NEWS HEADLINES

Amendment 6 is the big fish; Voters can finally fund water plan

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, October 5, 2013

Monday is the last day to register if you want to vote in the Nov. 5 election. There are no candidates on the ballot, but there are nine proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

We reviewed the first five Wednesday. Today’s review capsulizes the final four – including Prop. 6, the funding component of the state’s water plan, approved by the Legislature and signed by the Governor this year.

Early voting runs 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, Oct. 21-25 and Oct. 28-Nov. 1 at three locations:

  • The Decatur Civic Center, 2010 W. U.S. Hwy. 380
  • Rhome City Hall, 105 1st Street
  • The Bridgeport Law Enforcement Center, 1000 Thompson Street

This information comes from the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency that provides services to the Legislature, other agencies, and the public.

PROPOSITION 6

The constitutional amendment providing for the creation of the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) and the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIRFT) to assist in the financing of priority projects in the state water plan to ensure the availability of adequate water resources.

With a multi-year drought threatening agriculture, industry, recreation and the very life of some Texas communities, the Legislature approved a measure to create a water infrastructure lending mechanism and use money from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund” to back the issuance of bonds for water projects.

According to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), water shortages will increase over the next 50 years, making a long-term, reliable funding source for water and wastewater projects a critical need. The state’s water plan has identified projects needed to help avoid catastrophic conditions – but the rising cost of large-scale projects, and the financial constraints on some communities, necessitate a dedicated source of funding.

TWDB estimates the capital cost to design, build, or implement these projects between now and 2060 at $53 billion. Municipal water providers are expected to need nearly $27 billion in state aid. Unless Texas fully implements the state water plan, half of its residents by 2060 will lack an adequate supply of water during times of drought.

Water shortages already cost Texas businesses and workers billions of dollars every year. If Texas does not implement the state water plan, those losses could grow to $116 billion annually.

Two bills enacted by the 83rd Legislature – HB 4 by Ritter and HB 1025 by Pitts – would spell out the mechanics of the funds and appropriate money from the Rainy Day Fund to capitalize the SWIFT.

The SWIRFT would manage revenue bonds issued by the TWDB and supported by the SWIFT, serving as a water infrastructure bank.

Both would be special funds within the treasury but outside the general revenue fund. The proposed amendment would ensure that the funds did not create state debt by providing that any debt was payable solely from the two funds.

Spending from the funds would not count toward the state’s spending cap.

Supporters say funding water infrastructure would be an appropriate use of the Rainy Day Fund, which was created as a savings account for times of emergency.

They also say that use of the Rainy Day Fund would not jeopardize the state’s credit rating or ability to handle an emergency. The Rainy Day Fund is expected to reach $11.8 billion by the end of fiscal 2015. A transfer of $2 billion would still leave a comfortable balance for handling an emergency, and preserve the state’s superior credit rating.

Financing water projects through the SWIFT would offer a lower loan rate and a deferral of principal and interest for a specified time that could encourage development of projects ahead of the critical need.

Opponents say the Rainy Day Fund is not an appropriate source of funding, claiming the $2 billion withdrawal could result in a credit downgrade and curtail the state’s ability to deal with a revenue shortfall, a natural disaster, or a school finance decision.

PROPOSITION 7

The constitutional amendment authorizing a home-rule municipality to provide in its charter the procedure to fill a vacancy on its governing body for which the unexpired term is 12 months or less.

The Constitution prohibits a city with terms of office between two and four years from filling vacancies by appointment. Instead, cities must hold a special election no more than 120 days after the start of the vacancy.

Prop. 7 would allow home-rule cities to specify through their charters the procedure to fill a vacancy in city government if the unexpired term is 12 months or less.

Supporters say allowing cities to decide how they will fill unexpired terms will let them avoid expensive special elections. Under the amendment, cities would still have to hold elections as usual after the expiration of an appointed official’s term.

Opponents say the cost of special elections is a small price to ensure accountability in city government.

PROPOSITION 8

The constitutional amendment repealing Section 7, Article IX, Texas Constitution, which relates to the creation of a hospital district in Hidalgo County.

Texas voters in 1960 approved an amendment authorizing the Legislature to create special hospital districts in certain counties, including Hidalgo, with the tax rate capped at 10 cents per $100 valuation. Two years later, another amendment allowed the creation of hospital districts of one or more counties with a maximum tax rate of 75 cents.

Prop. 8 would eliminate an outdated constitutional provision that locks Hidalgo County into a 10-cent tax rate, limiting the county’s ability to create and operate a sustainable hospital district. The amendment would let Hidalgo County create a hospital district under the more favorable conditions available to other counties.

Hidalgo is the largest county in Texas without a hospital district and the only one in the state required to have a maximum tax rate of 10 cents. It also has one of the lowest tax bases per capita, making it difficult to raise sufficient money at the maximum tax rate.

Other Texas counties have shown the ability to operate successful hospital districts with tax rates that range on average between 20 and 40 cents. Prop. 8 would allow Hidalgo County, with voter approval, to create a district capable of serving a community with a high rate of uninsured residents, making health care more affordable, and strengthening the region’s ability to draw federal funds to pay for emergency care for the poor.

PROPOSITION 9

The constitutional amendment relating to expanding the types of sanctions that may be assessed against a judge or justice following a formal proceeding instituted by the State Commission on Judicial Contact.

The Constitution establishes the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of misconduct against Texas judges. It may assess sanctions against judges if it finds willful or persistent misconduct or recommend removal or retirement.

Under current law, the commission can issue a private or public admonition, warning, or reprimand to a judge, as well as to require that the judge obtain additional training or education. If the commission deems it necessary, it may order formal hearings concerning the public censure, removal, or retirement of a judge.

The commission also may request the Supreme Court appoint certain judges or justices as masters to hear such cases.

It can then issue an order of public censure or recommend to a review tribunal the removal or retirement of the judge or justice.

Prop. 9 would expand the actions the Commission could take after formal proceedings into judicial misconduct. In addition to its current authority, the commission could issue a public admonition, warning, or reprimand or require that the judge or justice obtain training or education.

The change would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Supporters say Prop. 9 would ensure that the commission had adequate tools to respond to allegations of alleged judicial misconduct.

Opponents say the current constitutional provisions are appropriate because they help ensure that formal proceedings are used only in the most serious cases of alleged judicial misconduct. The proposal, they say, could diminish the public’s confidence in the judiciary.

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