IssuesLocal NewsTaxes & SpendingInvisible Government: Local Elections Have Big Consequences Despite Small Turnout

Saturday's results illustrate the continued challenge of voter participation in May elections despite the direct consequences they have on Texans' lives.
May 6, 2019
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Numerous cities, school districts, and other special purpose districts around the state held elections on Saturday to fill a variety of offices and to consider bond proposals and tax rate increases.  While such elections have a direct impact on local governance and property tax rates, participation is typically low, rarely breaking into double-digit percentages.

The May 4, 2019 elections reflected the historical trend with some turnout rates below 1 percent.  Some of the higher turnouts occurred in small cities, such as the City of South Houston where more than 21 percent of the 6,659 registered voters participated.  A few bond debt proposals were defeated, but most passed, including the largest in state history; the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District’s request for $1.76 billion was approved with only 4.64 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

Although most Americans think of elections as a November activity, Texas statute permits a second “uniform election date” for local government on the first Saturday of May each year. Many citizens are simply unaware that May elections are taking place.

Halfway through the early voting period in April, Curtis McKinley, a Republican Precinct Chair in Harris County, worked to contact voters regarding the Cypress Fairbanks ISD bond election, but few had heard about the proposal.   

“Less than 20 out of 140 [voters] knew about the Cy-Fair Bond election,”  McKinley lamented.

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Even if voters are aware of the May elections, uncovering the details can be a challenge.  In the state’s most populous county, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced in April that her department would conduct elections for 23 political subdivisions, but also noted that “an approximate additional 30 political entities in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day.”  She advised voters to “communicate directly with political entities conducting their own elections,” but did not provide relevant contact information.

Sometimes voters discover that they must visit two separate locations to fully participate in all area elections.  Residents of both Harris County Emergency Services District 13 and Cypress Fairbanks ISD, found that while the County Clerk’s office touted the availability of county-wide voting locations, those locations did not offer participation in the county’s ESD 13 election.  The ESD sent voters an eight-page, glossy mailer explaining that qualified residents could only vote for or against a proposed sales tax increase at the Cypress Creek Fire Department Administration Building.

Unofficial results posted on the ESD 13’s Facebook page indicate that the proposal passed 565-295.  

The sheer number of political entities operating in Texas may also make finding election information difficult.  As with other election divisions and state offices, the Harris County Clerk’s press release carefully quantifies the number of other county entities with the word “approximate.”  

A search for the total number of local taxing districts in Texas yields no definitive results, but a 2014 Senate report on special purpose districts states there are “approximately 3,350.” 

The Comptroller’s Special Purpose District Public Information Database lists some 1,604 entities, but the list is not comprehensive, and only includes those required to report data to the state.  Add those districts to the number of counties (254), school districts (1,031), and incorporated cities (1,216), and the resulting number is 4,105, but there are likely more.  

Kevin Lyons, a spokesperson for the state comptroller’s office stated that there are an estimated 4,200 taxing districts in the state. Some levy only property taxes, some sales taxes, and some levy both. Additionally, some of these districts have appointed directors, but many are governed by elected boards.

Occasionally districts with a common purpose overlap.  Some homes in Harris County ESD 13, are also in Harris County ESD 11, and owners must pay property tax to both.  Due to the lack of readily available information about Texas’ special purpose districts, the 2014 Senate report called them “the invisible government of Texas.”

While there does not seem to be a proposed solution to the vast proliferation of special purpose districts, state legislators have filed several bills to address local election procedures.

Senate Bill 30, “Taxpayers Right to Know-Bond Transparency” by Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) calls for detailed ballot language for bond proposals.  Under the proposed law, districts could not simply request one dollar amount for a wide variety of vaguely listed projects, but would have to list “the single specific purpose,” the total principal to be authorized, and the projected tax rate impact.  

SB 30 unanimously passed the Senate and is slated for a hearing in the House Committee on Pensions, Investments & Financial Services on May 9.

Authored by Senator Pat Fallon (R-Denton), SB 1048 requires school districts to hold elections for Board of Trustees and bond proposals on the November uniform election date.  During a committee hearing Fallon said, “If we hold elections in November when more people are participating, our election results will better reflect the will of Texans.”  

SB 1048 passed the Senate last month and has been referred to the House Committee on Elections.

If passed, both bills would take effect on September 1, 2019.  

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.