The Cy-Fair ISD bond election: A commentary on democracy, bond issues, and government legitimacy

Image credit: Pixabay

The Cypress-Fairbanks community has always been vocal in their support for their children’s public education, and today they have spoken at the polls

– Cypress-Fairbanks ISD superintendent Dr. Mark Henry, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle after the results of Saturday’s elections.

Saturday, May 10th 2014, saw a number of local elections that were held in the Houston area. For the most part, these elections were for low-level official posts, hence one might expect turnout for such elections to be fairly low. In addition, although many governmental entities in Texas have been in the habit of holding their elections in May (the rest being held in November), there is a strong argument to be made that elections held in May are not going to hold the attention of an electorate that does not pay much attention to politics (and often is not well informed) in the way that, say, a presidential election that is held every fourth year in November.

With that observation made, the turnout for the elections on Saturday was predictably low. For example, there were three posts on the Katy Independent School District board that were up for grabs. In each instance, the fate of those would-be officeholders was determined by some 4,000 local voters. But the real story that I wanted to highlight here was the issue of the Cy-Fair ISD bond election.

The Cy-Fair ISD bond election — with 1.2 billion dollars at stake — was the biggest area issue up for grabs in Saturday’s election. The bond issue had a smorgasbord of items in it, including a $217 million technology component, a $55 million security component, a $72 million transportation aspect (there was a 2-mile limit on government school bus services), in addition to the building of new campuses and over $660 million for renovation of old campuses. Clearly, this kitchen sink was packed!

The troubling element to all of this is the political legitimacy. A number of my real (and Facebook) friends expressed concern over the election, as they are residents living in the Cy-Fair area and were under the gun. The end result of the Cy-Fair bond election was that the bond election passed, with 9,039 voters voting in favor of the bond issue, while 4,116 voted against. Hence, the bond election passed with roughly 68.7 percent voting in favor.

However, that is not the end of the matter. I did a little research on Cy-Fair ISD. The Cy-Fair area has been amongst the fastest growing areas in the entire Houston Metropolitan area over the past 20 years. The student population has nearly doubled from 60,000 in 2000 to an estimated 110,000 in 2013. The district itself has posted a 70-page study on its own website detailing the demographics of the area in excruciating detail. Items of interest in this demographic study include:

1) The district in 2012 had an estimated 133,000 single-family homes and some 37,000 multi-family dwellings (apartments, town homes, condos, etc). Hence, in 2012, there were some 170,000 housing units in the district (found on Page 40 of the study).

2) District area growth is projected to continue to expand substantially over the next 10 years or so. District household growth is projected to increase to some 202,000 housing units by the year 2022.

So, it sounds as though the bond issue was entirely justified, right? After all, the district had not held a bond issue since 2007, and clearly there is an argument that the district needed the money to keep up with growth. The problem here is that this issue was settled by a total of 13,155 of the residents in Cy-Fair ISD! The report notes that there are an average of 0.66 students per single-family household, and some 0.34 students living in a multi-family household. That would lead to reasoning that there are some 2.66 members living in each single family home, while there are 1.34 – 2.34 members living in each apartment-type home. A rough estimate of the overall district population of Cy-Fair ISD would be put at some 400,000 (or more) residents. Assuming that roughly 50 percent of the overall population is registered and eligible to vote at any particular time, a rough estimate would put the current overall voting population in Cy-Fair ISD at some 200,000 residents.

This would mean that the outcome of this bond election, despite the prepared statement by Superintendent Henry that the community has always been vocal for public education, was basically determined by only 3 percent of all the residents living in Cy-Fair ISD, and that some 4.5 percent of all of the eligible voters basically committed the other 95 percent of voters (and 97 percent of residents) in the district to a tax increase of $65 more per year (if their home was worth $200,000) for an indefinite future. This is classic public choice politics in a democracy. Any particular issue is deemed to have to be taken over by the government (for whatever reason). Then, insiders decide legally to plunder the rest of the populace (whether they have good reasons for doing so or not), and proceed to use the ballot box as the means to justify their plunder. Gee! We settled this by a fair vote, right? The people get what they deserve! Or so goes the rhetoric.

This is all very, very troubling. How can it be considered legitimate when a small number of insiders and interest groups pull off stuff like this, then claim victory when it can be shown that less than 10 percent of voters (and less than 5 percent of the overall population) participated in the decision making? People can make various justifications for this: Maybe the stakes were too low (a $65 per year tax increase – ironically, people who favor big government often use the “it’s only a small increase or decrease” argument all the time). One might argue that only a small percentage of people were passionate enough to participate. Another possible argument is that many people weren’t paying attention and simply didn’t know that this massive bond issue election was taking place.

Tom Bazan, a long time friend, lives in the Cy-Fair ISD, and was quoted on record in the Houston Chronicle opposing the bond issue. Bazan has long championed a legitimacy solution to bond issue: a statewide Texas constitutional amendment that would impose a minimum participation voting floor requirement before bond issues would be allowed to pass. The idea is that if any governmental entity in Texas wants to bond the populace in its jurisdiction to something, then it must secure a minimum participation level in a bond election — perhaps one in three voters (33.3 percent) — or else the bond issue automatically fails, regardless of whether the majority that did show up voted in favor of the bond issue or not. The idea is to create a legal barrier to governments and insider pressure groups calling elections at off times, then borrowing money and imposing ever higher tax burdens on the populace with only thin participation in the democratic process. And yes, rest assured that there is an entire cottage industry in academia and political consulting devoted to getting bond issues to pass.

People are increasingly receptive to Bazan’s minimum participation voting floor proposal. The primary opposition to the idea is not necessarily political, but rather legal. There seem to be some voting or constitutional barriers that might be used to get in the way of imposing minimum participation voting floors on bond election outcomes, but I am not an expert on that aspect of voting and nobody has exactly pointed out what they are. I can certainly see who might be opposed to such an imposition, namely the insiders and pressure groups who live off the taxpayer pig trough, but I’m not all that worried about them. They need to start working harder for any more of the bread they confiscate by force from me anyway.