Friday, October 21, 2005

"What should be the term of a regional mobility authority member?"

Voters to decide future of transportation, banking amendments


by Christine DeLoma

The Lone Star Report
Volume 10, Issue 11
Copyright 2005

So here we go again, we sovereign Texas voters, answering cosmic questions like, what should be the term of a regional mobility authority member?

You’ll gather it’s constitutional amendment time. The date: Nov. 8.

The framers of the 1876 state constitution having been keen to minimize legislative power, voters are regularly asked to approve — or not — some fairly esoteric proposals. Not all voters by any means take the opportunity. But, then, from time to time big questions actually arise. This year it’s same-sex marriage: yea or nay in Texas?

Here’s a run-down on the amendment ballot:

Proposition 1 - “The constitutional amendment creating the Texas rail relocation and improvement fund and authorizing grants of money and issuance of obligations for financing the relocation, rehabilitation and expansion of rail facilities.”

A yes vote would allow the state to establish a fund in which tax dollars would pay for the relocation of public or private railroads currently located in congested, high traffic areas. Last year in San Antonio, an accident at a railroad crossing punctured a rail car holding chlorine gas, killing five people and injuring 49. Gov. Rick Perry sees the measure as a way to ease traffic congestion and improve public safety.

Opponents, like the governor’s Republican primary rival, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, believe that taxpayers should not subsidize private the relocation of railroads. Some critics take issue with the unlimited amount of state bonds that could be issued from the fund.

Proposition 2 - HJR 6 “The constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”

This amendment specifically states that marriage is between a man and a woman, therefore eliminating the possibility of the state’s recognizing marriage between lesbians or gays without a subsequent constitutional amendment. (see article p. 1)

Proposition 3 - “The constitutional amendment clarifying that certain economic development programs do not constitute a debt.”

This amendment would allow municipal governments to use economic development grants from taxpayer money without the grants being considered a form of debt.

The proposed amendment would address the recent Travis County District Court ruling in Save Our Springs Alliance v Village of Bee Cave that nullified an agreement with a private developer to build a shopping center. The environmentalist group, Save Our Springs, stopped development on the property by arguing that the state Constitution prohibits cities from incurring debt without the means to collect and pay interest on the debt. Cities can do this by creating an annual sinking fund and depositing a least 2 percent of the principal. But in this case, Bee Cave did not.

Although the case is on appeal, legislators this session moved forward and drafted the proposed amendment to exempt taxpayer-funded economic development programs from being considered a form of debt, thereby creating a mechanism in which municipalities can safely use the grants and loans to attract businesses..

Proposition 4 - “The constitutional amendment authorizing the denial of bail to a criminal defendant who violates a condition of the defendant’s release pending trial.”

The amendment would allow a judge to deny reinstatement of bail to an accused felon who violates the conditions of his previous bail release and poses a threat to the safety of the victim and the community at large.

Proposition 5 - “The constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to define rates of interest for commercial loans.” This measure would allow the Legislature to remove interest rate caps from commercial and business loans that exceed $7 million (if secured by real property) or loans more than $500,000 (if not secured by real property).

Currently the majority of commercial loan transactions are made by out-of-state based banks that are not required to abide by Texas’ interest rate cap. Out-of-state banks can export their interest rates from their home state to Texas. A Texas-based bank, however, is at a competitive disadvantage because it must abide by the state’s usury laws.

A proponent group, Texans for Economic Growth, says the measure would level the playing field for Texas lenders and create economic growth. Critics say Texas’ 18 percent interest rate ceiling is reasonable and protects consumers and lenders from undue risk.

Proposition 6 - “The constitutional amendment to include one additional public member and a constitutional county court judge in the membership of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.”

The amendment would expand from 11 to 13 the number of appointed members to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC), adding a constitutional county court judge and one more public citizen member.

The SCJC is responsible for investigating cases of judicial misconduct, and can use disciplinary measures such as censure, education, and filing of formal procedures that could result in a judge’s removal from office.

Proposition 7 - “The constitutional amendment authorizing line-of-credit advances under a reverse mortgage.”

A reverse mortgage is a special type of home equity loan for senior citizens (62 years and older). Reverse mortgages allow owners to convert some of the equity in their homes to cash. The loan does not usually have to be repaid during the homeowner’s lifetime. Cash from a reverse mortgage does not affect the homeowner’s Social Security or Medicare benefits.

Currently under a reverse mortgage, Texas homeowners can borrow only a lump-sum or receive payments at predetermined intervals. The amendment would allow seniors to borrow using a line of credit, when needed.

Proposition 8 - “The constitutional amendment providing for the clearing of land titles by relinquishing and releasing any state claim to sovereign ownership or title to interest in certain land in Upshur County and in Smith County.”

A yes vote would clear up any land disputes about property ownership of land and mineral rights located within Upshur and Smith Counties.

Some 4,600 acres in Upshur County and 950 in Smith County have been challenged as vacancies (unsurveyed land) due to inconsistencies and inaccuracies in a land survey conducted in 1838.Although the General Land Office denied both vacancy claims for Upshur and Smith Counties, the matter was taken to court. A district court upheld the ownership rights of the existing landowners and ruled that no vacancy existed in Upshur County. A district court decision is pending in the Smith County case.

Proposition 9 - “The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for a six-year term for a board member of a regional mobility authority.”

The current term for a board member of a regional mobility authority (RMA) is two years. A yes vote on Proposition 9 would effectively change the Constitution to allow RMA members to serve six year terms.

In July 2005, a Travis County District Court judge ruled a law allowing RMA board members to serve six year terms violated the Texas Constitution because it limits to two years any term not specified in the Constitution.

To comply with the ruling, the Legislature restored two-year terms for RMA members. Passage of the proposed amendment would allow these members to serve six years terms.

RMAs are unelected boards that can finance, build and operate toll roads and other transportation projects. Board members are appointed by local governments and the governor. RMAs can issue bonds, enter into contracts with private entities, and exercise eminent domain powers.

Opponents of the amendment, like Sal Costello, founder of the People for Efficient Transportation, say that extending the terms is a mistake because RMA board members are “non-elected and unaccountable” to the public.

Strayhorn, on the other hand, believes that six years is too long but has advocated extending the terms to four years.

The election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. O

© 2005 The Lone Star Report: