The Texas Constitution has been amended 517 times since 1876 – maybe time for a re-write. Fourteen new amendments are proposed to be adopted this year. Traditionally 5% to 8% of the registered voters show up to cast a vote. Why so low? Well, it’s not like writing out a grocery list to vote your conscience or for your favorites. It takes work to understand the ramifications of the simple phrasing on the ballot for each proposed amendment. Our Constitution has strict limits as to who can issue public debt, hence some of these propositions.
Proposition 1: “The constitutional amendment protecting the right to engage in farming, ranching, timber production, horticulture, and wildlife management.” This gives people and businesses the constitutional right to farm, ranch, produce timber or manage wildlife on the property they own or lease. The state, state agencies or local government entities could regulate if protection of the public health is at risk.
Here’s the backstory as told to me. A farm field became surrounded by urban development in the Dallas area. The farmer received a letter from the city claiming his grass (hay) was too tall, and he needed to cut it. Well, he dismissed the letter as sent by a clueless bureaucrat. That hay wasn’t ready to harvest. Next, the city sent in a crew to mow that “grass” and sent the farmer a bill for their services.
A heavy response to a rare event in the form of a proposed amendment. Some communication could have avoided this sad and expensive outcome.
Proposition 2: An amendment to authorize a local option exemption from property taxes for a county or municipality of all or part of the appraised value of a building used to operate certain child care facilities. Here the devil is definitely in the details. That child care facility must be a Texas Rising Star-rated school with at least 20% of the students on scholarships. If the property is rented, the tax break goes to the property owner. Will it result in rent reduction? Not mandated.
1. Texas Star day care centers seem to be few and far apart. I found one listed for Williamson County in Cedar Park.
2. With the very tight profit margins for any day care facility, how many can participate in subsidizing children when the state doesn’t pay enough in subsidies to bring that child up to the payment level of the non-subsidized children?
3. Those schools that qualify have to apply for the reduced property taxes (and probably fill out a boatload of paperwork).
Proposition 3: An amendment to prohibit any tax on wealth transfer. Any state-level taxes in the U.S. are achieved through the federal tax code and the portion for the state is usually defined in state statues. This forces the establishment of sources of taxable income to be defined at the federal level (determining value of assets, etc.) and a slice comes from the estate’s federal taxes payable to the state. We Texans are not taxed on our wealth by Texas today nor will we be in the future. This is a political amendment – great talking points in campaigns – sure sounds good. Where’s the beef?
Proposition 4: Approved in a special session in 2023, this amendment would allow homestead exemptions to increase by $60,000 (for a total of $100,000) removing that reduction in taxed value for schools through 2026. It also has a gift for the wealthy – for that second home with an appraised value less than or equal to $5 million, the annual growth in appraised value can’t be greater than 20%.
The lost revenue for school districts will be made up by the Legislature (no new revenues for schools, teachers, staff or students). Why a constitutional amendment that’s set to last only two years?
Finally, for those appraisal districts in counties with populations of 75,000 or more, three of the nine members of an appraisal board should be elected (unfunded mandate for an appraisal district to pay to hold an election). There is no relief for those 33% of residents who rent in our county (no direction for distribution of savings from lowered ad valorem taxes such as reduction in rental fees).
Proposition 5: An amendment to provide funding for research grants to a myriad of additional universities in Texas. Currently, the University of Texas (and its many branches, including medical centers) and Texas A&M University are the beneficiaries of the Permanent University Fund – interesting read on that fund can be found at https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/permanent-university-fund
This proposition would create two additional funding sources: The Texas University Fund and the National Research Support Fund. The proposed universities to be funded by the Texas University Fund include Texas State, Texas Tech, the University of Houston and the University of North Texas. The funding source would be interest income from the Rainy Day Fund or Economic Stabilization Fund. The second fund would be approved by the Texas Legislature every two years, so it’s a higher risk funding source. Those schools include the universities of: Texas - Arlington, Texas - Dallas, Texas - El Paso and Texas - San Antonio.
Why are these funds needed? Recognizing the economic engines higher universities create, promoting their research through strong funding should be a win-win for the Texas jobs and our economy.
Proposition 6: Creation of the Texas Water Fund. Sing along with me and Etta James: “At last, my love has come along, my lonely days are over, and life is like a song.” None too soon to admit we’re in dire straits when it comes to clean water. We have flood gates open for increasing populations but have not moved to address the basic human needs of water to support them. This proposition would create a fund to award grants and low-interest loans for water projects anywhere in the state. Administered by the Texas Water Board, whose members are appointed by the governor (perhaps an entirely different problem) these funds may be insufficient to address the magnitude of our current needs. Cities could be funded to seek and repair leaky pipes (swelling soils are not our friends here), create desalination plants for new water sources, etc. I’m unsure as to how one goes after this money – would be up to the Texas Water Board to address, I guess.
Proposition 7: Creation of the Texas Energy Fund. With that snappy name, who’d be against this one? Let’s look at the details – it’s all for national gas providers and not cleaner sources of power. So we continue down that path for Texas (at least it’s not for coal). Do we need more power? Our people and the economy require it. Can the myriad of electric carriers supply it where it is needed? Questionable. It was the natural gas supplies that froze in winter storm Uri. Maybe energy producers have learned about winterization – else we remain fragile. Electric cars, and soon, their charging stations, will be ubiquitous requiring many more electrons and distribution lines, especially into neighborhoods.
This fund would be created and used by the Public Utility Commission to give grants and low-rate loans to build or upgrade power plants. The money comes from Texas’ surplus funds so at least the “covered” development is not on a pay-back schedule by electric users. Any plants completed by June 2029 will generate bonus dollars to the developer.
Proposition 8: Creation of the Broadband Infrastructure Fund to be managed by the Texas Broadband Development Office. Rainy Day funds would be added primarily to federal funds that the BDO already has, and this will be the mechanism through which they will be distributed. The initial funding for the program is $5 billion. This fund will have a lifetime of 10 years. Funding needs to support middle and last-mile connections to the home/business and construction of additional broadband backbones and rings. Texas is a big state with lots of uncovered areas, especially by affordable service.
Proposition 9: Someone finally listened to voices calling for increased funding for the retirement of teachers for this one. It’s a little wonky but teachers would finally see a cost-of-living adjustment after decades of neglect. The proposition authorized the 88th Legislature to provide funds for a one-time payment to retired teachers or their survivors who are receiving benefits from the Teachers Retirement System of Texas. Many teachers were not part of the Social Security network and rely solely upon TRS in retirement. This proposal is necessary to use general funds to keep the teachers’ pension fund financially sound while not exceeding the constitutional limit on state spending.
Proposition 10: An amendment to eliminate taxes imposed on inventory and manufacturing equipment for biomedical and medical products. Hats off to those lobbyists. Each year companies are assessed taxes for their property, equipment, etc. It consists of approximation of values and much gnashing of teeth, as well as determining depreciation schedules. For those with equipment or inventory belonging to manufacturers of medical or biomedical products, that process would end. But don’t expect to see savings as a purchaser of said products. The taxes on real property (land and buildings) will remain for these companies. Expect the line of lobbyists to be longer in the next legislative year with “me too” proposals. This is an economic growth initiative to attract additional manufacturers in this segment to come to Texas with their higher-paying jobs and high-demand products. Then there’s the “keep that supply chain local” mantra.
Proposition 11: Way back in 2003, 11 counties were given authority for certain districts to issue bonds to fund the development and maintenance of parks and recreation facilities. El Paso County was not one of them. Enough said.
Proposition 12: This amendment proposes elimination of the Office of the Treasurer in Galveston County. Galveston County voters would need to approve abolition of the office. Nine other counties have done so. The current treasurer ran on a platform to eliminate this office; the duties would transfer to other offices within the county or be contracted to the private sector. It potentially saves money in salaries while other departments scream for help. To eliminate an office in any county requires an amendment with approval by the entire state.
Proposition 13: An amendment to increase the mandatory age of retirement for state justices and judges. I personally don’t like mandatory age for retirement. Some people age like fine wine and execute their duties with refined wisdom; others burn and destruct in place early in their careers. We’re all unique. There’s a lot of “if, then, else” in this one. I won’t bore you.
Proposition 14: An amendment to provide funding for use in state park creation and improvements – again. One billion from the Rainy Day Fund and other sources provide the initial funding. Let’s save open space while it still exists.
In Williamson County, there are several bond proposals.
2023 road bonds: $825 million to connect areas, expand and fix roadways and provide safer intersections. The county and cities of Williamson join together to plan and fund these projects across the county. A public committee studied and listened to both proponents and critics of proposed projects (from the towns, cities and county) and recommended projects. These were refined down to the perceived most beneficial projects with the aforementioned price tag. Bonds will be sold over time, if approved, and repaid using tax income from new properties on the tax rolls each upcoming year rather than increasing property taxes.
2023 park bonds: Again, a citizens committee considered projects proposed by all the aforementioned entities and recommended those considered most worthy. The county refined it down to $59 million, primarily for trails to continue to extend and connect parks, cities and existing trails and building improvements at several county parks. We in Williamson County love our parks. Projects are largely proposed to be funded using money from the proposing entities and county bonds should this pass.
School district bonds: Any school district whose proposed tax rate exceeded the no-new-revenue rate, or needs to issue bonds for more schools, school safety and property will be on the ballot. I believe Round Rock and Leander school districts may show up on your ballot.
Depending on where you live in the county, you may also have city, emergency services district and municipal utility district propositions.
To view column at the Statesman, please go to: https://www.statesman.com/story/news/local/round-rock/2023/10/18/wilco-commissioner-a-breakdown-of-ballots-constitutional-amendments/71233873007/