What proposed constitutional changes could mean to Texans

What proposed constitutional changes could mean to Texans

With early voting for the Nov. 7 Constitutional Amendment and Joint Election already underway, Texans are carefully considering seven proposed constitutional amendments and the impacts the changes would have on them and their communities.

Voting during constitutional elections is historically low, though the impacts of the legislation could be significant and long-lasting for many. Information from the office of the Texas Secretary of State indicates approximately 11.37 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the last constitutional election in November 2015, and a mere 8.55 percent of registered voters turned out in the November 2013 constitutional election.

This time in Jefferson County, by the end of Oct. 25, only 346 residents had shown up for early voting, which began Oct. 23 and runs through Nov. 3, and 246 registered voters had returned their mail-in ballots.

Seven joint resolutions made it past the 85th Texas Legislature and onto the ballot for November 2017. Deciphering the text of the amendments and decoding the implications of the legislation can be a challenge. The House Research Organization’s (HRO’s) “Analyses of Proposed Constitutional Amendments,” which may be viewed through the Legislative Reference Library (LRL) of Texas website, offers explanations of the measures being considered by voters and details the potential impacts suggested by supporters and detractors of each. The Ballotpedia website is another source that provides information and explanations for voters who want to know more about the proposed amendments.

Proposition 1 (H.J.R. 21)

Currently, the Texas Constitution offers partially disabled veterans reduced taxes on donated properties. For example, under the current law, if a charitable organization donates a house to a partially disabled veteran for free, that veteran could receive an exemption from taxation on part of the market value of a residence homestead (the amount of the exemption is the percentage of the value of the home equal to the percentage of disability of the veteran). But if there was a cost associated with the donated home, the veteran in that case would not receive lowered property taxes. This amendment changes the Texas Constitution to allow those veterans to also receive the exemption, as long as the homestead was donated for less than market value.

According to the HRO report, supporters of the proposition say it would fix the exclusion under current law and “provide financial relief to disabled veterans … who may not otherwise be able to afford a home because of the tax burden on the home.”

While no witnesses appeared before the Legislature in opposition to the proposition, the HRO analysis reports that opponents say the legislation should focus on reducing property tax for all and that reducing taxes for a special group could increase the tax burden of others.

Proposition 2 (S.J.R. 60)

The proposed amendment lowers the cap on some, but not all, fees that borrowers may be charged for a home equity loan and allows home equity loans on agriculture homesteads, which are prohibited under current law. According to Ballotpedia, Proposition 2 would also impact Texans refinancing a home equity loan and those seeking home equity lines of credit.

“Proposition 2 would allow a borrower to combine a home equity loan with a loan taken to buy a house, known as a purchase money loan,” the website describes. “It would allow a borrower to refinance these two types of loans into one home equity or non-home equity loan with one rate and one term provided certain conditions are met… Currently, the option to refinance a home equity loan into a non-home equity loan is prohibited.

“Proposition 2 would lift a restriction on advances under a home equity line of credit that prevented such advances if the principal amount of the debt was more than 50 percent of the fair market value of the house. The amendment would allow advances under a home equity line of credit at any time as long as the principal amount of the debt remained at or below 80 percent of the fair market value of the house.

“Currently, a borrower can take out a home equity line of credit of up to 80 percent of the fair market value of the house, but no further draws can be made on that line of credit unless the principal amount owed is no more than 50 percent of the fair market value of the house. At that point, an additional draw can be made that increases the principal amount owed back up to no more than 80 percent of the fair market value of the house.”

The amendment would allow the owner of a $250,000 home to take out a home equity line of credit of up to $200,000 and draw on that line of credit as long as the principal amount never exceeds $200,000.

Supporters of the proposed amendment listed several considerations when looking at the resolution, including improved access to home equity loans and increased home equity market stability.

Opponents voiced multiple concerns, including that the changes to the law could result in the elimination of certain constitutional protections afforded to homeowners under the current law and potentially make borrowers more susceptible to foreclosure.

Proposition 3 (S.J.R. 34)

Referred to as the “holdover” provision, Section 17, Article XVI of the Texas Constitution currently requires unpaid officers appointed by the governor to continue to perform the duties of their office until their successors are qualified for office, even after an officer’s term expires. The amendment would limit the length of time the officer is required to stay on after the term ends.

According to the HRO, Proposition 3 supporters say the amendment would allow unpaid, volunteer positions to be routinely rotated and would still allow ample time to find a replacement, while opponents of the measure argue it could lead to unfilled vacancies and hinder the “flexibility” of the sometimes lengthy hunt for qualified replacements.

Proposition 4 (S.J.R. 6)

This amendment would require courts to provide notice to the Texas Attorney General if someone in the court challenges the constitutionality of a state statute and make courts wait up to 45 days before a court can judge a statute unconstitutional.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature enacted H.B. 2425, a similar bill that provides that the court must contact the state attorney general and send documentation to that office and added Section 402.010, Government Code.

In 2013, it was amended to require a party challenging the constitutionality of a statute to file a form at the court indicating which pleading should be filed on the attorney general. HRO reports that in 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion holding key provisions of the bill unconstitutional because they violate the separation of powers doctrine pertaining to the constitutional division of the government into three branches, indicating it would allow the attorney general to interfere with courts entering a judgment, “a core judicial power.” Proposition 4 would change the constitution to validate Section 402.010.

Proposition 4 opponents also argued that the amendment would undermine the state’s separation of powers doctrine and contended that “Texans should be able to pursue and receive judicial relief without delay” that would be caused by the proposed waiting period.

Supporters said the amendment would provide the attorney general with “a fair opportunity to defend laws” and “would not substantially alter the state’s separation of powers doctrine.”

Proposition 5 (H.J.R. 100)

The Texas Constitution currently allows the legislature to permit a professional sports team to hold charitable raffles at home games, but only if they existed Jan. 1, 2016. The amendment removes that stipulation and defines “professional sports team.”

Opponents of Prop 5 voiced concerns that the amendment would allow for the creation of entities intending to take advantage of charitable raffles and would “expand gambling in Texas” by making it easier for groups to set up raffles.

Supporters believe the measure would provide opportunities for more areas, like rural and suburban communities, to bring in charitable revenue, which funds organizations that assist disadvantaged youth, help victims of domestic abuse and fund cancer research. They argue that existing safeguards are in place to protect people against entities that could try to take advantage of the law.

Proposition 6 (S.J.R. 1)

This amendment would give surviving spouses of first responders who are killed or fatally injured in the line of duty property tax breaks as long as they have not remarried, starting with the tax year beginning Jan. 1, 2018. S.B. 15, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, is the enabling legislation for the proposed amendment and defines “first responder” to include peace officers, corrections and other custodial officials, firefighters, rescue and emergency services personnel, and certain other personnel.

The HRO reports no witnesses opposing Prop 6 appeared before the legislature, but stated its analyses determined opponents say legislators should focus on reducing the property tax for everyone and not just a special group, which could result in higher taxes for others.

Proposition 7 (H.J.R. 37)

Under the Texas Constitution, most lotteries and gift enterprises are prohibited. Proposition 7 would allow the legislature to authorize credit unions and financial institutions to conduct “savings promotions raffles,” defined by the HRO as “raffles in which the sole action required for a chance to win a designated prize is the deposit of at least a specified amount in a savings account or other savings program.”

The amendment would allow a credit union or bank to say, “Deposit enough money into savings, and you will be entered into a drawing to win” a specific prize.

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Jefferson County voters have more to consider than the constitutional amendments, including a port bond and a water control district bond. See page 10A for more information regarding the port bond.

In addition, Sabine Pass Independent School District is proposing an increase in property taxes to assist in school operations.

Two trustee positions at Port Neches-Groves ISD are up for election. Rusty Brittain is running unopposed for Place 6 on the board, while Darren McCutcheon, Jake Leforte and Derek Knepp are competing for Place 7.

Early voting is ongoing, and the election is Nov. 7, so find out where you need to go to make your vote count. In Jefferson County, go to www.jeffersonelections.com to find your voting location and see a sample ballot. Go to www.co.orange.tx.us/Elections_Information.html for Orange County residents and www.co.hardin.tx.us/default.aspx?Hardin_County/Elections for Hardin County.

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