Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Proposition 12 allows state road debt to be repaid with state general revenue

Measures to fund highways, student loans OK'd

November 06, 2007

Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- Billions of dollars in bonds for highways, student loans, parks, lockups and other projects, more light on lawmakers' votes and new protection for family-violence survivors were approved by voters in Tuesday's election.

Backers celebrated passage of the constitutional amendments as step forward for Texas, although Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, House Appropriations Committee chairman, kept a certain perspective.

"Each one of them has importance of its own," he said, but added, "There's nothing on there that the government would up and quit running over."

Some supporters and opponents of the ballot proposals, however, waged their arguments as furiously as if the very existence of government depended upon their passage.

The money

The bond proposals pitted advocates of state projects against fiscal conservative groups wary of the debt that must be repaid with interest.

The biggest bond proposal, Proposition 12, authorized up to $5 billion for highways and for the first time will allow state road debt to be repaid with state general revenue. Supporters called it crucial to help meet state road needs because gas tax revenue falls short and there's a hot dispute over how much toll roads should be used. Critics of the Texas Department of Transportation's toll plans said the agency wasn't to be trusted with the additional money.

Proposition 4, with a majority of the vote in early returns, would authorize up to $1 billion for a range of government projects. Among them are a new Texas Youth Commission lockup, potential new prisons if state leaders give the OK, repairs to state parks and the Battleship Texas, renovation of facilities for people with mental retardation or mental illness, and new Department of Public Safety regional offices in Rio Grande City, McAllen and Lubbock.

The prison portion of the proposal drew opposition to the entire package from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which said new prisons are unnecessary. Supporters said it's important to have the option to build if more prison space is needed and that the other projects are important.

Two proposals would drive more money to programs that help students and people who live in poor areas of the state.

Proposition 2, which was approved, would allow up to $500 million in bonds for student loans in a program that depends on students' loan repayment to support itself. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, vice chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, said, "I think it will open doors for low-income college students."

Proposition 16, with a lead in early returns, would authorize an additional $250 million to build water and wastewater infrastructure for economically distressed areas.

The victims

Supporters of Proposition 13, which passed, aimed at providing better protection to family violence victims, citing the San Antonio shooting death of Evairene O'Connor by her ex-husband.

Matthew O'Connor, who was due in court for violating a protective order, posted bond and got out of jail, then headed to his former wife's apartment, killing her and fatally shooting himself, said proposition supporters Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed.

The proposition will allow judges to deny bail to someone accused of a family violence offense if the person had previously been out on bail but had bond revoked for posing a threat. Or judges could deny bail to someone accused of violating a protective order.

The lawmakers

To shine more light on legislative action, Proposition 11 will require lawmakers to record their votes on final passage of all legislation except some local bills. The lawmakers' votes will be placed in House or Senate journals for public review and be available on the Internet for at least two years.

House and Senates rules already require record votes on final passage, but backers said the constitutional amendment will prevent the requirement from being lifted in the future.

The proposal won't require record votes in other key areas, such as when preliminary approval is given to legislation. Open-government groups supported it as an important step forward.

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