Proposition 8's defeat leaves many Texans scratching their heads

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November 16, 2011

Texas drought conditions: yellow represents abnormally dry areas; dark red represents exceptional drought conditions. Source: National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

By Jimmy Ardis

AUSTIN, Texas: Last week Texans voted on ten proposed amendments to their state constitution. Three of the ten propositions were defeated, including Proposition 8 - the highly supported water conservation amendment . Given its unanimous support and Texas' recent high approval rate, many were left confused over Prop 8's fate once the election dust settled.

For the past decade constitutional amendment propositions have had overwhelming approval rates at the ballot box. 79 amendments were put before voters between 2000 and 2009, and just two were defeated - both in 2005. That's a 97% approval rate over the last 10 years. Texas lawmakers have basically been assured in recent history that once they got amendments onto the ballot, voters would give the thumbs up. This year was different, with 30% of the proposed amendments being shot down.

If passed Proposition 8 would have amended the constitution to add water stewardship to the list of land uses that can be appraised on productive capacity to qualify for tax breaks. It aimed to incentivize land owners to use water resources more efficiently and to protect water quality. Supporters said the amendment was a critical step in encouraging conservation of Texas's increasingly scarce water resources. Over 90 percent of the state's water flows through or under private land, so encouraging land owners to conserve was seen as a particularly smart strategy.

Intense droughts and increasing threats of water shortages contributed to Proposition 8 attracting widespread support. The joint resolution that got it on the ballot was passed unanimously by the Texas Legislature. In addition to bipartisan political approval, the proposed amendment was supported by business and environmental groups alike. The Nature Conservancy of Texas was a lead supporter, accompanied by the cosmetics namesake Mary Kay, the Greater Houston Partnership, The Sierra Club, and the Texas Wildlife Association.[1]

Proposition 8 failed on election night with 53 percent of voters choosing against the measure, and 47 percent voting in favor. Given its widespread support going into the election many observers have been left pondering why the amendment failed. Some argue the political climate was to blame, that voters were in a "no mood." With Texas facing massive state budget cuts this year, a perception that the amendment would reduce tax revenue could have swayed voters away. State Representative Drew Darby speculated on the measure's failure saying "I suppose the opposition was just giving any more exemptions to people. You know they've already got (agriculture) exemptions, and this would give simply another exemption, and given the political climate right now, that's certainly understandable."[2] Another argument put forth is that the ballot language was confusing and voters didn't really understand what was being asked of them. The director of government relations at The Nature Conversancy of Texas said "At end of day I feel like it boils down to ballot language. I think folks probably didn't understand what the measure did."[3]

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