Sunday, November 1, 2015

Amendment No. 5 (S.J.R. 17)

This is the first of a series of posts where I struggle to understand and think through the 7 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution that we can vote on 11/3.

Ballot Title

The constitutional amendment to authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance.

Helpful Links

What does this do?

Counties do publicly funded/run road construction and maintenance (duh). This requires some amount of equipment and employees (duh). For most of Texas history, it was against the law for you as a private citizen to pay, with your own money, for the county's equipment/employees to do your own private road construction/maintenance (such as a driveway). In large enough counties, that's not much of a problem. The county always has its own work it can do, and you will have access to businesses that you can pay to do this work. But in small rural counties, there may be no private road construction/businesses nearby, and there's not year-round work for the county to do, so the laws to keep the county's road work separate from private road work meant that their equipment (and employees?) had to often just go unused, which is a waste.

So... to solve this problem, in 1980 a law was passed to allow a county to perform work on private roads for "a reasonable charge" if their population was under 5,000. Also, any revenue from such work must be used "only for the construction, including right-of-way acquisition, or maintenance of public roads". The proposed change this year is to raise that cap to counties with a population under 7,500.

Why would this be good?

I think it's pretty clear, from the above description, that it's a win/win scenario to allow this. The person who wants to pay for the county to do private road work benefits because they get what they want. The county government benefits because they get revenue. The people benefit because they don't have to pay as much taxes to fund their county's road work. People who want an efficient world benefit because resources don't have to sit idle when they could be put to a productive use.

Why would this be bad?

The only opposing case I found to this amendment is that, instead of lifting the cap from 5,000 to 7,500, we should just allow all counties to do this. That sounds fine to me, but I don't want to make the perfect be the enemy of the good, so this doesn't really sound like a reason to vote against this amendment.

But in reading about the 1980 law that originally made this exception for some counties, I saw a couple of things that could be counted as cons here. For one, this could be used by county governments in corrupt ways, such as doing cheap work for someone as a favor. Further, performing work under a market price could be damaging to the private market for such work. The law does state that the work must be done for "a reasonable charge" to avoid these problems, but of course that's no guarantee.


I plan on voting yes.

The pros seem very clear, and the cons seem mere possibilities that, even if true, don't outweigh the pros. And even if the pros and cons seemed like a toss-up, I think in those cases you should side with letting people make their own decisions anyway. And this law simply allows more counties to make their own decisions instead of our state government forcing things to be inefficient.

What would it take to change my mind?

The most likely thing would be evidence suggesting that this is overwhelmingly just used for political favors.