THE MAIL BOX – This is an odd letter, rather large and heavy. It cost $1.15 postage and is from the County Clerk. Uh-oh, jury duty. Last time I told the judge I was for bringing back draw-and-quartering for culprits who used their cell phone in a restaurant, but I still didn’t get out of serving. Wait. “Official Election Mail,” and sure enough, inside is a ballot to fill out and mail in, which sure beats Election Day — standing in the rain outside a fire station for half an hour while avoiding 20 people trying to stuff campaign literature into your hands. All our attention lately has been on the 2020 Presidential elections, Trump vs. Sanity, but next month we have an election that may affect our lives far more than who blows up the world: elections for mayor, city council, city controller – OK, not all races are that important – and lots of state constitutional amendments.
We have a long and micro-managed constitution because early Texians – as they called themselves – came to Texas because they didn’t like governments, they wanted to get away from governments (or gub-ments). But that was a little hypocritical: every time there was an Indian raid, those pioneers demanded the Texas Rangers or, later, the U.S. Army, save them. Nothing changed. Dig the Houston Ship Chanel, we want NASA, here comes Harvey, where’s FEMA? Despite this hypocrisy, we don’t trust the state to do much without our permission, so we have a detailed constitution that requires the voters to approve almost everything including where the governor lives. This time we are asked to amend our constitution to “allow the transfer of a law enforcement animal to a qualified caretaker…” I guess retiring police dogs can now escape the pound. That’s nice, but does it require amending the Texas Constitution?
Some amendments make sense. After the Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles on how our $44- billion school endowment is generating paltry returns compared to those of other states, along with enormous payouts to consultants, an amendment would end (we hope) such mismanagement. There are the constant water bonds to be issued – our constitution is filled with the word “water.” A few propositions deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, cutting or deferring some taxes for flood victims, etc., and flood control. Talk about closing the barn door. Proposition 1 would allow a person to keep a municipal judgeship and still hold another office. This is the “Bill McLeod Law.” He had just been elected a Harris County court-of-law judge, and immediately planned to run for the state Supreme Court, but the constitution said he couldn’t retain his judgeship. He pled his case: “It’s got 496 amendments. It’s over 87,000 words. It’s the second-largest state constitution in our Union, and I’m sorry I didn’t have it down.”
McLeod’s plea didn’t work, but he has a point. Today we operate under the seventh version of our constitution. It actually contains only 80,806 words, which is long enough. One sentence in the Texas Constitution rambles on for 756 words, and several are almost 300 words in length. We might contrast this with Massachusetts, which is still using its original constitution approved in 1790, with only 116 changes. Alabama’s goes on for 376,000 words – the nation’s longest, but ours is one of the oldest still in effect (1876), which puts us far behind Massachusetts.
Moving on, one amendment would allocate another $3 billion to fight cancer. We did this once before, and our cancer fight has a few wrinkles. In 2013, offices of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center researchers Giulio Draetta and Lynda Chin (who was married to M.D. Anderson President Dr. Ronald DiPinho) were renovated. While the rest of the cancer center was undergoing major surgery on its budget, Chin successfully requested “variances” from the University of Texas System to fund an office renovation that cost somewhere between $550,000 and $2 million, and included items such as a $7,755 Knoll sofa and a $5,000 lounge chair. Publicly, Draetta offered a bizarre explanation: “Lynda and I were both extremely concerned about moving to Texas, having never lived here and being heavily influenced by the Harvard community.” They needed that Ivy League ambiance. Privately, in an e-mail obtained by the Cancer Letter, he dismissed the project’s critics, asking senior faculty and administrators to counteract “the message coming from these losers.”
Another amendment would make sure state taxes on sporting goods would go to the Parks and Wildlife Department and the Historical Commission. Actually, they were supposed to go to these two departments all along, but the Legislature kept syphoning off the money for other pet projects. This amendment would stop that ploy. Proposition 4: No individual income tax, but the constitution already requires voter approval for an income tax, and requires the proceeds would go for property tax relief and public education. This amendment leaves the voter approval part, but without the education and property tax relief requirements. Hmmm.
Some of these are worthwhile changes, but the legislators overlooked a few more amendments that Texas really needs. I was once told that the Iowa Legislature required that Iowa and Iowa State, in different athletic conferences, had to play each other if they wanted any state funds. Apparently that isn’t true, at least this season they don’t. But I offer Proposition 11: To secure state funds, The University of Texas–Austin, and Texas A&M University have to play each other in football every year. I suggest a home and home schedule (Austin and Austin). This brings us to Proposition 12: The official state song will be “The Eyes of Texas.” My ballot is in both English and Spanish, which makes me wonder if a person doesn’t speak English, how is he or she to understand our government, which is operated in English? Proposition 13: No habla Ingles? No voto. And Proposition 14: Draw-and-quartering for culprits who used their cell phone in a restaurant.
Ashby is amended at email@example.com