8.5% voter turnout in Texas approves $10 billion in debt for taxpayers
Voters Approve 84% Of Debt Questions
by Jason Philyaw
The Bond Buyer
DALLAS — Voters approved 84% of the roughly $29 billion of bond questions that appeared on ballots across the country Tuesday. Texas alone accounted for about two-thirds of the total, and voters there approved 141 of 174 bond referendums, or 94%.
All of the statewide propositions in Texas passed, allowing the state to issue up to nearly $10 billion of debt for highway improvements, cancer research, and the state’s student loan program.
Voters in New Jersey rejected $450 million of new general obligation debt for stem cell research while voters in the Seattle area said no to sales tax and auto registration fee increases that would have backed billions of dollars of bonds to finance mass transit and highway projects.
Only three governors were up for election this year, all in the Southeast.
Kentucky voters ousted Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and with 59% of the votes selected Democrat Steve Beshear as their new governor. In Mississippi, 58% of voters kept incumbent Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in office. The third race for governor, in Louisiana, was decided without a runoff on Oct. 20 when voters elected Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal.
Last week, Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson predicted an overall statewide voter turnout of 9.5%, based on early voting returns. A representative from Wilson’s office said it appears Tuesday’s turnout in the Lone Star state was closer to 8.5%.
Slightly more than 58% of voters approved issuing up to $1 billion for construction projects, while almost 63% gave the green light for up to $5 billion for highway improvements and about 61.5% of voters agreed to issue $3 billion of GOs to establish a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
Another $250 million of GOs for water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades in various “economically distressed” parts of the state also passed.
In Dallas, 53% of voters rejected a proposition to prohibit construction of a toll road within the levee walls of the Trinity River. The city can now move forward with plans to build the highly contested, $1.3 billion project, which is expected to be financed in part with bond proceeds.
In Harris County, voters barely approved five of six bond propositions, rejecting $195 million for an adult detention center 51% to 49%. Voters in the nation’s third-largest county, which includes Houston, approved bond packages of $190 million for roads, $95 million for parks, $80 million for a forensic center, $70 million for a family law center, and $250 million for improvements to the Port of Houston.
Voters in a few of the county’s school districts also approved large bond packages.
The Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state with 210,000 students, saw its $805 million bond package narrowly approved by a vote of 51.2% to 48.8% .
The suburban Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District received approval of its $807 million referendum with 55% voting for the bonds.
“The Cy-Fair community continues to overwhelm us with their support for the district’s students and schools,” said superintendent David Anthony.
The growing district’s current enrollment of nearly 97,000 is up from 55,800 a decade ago. Officials expect a student population of 116,500 by 2011.
The Spring Branch Independent School District had its $596 million bond referendum approved. The district is just west of downtown Houston.
Back in North Texas, voters approved numerous school bond packages, as well.
With a population of about 5,250 but a student enrollment that is projected to rise fivefold over the next 10 years, voters in Prosper approved a $710 million bond package for the school district.
School bond packages approved in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex included $250 million for the Irving Independent School District, $282 million for the Denton Independent School District, $78.7 million for the Lovejoy Independent School District, and nearly $600 million for the Fort Worth Independent School District.
LAND YES, STEM CELLS NO
In the Northeast, only New Jersey and Maine had statewide bond issues on the ballot. New Jersey’s two bond questions totaled $650 million, and included one of the most controversial referendums in the region, which did not pass.
New Jersey voters did not approve a $450 million GO deal for stem cell research by a vote of 53% to 47%.
This defeat was a “real slap in the face to the political leadership,” said Michael Riccards, executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy. “We haven’t had a referendum defeat in 17 years.”
A number of political leaders in the state had rallied for the stem cell research bond, including Gov. Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard J. Codey, and Deputy Speaker of the Assembly Neil M. Cohen.
“It was a shocker,” said Wise Young, a neuroscience professor at Rutgers who helped spearhead the stem cell initiative in New Jersey. Young noted that there had been tremendous support by all three of the political leaders.
“We just didn’t get our vote out,” Young said. Opposition included the Catholic Church, Right to Life, and Americans for Prosperity.
New Jersey voters are “fed up with the financial condition of the state,” Riccards said. Voters were hesitant to vote yes on such a large bond amount when the state is already heavily in debt, he said. New Jersey has about $31 billion of outstanding GO debt.
Voters who said no to the stem cell research bond effectively told New Jersey leaders to “resolve our alarming and pressing financial problems,” Corzine said yesterday at a press conference.
Additionally, Riccards pointed out that New Jersey has a 40% Catholic population, and with the Catholic Church having been so outspoken on the stem cell topic, it likely influenced the polls.
New Jersey’s ballot also included $200 million of bonds to be used to acquire and develop land for recreation and conservation. Voters passed this referendum 54% to 46%.
Also, all 120 seats were up for re-election in New Jersey’s Legislature. Democrats gained one seat in the Senate, with a 23-to-17 majority starting in January. In the Assembly, Democrats lost two seats and will have a 48-to-32 majority.
Maine’s statewide ballot included $134 million of bonds in three separate questions, all of which passed. The most popular — $35.5 million for land conservation — passed with 63% of the vote. The other two measures call for $50 million for research and economic development and $43.5 million for college campus improvements. Both passed with just a 51%-to-49% margin.
“Building our education and research and development capacity, and preserving Maine’s special places, have been cornerstones of my economic plan to grow good-paying jobs in Maine and move our economy into the 21st century,” Gov. John E. Baldacci said in a press release.
The close results for the second two questions showed that “Mainers want government to be careful with their money. We have to show people the results of this investment and make the process as transparent as possible,” Baldacci said.
In the Southeast, Mecklenburg County, N.C., voters resoundingly rejected an attempt to repeal a half-cent sales tax subsidy for their 30-year transit plan. About 70% voted against the repeal.
And in Sarasota, one of Florida’s wealthiest cities, 51.3% of voters said no to $16 million of GOs to help finance a $53 million spring training facility makeover for Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds. After a decade in Sarasota, the Reds immediately announced they would play their exhibition games elsewhere.
In Virginia, Fairfax County received approval for $110 million to help finance transportation projects and another $365 million for schools.
Loudoun County voters signed off on nearly $70 million of debt spread over seven projects, including schools, libraries, and fire and police stations.
Waynesboro County voters rejected referendums of $2.6 million to develop a baseball complex, and $1.2 million for sidewalk improvements. Three proposals on the ballot were approved, allowing about $10 million of bonds to be issued to finance improvements to the county’s library, fire stations, and storm water system.
In Pittsylvania County, voters approved $70 million of debt to renovate four high schools.
In Washington State, voters in the three-county region around Seattle rejected Proposition 1, a set of sales tax and auto registration tax increases that would have financed regional mass transit and highway projects. The taxes would have backed billions of dollars in bond issuance.
Washington voters passed a state ballot measure requiring the state government to set aside at least 1% of general state revenues for a rainy-day fund until it reaches 10% of revenues.
In preliminary tallies, the state’s voters appeared to be passing Initiative 960, requiring either a two-thirds legislative vote or a vote of the people to pass tax increases. The initiative, placed on the ballot through a petition campaign organized by professional activist Tim Eyman, appears to restate the terms of another Eyman initiative from 1993.
Voters also appeared to be turning down a ballot measure to permit school districts to secure temporary overrides to property tax levy limits by a majority vote, rather than the 60% vote presently required.
In Wisconsin, voters in the Sun Prairie School District outside Madison approved a $96 million referendum to finance new school construction, while voters in the West Bend School District outside Milwaukee rejected a $119 million bond authorization. Had it been approved, it would have been the largest ever in the state.
In Kansas City, voters approved the 10-year extension of a 1-cent sales tax to raise funds for various infrastructure projects. Voters also approved the transfer of seven schools run by the Kansas City school district but located in Independence and Sugar Creek to the Independence School District.
In Minnesota, voters rejected bonding requests totaling about $475 million from about 18 school districts while approving new debt of about $215 million for another 15 districts.
In Indianapolis, incumbent Mayor Bart Peterson suffered a surprise defeat by political newcomer and Marine Corps Lieut. Colonel Greg Ballard. Peterson had enacted several politically unpopular measures, including an income tax amid a state-wide property tax crisis. Ballard has said he favors the total elimination of property taxes.
Detroit voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that would require the state to repay some or all of the $210 million of debt accrued by the school board during the 1999 to 2005 state takeover. The state is not required to repay the debt, but some school board members have said they might sue for it.
Voters in Hamilton County, Ohio, turned down a controversial request for a half-cent increase in the sales tax to fund a new county jail and other safety programs.
In Cincinnati, 58% of the voters rejected Cincinnati Public School’s proposed five-year, $326.5 million property tax levy increase.
Of the 460 referendums before voters nationwide, 302 worth $23.92 billion passed, and 158 worth about $4.7 billion failed. Results of 13 propositions valued at roughly $86 million weren’t available at press time.
Shelly Sigo, Peter Schroeder, Yvette Shields, Caitlin Devitt, Jonna Stark, Jim Watts, Richard Williamson, and Rich Saskal contributed to this story.
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