AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two new pieces of legislation filed in the Texas legislature Tuesday challenge funding for Project Connect, a mass transit program in the works in Austin approved by voters in November 2020.
A group of Texas lawmakers jointly filed House Bill 3899 Tuesday, dubbed the “No Blank Checks Act.” The legislation aims “to ensure local government corporations in Texas follow the same rules as cities and counties when issuing debt backed by property taxes,” per a release.
Under the bill, any local government corporation created through a tax rate increase election would be required to abide by the same rules cities and counties do when issuing debt. In the case of the Austin Transit Partnership — the organization created to oversee Project Connect — HB 3899 would apply to any debt they issue in the future for the transit program.
If passed into law, the measure would require voters to sign off on all the following components related to a project:
- What the debt would be used for
- How much debt product leaders need to issue
- The tax rate needed to pay back the debt
In a statement, Rep. Ellen Troxclair cited Project Connect’s heightened costs as motivation behind the bill filing. Under the proposed legislation, voters would have to approve the issuance of bonds, with the ballot language including “the total principal amount of the bonds to be authorized.”
Further statements from Troxclair’s office said Project Connect’s tax rate increase election doesn’t authorize them to issue “new debt without limit, and without voters’ approval.”
Troxclair is one of five representatives to co-author the bill in the Texas House, while State Sen. Paul Bettencourt filed an accompanying version in the Texas Senate.
All government entities should be held to the same transparency standards that cities and counties are subject to already.
Austin taxpayers were originally told that a rail project would cost an already staggering $7B – increasing city property taxes by 20%. With the cost of the project now ballooning to over $11B before the project even breaks ground, the residents footing the bill deserve accountability from the entities spending their money.
Voters did not sign off on a blank check with no limit to how much can be spent. This bill ensures that local government corporations cannot circumvent the taxpayers, or the intentions of existing state law, when it comes to financial accountability.Rep. Ellen Troxclair, R-19
In a phone call with KXAN, Bettencourt said he thinks it’s important to re-evaluate projects that have substantially increased in costs following initial voter approval. Especially for projects that involve substantial below-ground construction efforts, he said the project plans and cost amounts voters greenlit can quickly balloon.
Through the November 2020 election, the majority of Austin voters approved the mass transit program. The voter-approved program allocated a dedicated property tax of 8.75 cents per $100 property valuation to the project, as well as approved the creation of the Austin Transit Partnership.
ATP is the organization tasked with overseeing the execution of the program before it’s operated by CapMetro once it’s created.
In a statement, ATP officials said the organization is “committed to fulfilling the will of the voters.”
In November 2020, after a transparent and deliberative community engagement process, Austin voters overwhelmingly voted to approve an investment in their transit future. Austin Transit Partnership, the independent corporation created as part of the vote, is committed to fulfilling the will of the voters by delivering a light rail project that connects people to jobs and key destinations in an equitable manner. ATP will continue to advance this important infrastructure investment on behalf of the Austin community in a transparent and fiscally responsible manner.Casey Burack, executive vice president of business and legal affairs, ATP
This spring, Project Connect leaders are expected to give an update on the project’s scope after pausing design work on its light rail system last summer. That temporary pause came as financial projections for the light rail system — which was estimated to nearly double last spring — were expected to continually climb amid increasing real estate costs and inflation impacts on construction work.
Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University, told KXAN Wednesday he doesn’t anticipate the bill filings will generate enough support to be passed and signed into law. He added it’s also an unusual bill filing, as there isn’t much precedence in the Texas legislature with regards to similar filings in the past.
“It’s not something that Texas really has done before. We don’t like to hold multiple elections because they’re very expensive,” he said. “We also don’t like to bring things that the voters have already passed back before the voters.”
With Project Connect, Smith said it isn’t uncommon for estimated costs to change between when an initial project is proposed versus when design work on the program is complete. From that, he said this piece of legislation could provide another hurdle for municipalities getting projects off the ground.
“This, if passed, may cause a lot of projects that are very popular to have to go back before the voters, just as kind of a rubber stamp or formality, at the cost of holding a bond election again,” he said.
From a caucus standpoint, Smith added it might be difficult for Troxclair and Bettencourt to recruit other Republicans to get on board with this specific legislation, given the impact it could have on current or future projects within their districts.
“Other Republicans are going to look and go through all the pieces of legislation where they’re supporting something that might have to go back to the voters, and that’s where the bill will die — when other Republicans look and say, ‘you know what, maybe it works for this specific case and for your district, but it’ll also hurt us in the following areas,'” Smith said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with further clarification from Rep. Ellen Troxclair’s office on required ballot language as proposed by the bill.