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Proposed constitutional amendments set for Nov. 3 elections

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Unlike the cancer research bond package that featured high-profiled backing by cyclist Lance Armstrong two years ago, there will be no celebrities and no major media campaign for Nov. 3’s 11 constitutional amendments.

Three of the amendments might spark some interest among In Fact Daily readers. One would require that the value of a residence, for purposes of ad valorem taxation, be based on the property’s value as a homestead. A second would establish a national research university fund to encourage seven state universities – minus the University of Texas and Texas A&M University – to ramp up research to the level that would create a third Tier I university in the state. And the third amendment would put language in the constitution regarding the recently passed eminent domain legislation.

During a question-and-answer session at a well-attended League of Women Voters meeting, State Sen. Kirk Watson said he would be voting for all amendments.

“As someone who has spent quite a bit of time dealing with these issues during the session, I’m more excited about some than I am about others,” Watson said wryly. “Some are hard to get excited about.”

Some newspapers, however, have laid out some controversy on the propositions. For instance, the San Antonio Express News ran a story on Sunday, claiming that Proposition 1, which allows cities to accrue lands to relieve military bases, had additional benefits. According to the newspaper, local lobbyist David Earl, who was attempting to create a way to curtail development on the south end of Camp Bullis and provide an opportunity to connect Interstate 10 to US 281. Current law limits such measures to areas that are blighted, which the far North Side of San Antonio is not.

Also, in Monday morning’s Austin American Statesman, columnist Jason Embry noted Rep. John Otto’s protest of a mailer that went out alleging that two propositions on the ballot would give the state the right to tax homesteads. Otto wrote a letter to his colleagues, writing those claims were “patently false.”

The homestead valuation issue, Proposition 2, is intended to limit the exposure of homeowners who might be in the path of development, such as the Arlington homeowners in the path of the Dallas Cowboys stadium. In such cases, the land would be appraised for its “highest and best value” instead of as a homestead.

Watson said limiting the property taxes for one person would require others on the tax rolls to pick up the burden. Still, Watson favored the amendment.

“I am in favor of this, and one of the reasons I’m in favor of this is that it helps to keep people in their homes,” Watson said. “If they’re in transition, and if they’re being encroached upon and taxed up to the highest and best use, we’ve seen property taxes that have gone up 300 to 400 percent. They’re being valued, not as a homestead, but as a condo project.”

The Tier I amendment, on the ballot as Proposition 4, would disburse research funds to eligible universities. Those who argue for the amendment say Texas loses more than 10,000 high school students a year to doctorate-granting universities in other states. Those who argue against the amendment say spending should be more focused, upon only those universities that are closest to Tier 1 status.

The eminent domain amendment, Proposition 11, is what Watson called the “we really mean it” language. The eminent domain policy was passed in the 79th Session. Putting the language into the Constitution adds even more finality to it.

The state law supersedes the Supreme Court Kilo lawsuit, which gave states the right to take private property through eminent domain for economic development efforts. Most states have passed more restrictive parameters on property taking.

Those who oppose the proposition, Watson said, think a constitutional amendment is overkill, that the court could clarify the ramifications. Already, its likely courts will have to define what is meant by language such as “economic development” and what might constitute “urban blight.”

Language in the proposition insists that eminent domain only occur in situations of urban blight “on particular property.” That means if four parcels are on the block, but only three could be considered to meet the definition of urban blight, then the jurisdiction would have no right to take that fourth parcel.

Another item on the ballot, Proposition 3, would give the state the authority to enforce uniform property appraisal standards and procedures. The Legislature, however, has yet to define what those standards might be.

The following are descriptions of the amendments that will be voted on Nov. 3:

Amendment 1 — Allow cities and counties to issue bonds or notes to buy land to create buffer zones around military bases. (State lawmakers would have to pass subsequent legislation enabling the act to take effect.)

Amendment 2 — Require home appraisals to be based on the current value of the property, rather than the potential value of the property if used for a different purpose. Current law pegs appraisals on the “highest and best use” of the property.

Amendment 3 — Give the state authority to enforce uniform property appraisal standards and procedures. (The State Legislature has not enacted enabling legislation.)

Amendment 4 — Establish the National Research University Fund to encourage the development of more Tier One universities. A total of seven schools would be eligible for funding.

Amendment 5 — Allow the consolidation of appraisal review boards. Most Texas counties have a single appraisal district, but some counties share districts.

Amendment 6 — Renew the Veterans’ Land Board bond authority. More than $2 billion in funding would become available.

Amendment 7 — Allow members of the Texas State Guard to hold civil office. It would take effect Jan. 10.

Amendment 8 — Authorize the state to contribute resources to veterans’ hospitals. Similar legislation—not contingent on this amendment—took effect June 19.

Amendment 9 — Establish a constitutional right to use and access public beaches. It would not change current practices but would put the Texas Open Beaches Act into the constitution.

Amendment 10 — Allow elected commissioners of emergency service districts to serve four-year terms instead of two. It would affect Harris County and boards located in more than one county. Commissioners of Travis County ESDs are appointed rather than elected.

Amendment 11 — Restrict the use of eminent domain to taking property for public purposes. The Legislature could grant power of eminent domain to an entity only with two-thirds approval in each chamber

For the full text of each proposition, go to http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/whatisontheballot.shtml

Early voting on these amendments began Monday and continues through Oct.

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