Below is a brief summary of each of the amendments to the Texas state constitution that appear on the ballot for November 3, 2009. The summary of what each amendment would do is followed by a brief statement from proponents and opponents. Then my own opinion is given in italics.
I am not highly confident in the wisdom of most of my tentative decisions on these amendments, so I welcome feedback that could change my mind.
Proposition 1: Authorizing city and county financing to buy buffer areas near military installations (HJR 132).
This would allow a municipality or a county to issue bonds and notes to finance the purchase of buffer areas or open spaces adjacent to military installations. The buffer areas would be used to prevent encroachment or to construct roadways utilities, or other infrastructure to protect or promote the mission of the military installation. The municipality or county may pledge increases in ad valorem tax revenues for repayment of the bonds or notes.
PRO: Protects military installation from encroachment; preserves economic benefit of installation
CON: Could increase local tax burden. Also, not clear how encroachment threatens function, and why this would be a local responsibility.
I am generally not in favor of measures that could raise property taxes beyond their already high levels. Nor do I understand how “encroachment” threatens the function of a military base. If it would, it ought to be a federal responsibility to prevent it. I am inclined to vote NO, but my friend in San Antonio says it’s a real problem there, and I suspect the amendment is aimed primarily at Bexar County. Since ultimately, taxes would need the approval of elected officials, I may end up voting YES.
Proposition 2: Requiring appraisal of residence homesteads based on homestead value (HJR 36#1).
This would authorize the legislature to provide for the taxation of a residence homestead solely on the basis of the property's value as a residence homestead, regardless of whether the property may have a higher value if it were used for other purposes.
PRO: Exempts homesteads from “highest and best use” over-valuation
CON: Reduces capacity to raise local revenue; hurts school funding in tax-poor communities
This is a common-sense adjustment to the law that prevents homeowners from being faced with skyrocketing property tax assessments just because some future commercial value for their land might be higher than what it is actually used for at present. I will vote YES.
Proposition 3: Allowing state enforcement of uniform property appraisal standards (HJR 36#3).
This would require the legislature to provide for the administration and enforcement of uniform standards and procedures for appraisal of property for ad valorem tax purposes. It allows statewide standards to override local standards of valuation
PRO: Makes valuations across the state more uniform, and presumably more fair
CON: Diminishes local control of valuation practices and criteria
A lot of time, money, and grief are wasted over disagreements about property values. A sensible solution to me would be that a property be valued precisely according to what the buyer paid for it, for as long as that buyer owns it. Valuation boards, protestations, and politics could be taken out of the assessment process. But that’s not the system we have, so until my more sensible plan is adopted, adjustments to the process that make it more fair and consistent across the state make sense, I suppose. At the moment I’m leaning weakly toward YES, but would welcome a good argument for “no.”
Proposition 4: Establishing the National Research University Fund (HJR 14#2)
This would establish the national research university fund to provide a source of funding that will enable emerging research universities in this state to develop into major research universities. The amendment would require the legislature to dedicate state revenue to the fund and to transfer the balance of the existing higher education fund to the national research university fund. This amendment would further require the legislature to establish the criteria by which a state university may become eligible to receive and use distributions from the fund.
PRO: Provides funding source for incremental steps that six Texas state universities, including UTEP, can take toward becoming “national research universities”
CON: By abolishing the Higher Education Fund, it may take resources away from state colleges not among those designated as eligible to become national research universities.
This is a technical adjustment to provide funding for a good plan that will help make the next tier of our state universities, including UTEP, Texas Tech, and UTSA, more competitive nationally, which will enhance their economic value to their communities as well as their research potential. My vote is a strong YES.
Proposition 5: Allowing Consolidated boards of equalization for appraisal districts (HJR 36#2)
This would authorize the legislature to allow for a single appraisal review board for two or more adjoining appraisal entities that elect to provide for consolidated reviews of tax appraisals.
PRO: Allows rural counties to pool limited expertise for Appraisal Review Boards
This will be a help to low-population communities where the number of residents knowledgeable and qualified to serve of review boards is limited. Consolidation of such boards makes sense. I will vote YES.
Proposition 6: Renewing Veterans' Land Board bond authority for land and mortgage loans (HJR 116)
This would authorize the Veterans' Land Board to issue general obligation bonds, subject to certain constitutional limits, for the purpose of selling land and providing home or land mortgage loans to veterans of the state.
PRO: Allows ongoing authority for issuance of these bonds, without requiring reauthorization every legislative session. Federal law caps the amount that can be authorized.
This will reduce the frequency with which the Legislature has to renew its approval, which is essentially a technical matter. Federal law protects against the potential of over-extension. This deserves support, so I will vote YES.
Proposition 7: Allowing members of the Texas State Guard to hold civil office (HJR 127)
This would allow an officer or enlisted member of the Texas State Guard or other state militia or military force to hold other civil offices.
PRO: Corrects a constitutional oversight that allows members of other military groups, but not the Texas State Guard, to hold another civil job or office simultaneously with their military office
This corrects a technical oversight. Members of the Texas State Guard deserve the same rights as those of all the other military entities. I will vote YES.
Proposition 8: Authorizing the state to contribute resources to veterans' hospitals (HJR 7)
This would authorize the state to contribute money, property, and other resources for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of veterans’ hospital in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
PRO: Promotes establishment of a VA Hospital in a part of the state where one does not exist.
CON: Would appear to create a precedent in which local governments compete with one another through matching funds for new VA Hospitals, which ought to be a federal responsibility.
The need for a full-service VA Hospital in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is compelling, since the nearest one in San Antonio is over 250 miles away. Caring for our veterans should be a federal responsibility, though, and I’m reluctant to see communities get into competition with one another by offering local incentives, which increase the burden on local taxpayers. El Paso, for instance, needs a full-service VA Hospital as well, but this amendment would not give El Paso the same opportunity, and even if it did, I don’t think it’s a good idea to decide where VA Hospitals should be located on the basis of local perks. With reluctance, I’m inclined to vote NO.
Proposition 9: Establishing a right to use and access public beaches (HJR 102)
This would define what is a state-owned public beach. The public, individually and collectively, would have an unrestricted right to use and a right of ingress to and egress from a public beach. The amendment would authorize the legislature to enact laws to protect these rights.
PRO: Enshrines existing law giving the public access to beaches as a Constitutional right.
CON: Encroaches on property rights of owners, and makes it harder to adjust laws concerning beach-front property in the future.
While totally in support of keeping our beaches public, I am sympathetic with the view that existing law does that adequately and that enshrining it in the state constitution will make it harder for courts to adjudicate ambiguous situations. Nonetheless, in the wake of the very substantial changes to beaches caused by Hurricane Ike in the Galveston area, language in the amendment would clarify the boundaries of public beaches. At this point, my support for public beaches is very strong, but my vote for this amendment is only a weak YES.
Proposition 10: Allowing board members of emergency services districts to serve four years (HJR 85)
This would authorize the legislature to provide that members of the governing board of an emergency services district may serve terms not to exceed four years, instead of the currently allowable two year limit..
PRO: Promotes stability and continuity, and allows for benefit of newly acquired expertise to extend over a longer period. It also shields members from excessive political influence, due to longer terms
CON: Reduces accountability for very important public functions. Elections are non-partisan, so concern about over-politicalization is misplaced.
Longer terms for members of non-partisan boards on balance makes sense. But I understand the contrary argument. I’m inclined to vote YES unless someone can talk me out of it.
Proposition 11: Restricting use of eminent domain to taking property for public purposes (HJR 14#1)
This would provide that the taking of private property for public use (“eminent domain”) is authorized only if it is for the ownership, use, and enjoyment of the property by the State, its political subdivisions, the public at large, or by entities granted the power of eminent domain, or for the removal of urban blight. The amendment would prohibit the taking of private property for transfer to a private entity for the purpose of economic development or to increase tax revenues. The amendment would also limit the legislature's authority to grant the power of eminent domain in the future unless it is approved by a two-thirds vote of all the members elected to each house.
PRO: Strengthens eminent domain law by making it a constitutional requirement that the taking be for “possession, occupation, and enjoyment” of the taking entity (i.e. the public).
CON: Creates huge gray area subject to court interpretation of “possession, occupation, and enjoyment.” Could act as a magnet for litigation.
This is another amendment that enshrines existing law into the state constitution, thereby possibly leading to excessive and unnecessary rigidity. But eminent domain is a powerful right of government that needs to be restrained. While an awful lot of stuff in our state constitution doesn’t belong there, precluding the potential abuse of eminent domain probably does merit constitutional protection, so I will vote YES.