Court to hear arguments in Prop 1 case

Joshua Fechter

A federal court will hear arguments today over a lawsuit that could prevent the implementation of a tax increase which would help fund operations at a proposed UT medical school and teaching hospital.

On Nov. 6, Travis County voters approved Proposition 1, which will increase property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, from 7.89 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The increase will contribute an estimated $35 million annually toward operations at the teaching hospital and purchase medical services from medical school students and faculty for the general public.

A complaint filed in October by Stephen Casey, an attorney representing Travis County Taxpayers Union, a political action committee formed to oppose Proposition 1, and other plaintiffs asked the Austin division of the U.S. District Court to prevent validation of votes on Proposition 1 until the court decides if the language of the proposition violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by misleading voters and expressing advocacy for the proposition.

Casey said the language violates Section 281.124 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, which dictates that the language must provide the proposed tax rate, the year it would be implemented and the difference between the current and proposed tax rates. He said the law does not allow Central Health to add additional language to the ballot.

“If that’s the case, they could say, ‘Vote for this law if you like Barney the purple dinosaur,’” Casey said.

In addition to the language required by state law, the proposition said Central Health will use increased revenue to fund “improved health care in Travis County, including support for a new medical school consistent with the mission of Central Health, a site for a new teaching hospital, trauma services, specialty medicine such as cancer care, community-wide health clinics, training for physicians, nurses and other health care professionals, primary care, behavioral and mental health care, prevention and wellness programs and/or to obtain federal matching funds for health care services.”

Casey said the language also violates his clients’ right to due process by not allowing them to add language opposing the proposition.

James Cousar, an attorney representing Central Health, said the Texas Health and Safety Code only permits hospital districts to determine the language of ballot initiatives and does not specify whether other bodies or individuals may contribute language.

“If [the plaintiffs] do not have that right [to add language to the ballot], they do not have a case,” Cousar said.

Cousar said the ballot language contained only factual information and did not express advocacy for the proposition.

If U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel decides to rule in favor of the ballot language, the tax increase will take effect Oct. 1, 2013.

Printed on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 as: Federal court to review Prop. 1 language