Birdville ISD (BISD) officials, led by School Board President Cary Hancock, previously committed to deliver on a pledge traditionally viewed by the establishment as unthinkable; tell voters the whole truth at the ballot box…voluntarily.
But at the 11th hour, they backed out by refusing to vote on new, more transparent ballot language.
In order to understand why they weaseled out, you must understand the bond election process.
Governments who want to borrow must ask voters for permission via a ballot referendum. In late July, representatives from Texans For Fiscal Responsibility and Direct Action Texas asked BISD officials to include the total cost of the bond in the language of the ballot proposition, including both the principal and projected interest expense, as advocated by the Texas State Comptroller.
As of 2013, Texans were on the hook for $328 billion in local debt ($12,400 per person). Of that figure, we’ve received only $200 billion in tangible benefits from new debt principal. In other words, $128 billion (or 39%) of that cost is projected interest expense, of which Texans receive no tangible benefit. Interest is simply the cost of borrowing.
In order to make informed decisions, voters considering new bonds need to know the total cost of the proposal, which would include any interest expense. To date, local governments have only been willing to divulge the principal amount…And it isn’t because they’re prohibited from doing otherwise.
Aside from what’s minimally mandated by the code, districts are free to include whatever language they choose. The relevant section of the code plainly states;
Sec. 52.072. Propositions. (a) Except as otherwise provided by law, the authority ordering the election shall prescribe the wording of a proposition that is to appear on the ballot.
For example, districts are not prohibited from listing more than one proposition on the same ballot. It’s an approach that allows voters to weigh in on projects separately, such as ‘yes’ on a prop for new schools, but ‘no’ on another for a football stadium.
The specificity of proposition language can also vary significantly from ballot to ballot. While some are very detailed and list specific uses for the funds such as “the acquisition of property, construction of school facilities, security equipment, school buses and renovations”, others are extremely broad and ambiguous.
The law only requires a handful of minimum requirements. The language must be a single-statement; it must include a ‘general description’ for the use of the debt, and it must include the principal amount to be borrowed. There are no explicit prohibitions in the code related to proposition wording…zero.
With BISD’s August bond deadline quickly approaching, their outside counsel was able to conjure an opinion from the Secretary of State (SoS) within 48 hours that advised them not to include the projected interest expense or tax increase in the proposition language, for fear of potential lawsuits.
It’s likely that lawyers who specialize in representing governments like school districts have a better relationship with SoS lawyers than taxpayers.
But if customizing the ballot language will invite lawsuits, then why have districts not already been sued relentlessly for the discretion they routinely exercise?
In a letter to Rep. Jonathon Stickland (HD 92), the SoS warned that deviations in language from the status quo of non-disclosure were risky because, in their view, the election code does not specifically tell them to include it. As a consolation prize, BISD Board President Cary Hancock has pledged to make Birdville ISD the “poster child for legislative reform [that would require] transparency” through ballot reform via the election code.
But Texans have reason to be skeptical.
TASA, TASBO, TASB, ISD officials and other government employee associations, along with lawyers and design and construction contractors lined up last session to kill similar transparency efforts. It’s likely they’ll return.
After all, local governments and their associations have 26 million Texans that subsidize their lobbying efforts.