October 18, 2023 742 PM
TRI-COUNTY — Early voting for the November 7 constitutional amendment election begins Monday, October 23, and runs through Friday, November 3. A guide to early voting locations can be found on page 5 of this issue, and online.
Voters across the state will decide on 14 amendments to the Texas Constitution lawmakers passed as bills during the most recent legislative session. The Texas Constitution, written in 1876, limits lawmaker changes without a popular vote and has been amended over 500 times.
Presidio and Jeff Davis counties have no local propositions on the ballot, while Brewster only has one for Precinct 7. State-wide ballot measures involve property tax relief, the creation of a state water fund, expansion of internet access, addition of more state parks, prohibition of a wealth tax and more.
The full list of constitutional amendments can be found on the secretary of state’s website and a pro/con voting guide provided by the League of Women Voters of Texas, a nonpartisan nonprofit, can be found on their website. The state’s $30 billion surplus is funding many of the initiatives, meaning they do not involve new taxes.
The Big Bend Sentinel highlights a few of the amendments and how they may impact the region below.
Proposition 6 — Creation of the Texas Water Fund
Proposition 6 involves the creation of the Texas Water Fund, a $1 billion revolving fund to be administered by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) for water infrastructure projects across the state.
The fund would allow the TWDB to provide grants and loans to communities for water and wastewater infrastructure improvements, water supply development, water conservation projects, water monitoring, clean drinking water initiatives and more.
The creation of the fund comes on the heels of a legislative session with an “unprecedented” push for water infrastructure, according to Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District General Manager Trey Gerfers, who is heading up a local steering committee with a goal of securing government funds for water projects in the county.
Gerfers said while it remains to be seen exactly how the area will benefit from the fund, he supports its establishment. “People need to vote yes on proposition 6,” said Gerfers. “We tick all the boxes, we’re underserved … I would imagine that we will benefit from this $1 billion.”
He said the political awareness on the legislative level, in part, stems from the state’s growing population, which has put a strain on water resources, made evident by some of Central Texas’ iconic swimming holes drying up this past summer.
While the $1 billion is not nearly enough to address the large state’s myriad water challenges — the Environmental Protection Agency estimates Texas will require over $60 billion in investments to fix water infrastructure over the next 20 years — it is a starting point, he said.
“We’ve got more and more people moving here, less and less rainfall. A billion dollars, it’s a proverbial drop in the bucket, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Gerfers.
On the local level, concerns over the reliability of the remote community of Shafter’s water supply, the city of Alpine’s aging water infrastructure, and, most recently, a water outage in Terlingua, have made the issue top of mind.
“Texas’ rural water systems are in deep disrepair,” said Vanessa Puig-Williams, director of the Texas Water Program at Environmental Defense Fund, in a press release. “The Texas Water Fund is a much-needed intervention as it specifically prioritizes funding for rural communities. The fund is an important step in what needs to be a broad, creative, urgent effort to empower local communities in securing a sustainable water future.”
Proposition 8 — Broadband infrastructure
Proposition 8 would allow for the establishment of a $1.5 billion broadband infrastructure fund, administered by the Texas Broadband Development Office, “to expand high-speed broadband access and assist in the financing of connectivity projects.”
Todd Jagger, who serves on a broadband working group with the Rio Grande Council of Governments (RIOCOG) and established the first internet service provider in the tri-county area in 1995, which he has since sold, said he supports Proposition 8.
The tri-county region suffers from a lack of reliable internet connectivity and slower speeds when compared to the rest of the state, according to surveys completed by Connected Nation.
The $1.5 billion Broadband Infrastructure Fund relates to the larger, federal initiative to expand affordable, reliable internet access in all 50 states led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.
Jagger said access to reliable internet is critical everywhere, especially in the Big Bend region, where it supports children’s education, telemedicine and business activities. The $1.5 billion will involve upgrading power poles, modernizing the state’s 911 system, and include special funding for projects in “extra high cost locations,” like the Big Bend.
“It is going to cost more to deliver services to fewer people out here than any other place because of the terrain, because of the sparse population,” said Jagger.
Jagger said the RIOCOG’s working group will continue to advocate for the region and its unique challenges as these funds, if approved, are dispersed. He said the money will primarily go towards private contractors who will carry out the improvement projects and need to be held accountable moving forward.
“It is going to be the Big Bend Telephones, the Del City Cooperatives, those kinds of private entities that are going to be driving this,” said Jagger. “I do think that it’s incumbent upon us as citizens and governmental entities to keep an eye on [them], make sure that that funding is going to actually do what it should do.”
Proposition 14 — Centennial Parks Conservation Fund
Proposition 14 allows for the creation of a Centennial Park Conservation Fund “to be used for the creation and improvement of state parks.”
If the initiative passes, it will be the largest investment in the state’s parks in history. The fund would be administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and would allow for long-term funding for the land purchase and development of new state parks.
Representatives from Davis Mountains State Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park were unable to provide specific information on how the fund, if passed by voters, would impact their sites. The TPWD did not respond to requests for comment on whether local state parks would see a slice of the funding, or if the establishment of any new parks was anticipated to occur in the area.
Local proposition: Creation of a Lajitas Utility District
Brewster County Precinct 7 will vote on a special election in addition to the state-wide constitutional amendments — the formal creation of a “Lajitas Utilities District.” Neither the sample ballot nor the election order detail the district’s purpose or function.
The election order states that the district includes approximately 2,763 acres, and that the district “currently operates pursuant to Chapters 49 and 54, Texas Water Code.”
According to the Texas Water Code, Chapter 54, a district shall be created for “the control, storage, preservation, and distribution of its storm water and floodwater, the water of its rivers and streams for irrigation, power, and all other useful purposes.”
Voters will also vote on “permanent directors,” choosing none or however many out of five on the ballot including Matthew Jones, George Kutch, Renee Lorenz, Brent Ratliff and H.C. Ross Jr.
Public discussion on amendments
The Jeff Davis County Democrats will hold a public discussion about the amendments this Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at The Jeff Davis County Community Center.
That discussion will be led by Brewster County Democratic Chair Mary Bell Lockhart, who said she intends to focus the talk on her recommendations of what not to vote for.
Among the five Lockhart is recommending citizens vote against is Proposition 1, an amendment “protecting the right to engage in farming, ranching, timber production, horticulture, and wildlife management,” which she argues takes away local control regarding the regulation of large commercial farms. She also took issue with Proposition 7, which would allow for the creation of the Texas Energy Fund, because it excludes renewable energy, which makes up 39% of the market, from applying for grants.
Lockhart said it was important for voters to be educated about the amendments, which she argued can have unclear, and even “deceptive,” wording, and to participate in the election process. (Voter turnout for these off-year elections is historically low.)
“There should be plenty of opportunity for people to vote, if they would just take these issues seriously and vote on it,” said Lockhart.