Billions in Local Debt Bog Down November Ballot

As early voting gets underway across Texas, citizens will be making critical decisions on more than just the hotly contested “top-of-ticket” races. On ballots across the state, local governments are seeking approval for nearly $8 billion of debt on several issues such as schools, jails, sidewalks, and affordable housing.

Topping the list are Fort Bend ISD’s proposal for $992.6 million, Collin County’s $750 million, Frisco ISD’s $695 million, and Round Rock ISD’s $508 million.

In fact, most of the bonds on the November ballot are proposed by school districts. ISDs account for nearly 70 percent, or $5.5 billion, of the $8 billion. The closest group after that is cities at less than 18 percent.

Since 2000, local debt has grown by 168 percent, and local entities have been increasing both the amount of their debt and the frequency of it.

The $5.5 billion from local school districts comes just six months after the May 5 election where local governments had over $6 billion in bond proposals on the non-uniform election date ballot. In November 2017, they asked for $11.7 billion.

That means that within one year’s time, local governments in Texas have asked voters to approve roughly $25 billion in local debt.

According to the Texas Bond Review Board, local governments in Texas have a total of $338.7 billion in outstanding bond debt, including interest. That’s a $12,000 bill for every man, woman, and child in the state.

According to one site, Texas trails only New York with the highest per capita debt in the country.

Many Texans want to see better control and accountability with local government spending.

One proposed reform simply deals with election dates. State law restricts local bond elections to May and November, though many believe more restrictions are needed, as local governments often choose dates that have the least likelihood of voter participation.

This was most recently demonstrated when Harris County placed a $2.5 billion flood control bond on the ballot for August 25. With an abysmal 6 percent turnout, some state legislators vowed to again push for a uniform election date requirement for local bond elections.

Coupled with that, legislators want to increase ballot transparency so voters know exactly how much debt a local entity already has and what the cost of the new debt would be to citizens and their families.

Additionally, reforms like line-item voting on bond projects—requiring a minimum voter threshold for approval—and restricting the use of unspent bond proceeds have been suggested.

Whatever the outcome of these bond elections in November, one thing is certain: local entities will return in May to request more debt. Yet, before casting a vote, citizens should seriously weigh the needs of their community with the burden of taking on more debt. They may find, in all likelihood, that the debt can wait.

Early voting begins Monday, October 22 and runs through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6.

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Charles Blain

Charles leads the Houston Bureau for Empower Texans and Texas Scorecard. A native New Jerseyan, he attended Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied Political Science, with a concentration on American Political Studies. Charles loves loud music, Jeeps, and his dog Maxx. He is also a reptile enthusiast who loves any animal that slithers, crawls, or climbs.

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