A Texas state senator has filed a comprehensive bill which, among other things, is aimed to prevent local governments in the Lone Star State from misleading voters with deceptive ballot language.
Texas State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) filed Senate Bill 488 he says, in order to provide a “statewide solution in response to Houston’s and other cities’ missteps involving ballot clarity.” He says the move will “prevent spending taxpayer money to ignore lawfully collected petition signatures, and suppressing petitions signed by those they are sworn to represent.”
Sen. Bettencourt told Breitbart Texas, “Stories that citizens have told about cities following the law are astonishing.” Bettencourt said they have listened to citizens who were just trying to petition their government, and “They not only got the door slammed in their face, their petitions were flushed down the toilet.”
Senator Bettencourt and Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) filed the “Texas Ballot Integrity Act” to prevent local governments from misleading voters when they vote because the ballot language is deceptive. Sen. Lucio served as chairman of the Senate Intergovernmental Affairs Committee during the last legislative session in 2015.
The authors of the bill say it will:
- Require clear ballot language that accurately defines the proposition being placed before voters;
- Allow a court to rewrite ballot language if the court finds that the language is inaccurate;
- Create a standard form for use by residents for referendum or recall petitions;
- Remove overly broad and unfair restrictions on who may collect signatures;
- Create a “rocket docket” for expedited court review of ballot language to prevent the delay of local initiatives;
- Instill a “loser pay” measure to ensure that prevailing parties have access to legal fees.
If passed, Senate Bill 488 would also provide for a uniform process in city elections involving an ordinance. In particular, it “would protect the integrity of citizen-driven petitions and referendums by providing home-rule municipalities a specific process to propose charter amendments, local initiatives or bond obligations,” according to a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas from Senator Bettencourt’s office.
“In some cases, Houston residents were required to spend more than $300,000 of their own money just to get city officials to follow the law, and city officials openly ignored their duties in regard to lawfully collected petitions that were submitted to the city,” said Senator Bettencourt. “After hearing testimony from multiple citizens in multiple cities on multiple problems leading to multiple Supreme Court rulings, it became apparent that we needed to file this bill. Chairman Lucio has filed a series of bills on this subject after listening to this testimony as well.”
The Senate Intergovernmental Affairs Committee review of these ballot issues included hearing from mistreated petitioners from around the state. They appeared before the committee to share stories about the problems they have faced with ballot referendums in their respective voting jurisdictions, said Bettencourt.
As reported by Breitbart Texas, the “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) pushed by the openly gay mayor of the City of Houston Annise Parker, involved a protracted fight in the judicial system–all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. Citizens fought to set aside the ordinance that would have allowed men in women’s restrooms.
Opponents collected more than 50,000 signatures to put a repeal measure on the ballot. Although only 17,269 signatures were required, the City of Houston invalidated 8,500 of the signatures based on legibility. Opponents of the ordinance were forced to litigate to force it to a vote. Although the ordinance was eventually rejected by Houston voters, opponents incurred hundreds of thousand of dollars in legal fees. Those who fought to defeat the ordinance, including Houston clergy, called it a defeat of the national leftist LGBT agenda but noted the high costs associated with fighting the agenda.
Andy Taylor, the lawyer for the pastors and other citizens working to defeat the bathroom ordinance told Breitbart Texas they got hit with court costs even though they won. He says the law should change to allow for recovering for these legal fees when they prevail in court.
Other city residents have also had their problems. Petitioners in San Marcos were sued by the City for trying to use their right to initiative and referendum. Another fight in Houston involved a class action suit filed against the City of Houston over $500 million in drainage fees. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, the ReBuild Houston drainage improvement program was narrowly approved by voters in 2010. Some Houston residents sued over the “rain tax” and it also made its way through the state court system all the way to the Supreme Court of Texas. The Texas Supreme Court found that the City had not disclosed the real cost of the drainage fee to taxpayers.
“This abuse of taxpayers has to stop. Part of having a free and fair election is ensuring that the ballot language a voter sees in the voting booth is clear. I am pleased to file this legislation and make sure there are no repeats of the horror stories that have happened across Texas,” Bettencourt said in a press release.
If the bill is passed, it will provide that a municipality may not accept legal services without paying fair market value for those services.
A city would also not be able to restrict who may collect petition signatures, and a signature on a petition to a home-rule city would be valid if the information provided with the signature as required under the law and other applicable law legibly provides enough information to show that the signer is eligible to sign the petition, and they signed the petition on or after the 180th day before the date the petition was filed.