Friday, August 24, 2001

Propositions 2 and 15 are "big deals."

These constitutional amendments are big deals

August 24, 2001

Mike Norman, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Copyright 2001

Rick Perry is a passionate advocate for at least two of the 19 proposed constitutional amendments facing Texas voters in a Nov. 6 election.

It's good that the governor can get worked up about this type of thing. Generally, Texans don't pay much attention to constitutional amendments, which show up every couple of years, right after the Legislature meets.

Last week, Perry was pushing hard for Proposition 2, which would allow issuance of up to $175 million in state general obligation bonds to build roads in the dirt-poor colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, and Proposition 15 , which for the first time would change Texas' "pay-as-you-go" policy for highway construction.

The governor attended the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, an annual group hug and strategy session for officials from across the state. It was not a tough audience for Perry's message.

The pitch was simple: Get your supporters organized, and get them to the polls to pass these two amendments.

That'll work, especially if people who might oppose them don't bother to show up.

Two years ago, 8.38 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots in a mundane constitutional amendment election. The turnout was 10.6 percent in 1997, and voters granted themselves the ability to take out home equity loans. The past decade's greatest amendment awareness came in 1991, when 26.25 percent went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved a state lottery.

Propositions 2 and 15 are big deals.

The former is a heart-grabbing attempt to help people whose living conditions are probably the worst in the state. The latter is a tough-as-nails, long-planned effort by transportation advocates to (in Perry's words) "change culturally the way we build infrastructure in the state of Texas."

Perry says that Proposition 2 and the living conditions in the colonias are important for all Texans, not just those who live along the border. A report issued last week by the House Research Organization, an arm of the Texas House of Representatives, said that since the 1950s, more than 1,400 colonias housing more than 400,000 people have been built along the border from Brownsville to El Paso.

State agencies have spent more than $500 million in federal and state tax money during the past 12 years to address water, sewer, utility and other problems in the colonias, but many are served only by dirt roads and are not accessible by school buses. Proposition 2 would authorize enough bond money to build about 2,000 miles of roads - "a start" in meeting the colonias' needs, advocates say.

Proposition 15 has two parts. Besides creating a pool of state dollars - the Texas Mobility Fund - to finance long-term bonds for highways and other transportation projects, it would also allow the state to contribute money toward the construction of local toll roads. Currently, when Texas puts money in toll projects, it has to be paid back; not so if the amendment passes.

But the sea change of Proposition 15 is the idea of paying for transportation projects over time. As things are now, Texas doesn't break ground on a highway project until there is money in the bank to pay for it.

Perry and other Proposition 15 proponents point out that the current system means that less than 40 percent of the needed projects get built. Bond financing would bring more projects on line faster.

If voters agree to create the Texas Mobility Fund, legislators would still have to find the money for it. The dollars couldn't come from sources that are already dedicated to highway construction - motor vehicle registration fees and taxes on motor fuels and lubricants.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Robert Nichols has his eyes on driver license fees, about $100 million a year currently collected by the Department of Public Safety. He says that money could finance $1 billion in bonds for highways.

Each of the other 17 proposed amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, from providing tax exemptions for raw cocoa and green coffee at the Houston port to allowing cities to donate used firefighting equipment to foreign countries, has its own constituency. Propositions 2and 15 are probably the highlights.

Mike Norman is the Star-Telegram/Northeast editorial director. (817) 685-3870

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