Bond reform in Texas: Because if at first you don’t succeed, try try again…and again…and again…and again…and again….

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There have been a number of interesting issues that have flared up recently in local politics, most intriguingly the recent update to the City of Houston vehicle for hire ordinance, that I would like to write about. However, in the interest of trying to get something out (and wanting to devote time to write at greater length on some topics), I decided to post something short and sweet — about proposals for bond reform in Texas.

Briefly, Houstonians were greeted this week with the news that two local government school districts, Katy Independent School District and the Lone Star College system, are both likely to put up bond referendums on the ballot this autumn. These bond referendums come just several months after both districts held bond elections in November 2013, both of which failed. In the case of the Lone Star College system, it was a $500 million bond issue for a variety of things, while the Katy ISD bond election centered around a $70 million stadium, which some considered to be nothing more than just another temple to the sports gods.

I wrote several months ago about the democracy/consent problem surrounding the Cy-Fair ISD bond election held last May, whose outcome turned out to be that only 9,000 people succeeded politically in committing hundreds of thousands of residents to paying for over $1.2 billion in borrowing, and imposing a tax hike on the rest of the populace. What these events suggest are a need for some bond election reform proposals to keep the political classes and plundering wolves at bay:

1) A mandatory cooling off period after every bond election. If a governmental entity calls for a bond election, forcing the hapless citizenry to trudge down to the polls to vote on their latest schemes, but then fails to get the result it wants (i.e. the bond election fails), then there should a waiting period — perhaps four to six years — during which a governmental entity is not allowed to call for another bond election. This would prevent angered interest groups and government officials from turning right back around and calling for yet another bond election, demanding that the hapless peasants vote over and over again on a bond issue until they vote the right way. Don’t worry! The sky is not going to fall and the plundering classes are just going to have to make do if the bond election fails.

2) A voter quorum imposed on all bond elections, as I discussed this past May, where perhaps one in three voters must show up at an election, or else the bond election automatically fails. This would prevent sneak-attack elections, like the Cy-Fair ISD bond election from last May from happening, in which small numbers of residents succeed in using democracy to impose tax hikes and commit the rest of the populace to massive debt and borrowing obligations.

An alternate proposal to a mandatory voter quorum would be to require all bond elections to be held in November of even-numbered years, which would coincide with general elections for the Texas Legislature and U.S. Congress. It is likely that bond proposals would get greater scrutiny under such circumstances.

And…

3) Itemizing bond proposals. This would be a requirement that officials would not be allowed to wrap numerous elements and items into one big bond proposal, forcing the hapless voters to vote up or down on the entire bond package. Instead, bond issues would be required to be broken down into items, allowing voters to vote on each item of the bond issue. School districts are the most frequent abusers of packaging multiple items into bond issues, for example, including building reconstruction along with millions for laptop computers, security cameras, sports stadiums, all into one big bond issue. What this does is to wrap what might be considered needed along with the extras and the goodies. I should say that some entities already do break down bond issues into line items. The City of Houston, for instance, breaks down its bond election into line items. For instance, during the November 2012 election, Mayor Annise Parker and City Council placed $410 million in bond issues on the ballot, with one item in the bond package for parks, another for libraries, another for fire stations, and so forth. All of the items, though they were separate, passed handily.

None of this would be easy to get passed. Even proposing these reforms would set off a firestorm amongst the political classes and the finance boys in this state. But, it just might be a step in the right direction to a less indebted Texas, and more honest government.