October 12, 2009
Every other November – the ones in odd-numbered years, when there are a lot fewer good-looking politicians calling each other names – Texas voters go to the polls to amend the constitution.
For those of you who are new to the process: yes, we Texans have our own constitution. And no, that doesn’t mean we’ve seceded from the United States.
Political science 101: The constitutional amendments are generally considered to be important. One way you can tell that the founders thought they were important is they take precedence over every other law the legislature passes. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have to approve them by a two-thirds margin. Then, voters have to ratify them.
Even so, some of the amendments are relatively straight-forward and noncontroversial proposals that fix or clarify other parts of the constitution. (Our constitution is really, really long – the copy I’ve been using is almost 200 pages – and it covers numerous facets of state government; it’s so not like the U.S. Constitution, with its puny seven articles and 27 amendments.)
But other amendments are critically important to Texas, its people, and its future.
A half-dozen propositions – touching on top-flight universities, property tax appraisals, and private property rights – really stand out this time.
Proposition 4 would dedicate more than $400 million we already have to turn existing campuses into “tier-one” public research universities – academic and economic powerhouses on par with the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.
The money would help these existing institutions pay for groundbreaking research, state-of-the-art facilities, and internationally renowned faculty, allowing them to attract even brighter students and spin off technologies that will create new companies and industries.
I’ll have more to say about this one next week. But there’s no secret that increasing the number of top-tier universities has been among my biggest priorities since I took office nearly three years ago. I’m very excited that Texas will have the chance to take such a big step toward this critical goal next month.
Three other very significant initiatives are Propositions 2, 3, and 5. All of these would protect property taxpayers by setting out new standards on appraisals.
Proposition 2 requires that a Texan’s homestead property – the home where they live, in other words – can be appraised only as a home. This stops appraisal districts from appraising a homeowner’s property based on the value that it’d have as, say, a shopping mall or office building.
Proposition 3 strengthens state oversight of a property appraisal board’s practices and procedures. Hopefully, this will reduce the wide variations in the way appraisal districts set property tax values.
And Proposition 5 allows adjoining appraisal districts or similar entities to consolidate their review board functions so they can be more efficient.
Finally, Proposition 11 builds on a current law limiting the ability of the state, or any other jurisdiction, to condemn and acquire property for economic development purposes through the use of eminent domain. It also would make clear that while some jurisdictions could still condemn land for “public use,” that term wouldn’t apply to an economic development project. And it would require a two-thirds vote of the state House and Senate before the legislature could grant the power of eminent domain to a Texas entity.
That leaves another half-dozen amendments on your ballot November 3. These measures probably don’t touch the lives of as many Texans as the ones I outlined above. But they’re still important changes for the people who need them, and they can’t happen without amending the constitution.
Proposition 1 would allow the legislature to let cities and counties issue debt in order to acquire buffer areas, infrastructure right-of-way, and open space next to military installations.
Proposition 6 would let the Veterans’ Land Board issue more debt than it does now to help Texas veterans acquire land or get a mortgage loan.
Proposition 7 would clarify that members of the Texas State Guard (or similar groups) could hold civil offices such as justice of the peace or county commissioner.
Proposition 8 would clarify that the state can contribute money, property or other resources for a veteran’s hospital. Most immediately, this would allow the state to help build a veterans hospital in the Rio Grande Valley, as required by a law that took effect earlier this year.
Proposition 9 would strengthen the state’s open beaches law by putting it in the constitution and clarifying that the public has the unrestricted right to use, and get to and from, public beaches. It also says beaches would continue to belong to the public, even if storms or erosion move the beach under houses or other buildings.
And Proposition 10 would lengthen the term of emergency services district board members from two to four years.
In my view, all of these are good, reasonable amendments. I voted for them in the Senate, and I encourage you to learn about them and vote for them on November 3.