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Texas Votes on Billions of Debt for Veterans, Schools and Universities

DALLAS — Texas voters today will decide whether to issue $2 billion of bonds for veterans housing, partner with the Veterans Administration on a South Texas hospital, and redirect a $450 million education fund toward the creation of more top-tier universities.

While turnout is expected to be light, those statewide proposals share ballots with more than $1 billion worth of school bond elections, including $197 million from the Arlington Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and $166 million proposed by the Brazosport Independent School District near Houston.

Among the bond-related state constitutional amendments, Proposition 1 would give Texas towns and counties the right to issue bonds or notes to buy open space near military bases to buffer them from encroaching civilian development.

The city or county would pledge increases in ad valorem tax revenues for repayment of bonds or notes.

Typically, general obligation bonds are issued to finance the purchase of the properties.

In the last round of potential base closures, a number of cities, counties, and states added buffers in order to keep their military installations from becoming obsolete.

Opponents of Proposition 1 say that the additional debt should not be the responsibility of taxpayers who had no part in developing the problematic real estate.

Another proposed constitutional amendment, Proposition 3, is designed to change the requirement that enforcement of tax appraisal standards originate in the state’s 254 counties.

If approved by voters, the new process would allow more state oversight in an effort to create more uniformity in how property is appraised. The appraisal process establishes the tax bases, which affect GO ratings.

Opponents of Prop. 3 fear that approval would, in effect, create a statewide property tax system since the Legislature would be empowered to enact legislation on how property values were appraised. They say the authorization is too poorly defined to deserve approval.

A related proposal, Proposition 5, would allow the state to merge appraisal districts when voters of the districts approve.

The idea behind the proposal is to create more equitable appraisals and to provide efficiencies. The plan would also lower costs in sparsely populated areas of the state.

Proposition 6 renews a lending program for Texas military veterans by authorizing $2 billion of housing bonds to be issued by the Texas Veterans Land Board.

If approved, the amendment would allow the bond program to roll over, rather than requiring a special authorization every time new financing is needed. The new bond financing program would replace one whose debt has already been retired.

Another proposal to benefit veterans, Proposition 8, would allow the state to contribute money toward construction of a Veterans Administration hospital in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Although the region is home to many veterans, they must travel 275 miles north to San Antonio for hospital services.

Through an intense lobbying and public relations campaign, including a march to San Antonio, the Valley veterans won a 120,000-square-foot ambulatory surgery and outpatient center in Harlingen operated by the University of Texas.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison called the clinic a “down payment” on a full-fledged hospital. The outpatient center is expected to handle most of the needs of the veterans, but they say they need a full hospital to treat war injuries and eliminate red tape.

On another front, Proposition 4 would invest $450 million toward adding seven Tier 1 universities to the state’s higher education ranks.

The existing Higher Education Fund would be renamed the National Research University Fund and would be increased to $2 billion to provide bond funding for seven universities considered “emerging research universities.”

The HEF was created by the Legislature in 1996 for colleges and universities not eligible to use the Permanent University Fund that endows the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems.

But the fund has been allowed to go dormant, with no legislative appropriations since 2003.

The beneficiaries of the new fund would be University of Texas branches at Arlington, Dallas, El Paso, and San Antonio, the University of Houston, and the University of North Texas, based in Denton.

The new fund would not be available to the state’s two existing Tier 1 state universities, UT Austin and Texas A&M, nor to Rice University, a private Tier 1 university in Houston.

Texas lags other large states in number of Tier 1 universities, particularly California with nine, New York with seven, and Pennsylvania with four. “Tier 1” is generally applied to research universities.

The Center for Measuring University Performance at Arizona State University in Tempe produces an annual ranking of research universities with at least $40 million in federal research expenditures measured across nine factors. The top 25 are referred to as Tier 1 research universities.

Opponents of the measure say that directing funds only toward those seven universities is unfair to other universities in the state that would have received funding from the Higher Education Fund.

They say that educating the most students in the most equitable fashion should be the state’s goal.

In the public school arena, voters will consider 34 bond proposals, with the largest coming from the Arlington and Brazosport districts.

Arlington ISD is hoping to update its aged bus fleet, build and expand elementary schools, and refurbish aging middle school and high school facilities.

If the bond proposition passes, the debt service portion of the tax rate will increase by about 5 cents from 2011 through 2017.

Brazosport is aiming to make similar upgrades, including modernizing its bus fleet and replacing three elementary schools. The district estimates that passing the bond issue would increase taxes on a $100,000 home by $58 per year.

In early voting, election officials throughout the state reported extremely low turnout.

With no major statewide races on the ballot, polling places are expected to be fairly lonely places today. Typically in Texas, low turnout works in favor of bond issues, according to political analysts.

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