue to issue loans to veterans, using money that has been paid back on previous loans."

    * Propostion 7: Texas State Guards in Civil Office

    Proposition 7 will allow members of the Texas State Guard to seek civil office. Currently, individuals are not allowed to hold more than one compensated position with the state. This is essentially correcting an oversight: when the original list of exemptions to the double-dipping law were created, the Texas State Guard was not particularly active. Now they are, and deserve to be on the list of exempted groups who can hold more than one compensated office. The Burnt Orange Report recommends a YES vote on Proposition 7.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "When the current exceptions to "double-dipping" were written, everybody but the state guard or similar militia was included. The more, the merrier."

    El Paso Times: YES. "This would allow Texas State Guard members and members "or other state militia or military group" to hold other civil offices."

    * Proposition 8: State Funding for Veterans' Hospitals

    Proposition 8 would help provide much-needed medical care to the 1.7 million veterans living in Texas, by enabling the state to contribute resources to veterans' hospitals. Given the size of our state, many of our veterans have difficulty reaching VA facilities for needed care. Some estimates suggest that up to one third of our Texas veterans are essentially without care due to lack of nearby facilities. This amendment will give Texas further abilities to remedy this situation, by creating a clear constitutional authority for the state to contribute to these facilities. The Burnt Orange Report strongly encourages a YES vote on Proposition 8.

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "We frankly can't believe it takes a constitutional amendment to get this done, and even the sponsors weren't sure."

    El Paso Times: YES. "Even though the hospitals are federally funded, state resources could be used to enhance and improve the facilities. Our veterans deserve this."

    * Proposition 9: Protect Open Beaches

    Proposition 9 will protect our public beaches-and our ability to access them-for the people of Texas in perpetuity. This amendment enshrines our Open Beaches Act in the constitution, and demonstrates the commitment of the people of Texas to keeping our beaches open to all. Rapid erosion and increasingly severe weather over the past few decades is literally transforming our coastline, and erosion is pushing the actual beach line back, under private property. We all benefit from the beaches, the ocean and the marine life in and around them. They are a public good, and deserve to remain public property and open to all. The Burnt Orange Report strongly encourages a YES vote on Proposition 9.

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "A very good amendment. This is actually an important defense of the constitutional right of all Texans - but not currently stated in the constitution - of permanent access to public beaches without interference from developers or other private interests."

    El Paso Times: NO. "This proposition involves public access to beaches and doesn't need to be in the Constitution."

    * Proposition 10: Emergency District Term Lengths

    No Endorsement from Burnt Orange Report

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: YES. "But trivial, and this belongs in ordinary legislation, not the state constitution."

    El Paso Times: YES. "This would provide more continuity and experience on the boards."

    * Proposition 11: Eminent Domain Restrictions

    On its face, Proposition 11 sounds as if Texans will once and for all receive some protection from seizure of private property through eminent domain. However, it is a convoluted amendment that Governor Perry and Senator Hutchison are running around the state touting as a real solution to eminent domain reform. It provides no such solutions.

    The amendment fails to define economic development. Public use is also not clearly defined. Neither is "urban blight." This amendment does nothing to prohibit the Legislature from using its powers to continue to let government bodies and quasi-governmental agencies from abusing eminent domain. It also does not prohibit the legislature from creating even more agencies, commissions, or bodies that can exercise the power of eminent domain.

    A better amendment would have clearly defined public use and economic development. A better amendment would have mandated compensation for diminished access to a landowner's properties, and included the provisions from Rep. Yvonne Davis' bill to require relocation assistance for displaced landowners. A stronger amendment needs to limit the granting of eminent domain powers to new entities and mandate good-faith negotiations when governmental entities cannot avoid taking property by eminent domain, thus forcing governmental entities to offer fair prices for land they must take and hopefully avoiding protracted legal battles. A vote against this amendment will force the Legislature to pass meaningful eminent domain reform. The Burnt Orange Report strongly encourages a NO vote on Proposition 11.

    More opinions:

    Austin Chronicle: NO. "While in general we don't care for land seizures for private development, this is yet another poorly drafted attempt to amplify the current property-rightist wave of eminent domain hysteria and an invitation to endless court fights over rational public policy."

    El Paso Times: NO. "This proposition concerns eminent domain and the wording is much too broad. Eminent domain is a necessary governmental power, but it must not be used to victimize helpless property owners."


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