Say ‘yes’ to Prop A
Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “no” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.
That is why Houstonians should vote “yes” on Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.
A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”
A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements. The plaintiffs said then-Mayor Annise Parker was “arrogant” in initiating a “rain tax.” Two lower courts ruled in the city’s favor, but in 2015 the state Supreme Court agreed that the city didn’t clearly describe the drainage fee.
“Merely stating that a fund is being established provides little definiteness or certainty about something important to the people — will they directly pay for it?” the court’s ruling stated. “When the citizens must fund the measure out of their own pockets, this is a chief feature that should be on the ballot, and its omission was misleading.”
As we said at the time, the drainage fee was established by a vote at City Hall, not a vote at the ballot box. If Proposition A fails, that fee doesn’t go away. Voters will merely lose the Rebuild Houston lock box that requires the city to take a pay-as-you-go approach to funding street and drainage improvements rather than resorting to the more expensive route of borrowing money and paying interest.
Nevertheless, the city has been compelled to write a new ballot question that makes it clearer that property owners and users will be charged a fee to fund the Rebuild Houston program. Rebuild Houston also receives funds from developer impact fees, a portion of the city’s ad valorem tax, and other sources.
Some Proposition A critics contend the drainage fee funds have not been spent where improvements are most needed, but rather than being an argument against the charter change that’s a call for more transparency and public participation in choosing Rebuild Houston projects.
Former city planning commissioner Jeff Ross says funds collected through Rebuild Houston while the fee litigation continued has allowed the city to pay down more than $1 billion in infrastructure debt and interest expenses and avoid borrowing another $500 million.
“Proposition A is specifically designed to outlast all of the politicians,” Ross said, “to make sure that no matter who is in charge of your tax dollars, your drainage and street funds will always be spent on drainage and streets.”
That’s very important in a flood-prone city with some storm drains that are more than 80 years old.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has held town hall meetings and appeared in TV ads to generate support for Proposition A and opposition to Proposition B, which asks voters to approve pay parity between firefighters and police. The mayor is right to do his best to avoid confusion at the polls. Remember — say “yes” only to Proposition A.