Understanding the Texas Constitutional amendments


Photo credit: Andrea Nebhut

Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

By Nov. 5, voting day, 12 percent of registered Texas voters cast their ballots. Voters approved nine amendments to the Texas constitution and rejected one. Amendments need to be approved by a majority of voters to be passed. Trinity professors offer their thoughts on the implications of these changes.

David Crockett, chair of the Department of Political Science, described how the Texas Constitution limits the abilities of state legislatures.

“The Texas Constitution is a very detailed document that does not give the political institutions the normal kind of flexibility that the federal government does with the federal constitution. So, every time you have to do some little thing, it requires the people to weigh in an amendment to the constitution,” Crockett said.

As of now, there are 507 approved amendments to the Texas Constitution.

“This is not really the stuff we need amendments for. This is what the legislature should be able to do in a rationally constructed system,” Crockett said.

Dennis Ahlburg, professor of economics, also believes that the amendments should have been settled in the legislature.

“Bring to the people the critical things. Don’t bring minutia to the people. It’s no wonder the turnout was so low. So, we have 10 percent of the people deciding for the entire state? Not a great ad for democracy,” Ahlburg said.

Proposition 1

Sixty-five percent of voters rejected this amendment. It would have allowed selected municipal court judges to serve multiple municipalities at the same time.

Ahlburg believes that there is not enough information for voters to make a decision.

“You’re not really given enough information. Why is this question being asked? To get an informed electorate, you need to tell them why you’re doing this. As I went through these, they were just bold statements,” Ahlburg said.

Crockett added that voters could be swayed because of the limited information.

“In a situation where most voters have very little information about this, they may be more susceptible to influence by newspaper recommendations or the recommendations of whoever they like that weighed in on this,” Crockett said.

Proposition 2

Sixty-six percent of voters approved this amendment. Now, in communities where the median household income is at or below 75 percent of the statewide median income level, the Texas Water Development Board can issue bonds to fund water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

Richard Reed, professor of sociology and anthropology, believes that this could help those along the border.

“It’s really designed for some of the areas of the state in which the infrastructure is the weakest, which is right along the border regions, and the cities there are hard-pressed to deal with expanding population, and there’s a real shortage of water in general. In that sense, this is a water quality issue,” Reed said.

Proposition 3

Eighty-five percent of voters approved this amendment. The amendment allows the Texas Legislature to create temporary property tax exemptions for people with property damage in “disaster areas.”

“That makes sense because people are already struggling with the demands of recovering from disaster, and often, they’re not insured, so they’re paying on an asset that no longer exists, so it seems reasonable,” Ahlburg said.

Proposition 4

Seventy-four percent of voters approved this amendment. The amendment makes it more difficult for the legislature to approve a personal income tax. To instate an income tax now, two-thirds of the House and Senate and a majority of Texas voters would need to approve it, instead of a simple majority of the House and Senate.

Crockett commented on how this amendment removes power from the state government.

“Usually, constitutional amendments are efforts to allow the government to do something. This is an example where it makes it harder for the government to do something,” Crockett said.

Ahlburg believes this is ill-advised.

“I just think it’s incredibly short-sighted to try to tie the State’s hands permanently from ever having a need for an income tax. My understanding was it was already quite difficult to bring in an income tax to make it impossible, so that would imply that we know what the demands on the state of Texas are going to be 10-15 years from now. Somebody’s got a better crystal ball than I do,” Ahlburg said.

The measure could have unintended consequences.

“I think people just voted for it because they think ‘It keeps our taxes low’. Wrong. If the government needs the money, they’re going to increase it through some other tax, so you’re going to either be paying more sales tax, or they’re going to tax your real estate,” Ahlburg said.

Proposition 5

Eighty-eight percent of voters approved this amendment. All revenue from the sporting goods sales tax will now support the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission.

Reed believes that this amendment is necessary.

“I think this is a really important one. It’s moving to fund those areas in which people use this equipment. Texas Parks and Wildlife is woefully underfunded, and historic resources are really scarce, so I think this is a really important one,” Reed said.

Proposition 6

Sixty-four percent of voters approved this amendment. It allows the legislature to double the maximum amount of bonds it can issue on behalf of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Ahlburg supports it.

“It seems like a good idea on the assumption that it will end up hopefully moving forward our understanding of treatment and cancer. It’s like mom and apple pie — how can you disagree with funding cancer research?” Ahlburg said.

Proposition 7

Seventy-four percent of voters approved this amendment. It allows entities like the General Land Office and the State Board of Education to double the amount of revenue they are allowed to give to the Available School Fund each year.

Ahlburg emphasized the complexity of the issue.

“You can’t vote against education even if you might raise questions about ‘Is there a more efficient way to spend?’ Again, it’s a very complex question because are we underfunding education, or are we not? If we are underfunding, then we need to increase funding,” Ahlburg said. “There are some people that say no the funding is fine — we’re just spending it on the wrong thing. So, again, this is something that I think the legislature should work out because it’s so complicated. To assume that everyone has a full understanding is a huge assumption.”

Proposition 8

Seventy-eight percent of voters approved this amendment. It creates a flood infrastructure to be used to finance drainage, flood mitigation and flood control projects after a disaster.

Reed believes this amendment will help us prepare for the future.

“Flooding is being exasperated by the major weather events we’re getting in Texas, especially in south Texas. We are in flash flood alley. In fact, we are the center of flash flood alley in San Antonio. One of the things that we need to is we need to prepare for the flooding in the future, which is only going to get worse. Already, we’re redrawing the flood maps about every six years to accommodate the changing weather patterns,” Reed said.

Proposition 9

Fifty-two percent of voters approved this amendment. It allows the legislature to exempt precious metals in state depositories from taxes.

“This is somebody’s pet project that nobody else in the universe knows about, but they asked the electorate anyway, but God knows why,” Ahlburg said.

Proposition 10

Ninty-four percent of voters approved this amendment. It allows former handlers or qualified caretakers to adopt retired law enforcement animals without a fee.

Ahlburg supports this.

“This is one of the wiser questions that was asked because it’s in the benefit of the animal that’s contributed mightily, and it makes sense for the person that’s worked most closely with them to remain with them,” Ahlburg said.