Sunday, November 04, 2007

"Toll road opposition, particularly in San Antonio, Central Texas and many rural areas, may spell trouble for Proposition 12."

Lots of cash on the line in election, but turnout likely to be low


Clay Robinson
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The safest prediction about Tuesday's constitutional amendments election, including proposals to increase the state government's debt by more than $9 billion, is that the vast majority of Texans won't even notice it.

And that is pretty much the way the Legislature expects this process to work.

First, you load up the statewide ballot with 16 propositions, including several with mind-numbing captions, when no state offices are up for election. Then you let nature take its course.

Unless there also is a hot mayor's race or a controversial local bond election, most people will take the kids to school, go to work, buy groceries, take a yoga class, paint the den, watch bad television or do almost anything except go to the polls.

The people who will vote will have a personal or business interest in one or more of the amendments, which is why most amendments usually pass.

Thanks to recent consolidations of election dates, there also are many local bond proposals on ballots this year. They may be adding to voter confusion but aren't reducing apathy. Secretary of State Phil Wilson is projecting a statewide turnout of less than 10 percent of registered voters.

Nevertheless, there may be enough public discontent over the state's growing debt and other smoldering issues, such as school taxes and toll roads, to doom a couple of the amendments. Maybe.

The only amendment that has received any significant attention is Proposition 15, which would authorize $3 billion in tax-backed bonds for cancer research. It has been actively promoted by cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, Gov. Rick Perry and former Comptroller John Sharp with the strong support of anti-cancer groups.

A number of conservative Republicans are working against it because they object to the additional state debt and, in some cases, fear that the money could be used for embryonic stem cell testing, a claim that Perry denies.

The conservative opposition has made some Proposition 15 backers nervous, but I think the cancer proposal will pass. If it doesn't, supporters also can blame the Legislature for putting four other large bond proposals on the constitutional amendments list.

They include $500 million for college student loans (Proposition 2), $1 billion for park improvements, possibly new prisons and a variety of other facilities (Proposition 4), $5 billion for highway construction (Proposition 12) and $250 million for water projects in poverty-stricken areas along the Mexican border (Proposition 16).

The college bonds likely will pass because many Texas families will benefit from additional student loans and the program is largely self-supporting. But I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of the other bond amendments fail.

Some voters will be turned off by the sheer size of the numbers. Additional controversy over local school bonds and dozens of school district elections on tax rates also may foster a mood to vote against anything with dollars attached.

Toll road opposition, particularly in San Antonio, Central Texas and many rural areas, may spell trouble for Proposition 12, the road bonds.

Proposition 4, meanwhile, suffers from an identify crisis. It includes money to improve state parks and historical sites. It also would pay for a new facility for training state troopers in emergency driving techniques. And, subject to the approval of legislative leaders, some of the money could be used to build new prisons.

But the ballot caption says only that the amendment would provide for $1 billion in general obligation bonds to "finance certain improvement, repair and construction projects and the purchase of needed equipment." Some voters may consider that a $1 billion blank check and won't approve it.

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