A U.S. district court is expected to rule soon in a lawsuit that could deprive UT of revenue that UT officials say it needs to fund a proposed medical school and teaching hospital in Austin.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel heard arguments Wednesday in a case that claims the ballot language of an initiative Travis County voters approved Nov. 6 violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects against election laws that disenfranchise voters based on race. The ballot initiative, known as Proposition 1, would raise property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, contribute revenue toward operations at the teaching hospital and purchase medical services from medical school students and faculty for the general public.
The Travis County Taxpayers Union, a political action committee formed to oppose Proposition 1, and three other plaintiffs filed the suit in October. Their attorney, Stephen Casey, said Central Health violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act by including ballot language that advocated for the proposition. State law required Proposition 1 to provide the proposed tax rate, year of implementation and the rate increase, but Casey said additional language confused Michael Cargill and Mario Jordan, two plaintiffs who have low reading comprehension.
In addition to the required language, 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 additional language is unnecessary because voters approved the creation of Central Health and therefore should understand its duties.
Judge Yeakel said he did not understand Casey’s distinction between voters’ ability to understand language describing the tax increase and Central Health’s mission.
“So the same people that are incapable of understanding the second half of the language on the ballot are presumed to know what the statute that created the health care district says and therefore can vote knowledgeably if the language is restricted to the first half of what was on the ballot?” Yeakel asked.
Jim Cousar, an attorney representing Central Health, said state law does not bar Central Health from including additional ballot language. He said the Voting Rights Act protects voters who do not speak English but does not account for illiteracy.
“There’s nothing in the Voting Rights Act that expressly or implicitly addresses claims based on reading comprehension,” Cousar said.
If Yeakel rules in Central Health’s favor, the tax increase will take effect Oct. 1, 2013.