Texas Capitol
Texas voters are deciding 14 constitutional amendments, including propositions that could lower property taxes and increase funding for certain infrastructure projects. (Joe Timmerman / The Texas Tribune)
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In what has become a common feature at election time in Texas, voters across the state were asked earlier this month to consider 14 proposed amendments to the state constitution. They approved 13, also not uncommon.

In the past 10 years, voters have been asked to consider 58 amendments, passing all but two.

At first glance, many of the amendments proposed by lawmakers look like things the Texas Legislature should handle. Things like doling out money from the state’s surplus funds or making changes to the tax code.

There is a reason the Lege turns to the voters so often, however. Three reasons, in fact:

  1. Constitutional continuity
  2. Political strategy
  3. Budget maneuvering

The first is by design.

The most straightforward amendments require voter approval because they are changing language already in the Texas Constitution

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones calls these “run-of-the-mill” amendments.

The retirement age of state judges, for example, is enshrined in the constitution. Attempting to change that — as lawmakers did earlier this month — required asking voters to amend the constitution so judges could serve longer. It was the only proposed amendment that failed this year.

Some proposed amendments, like ensuring the state does not create a wealth tax and guaranteeing Texans’ right to farm, are more strategic in nature, Jones said. Politically strategic.

With a conservative majority in the state Legislature, it is unlikely Texas would enact some form of wealth tax. Enshrining that status quo into the state constitution, however, makes it much harder for a potential Democrat majority to pass one in the future.

Nearly half of this year’s proposed amendments, Jones said, fell into the final category: budget maneuvers.

The Texas Constitution limits the amount of money the state can spend every two-year budget cycle to its current spending limit, plus the rate of the state’s economic growth.

Lawmakers approved a $114.1 billion spending cap for the fiscal year 2024-2025 budget cycle.

The remaining amendments were budgetary workarounds to help lawmakers avoid hitting the state spending cap, Jones said.

Voter-approved spending measures do not count toward the state spending cap, Jones said.

That is why voters were asked to approve such propositions as a cost-of-living increase for retired teachers and the creation of the state’s new centennial park fund using Texas’ millions of dollars in surplus funds.

Local measures

Two of the propositions on this November’s ballot — abolishing the Galveston county treasurer and allowing El Paso county to issue bonds for park funding — were aimed at specific locales.

Why should voters in Amarillo care about or vote on whether Galveston County should get rid of its treasurer post?

The reason is because those two items are tied to language in the Texas Constitution, thus, requiring voter approval to make those changes, Jones said.

Those two propositions and the constitutional language that requires them underscore the archaic nature of Texas’ constitution, said Jon Taylor, chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s department of political science and geography.

“I've long argued that our state constitution is a horse-and-buggy constitution for a digital age,” Taylor said.

In effect since 1876, the Texas Constitution was written largely as a reaction to previous iterations that gave more power to a state legislature many viewed as corrupt, Taylor said.

The 1876 constitution was designed to limit the legislature’s centralized power and give a voice to citizens, he said, requiring voter approval to carry out many legislative actions.

“It's a case where the constitution is so restrictive that you actually have to amend the constitution to give power either to the legislature, or the governor, or even to local authorities,” Taylor said.

Voting on five, 10, or even 15 proposed amendments during an election cycle, Taylor said, has contributed to making Texas’ constitution the second longest in the country, trailing only Alabama.

More than 700 amendments have been proposed since 1876, Taylor said, with 529 approved and currently part of the constitution.

The result is a lengthy governing document that includes grammatical errors, portions that have been declared unconstitutional and vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court, and portions that contradict one another, Taylor said.

Little interest in reform

Despite those drawbacks, most state leaders seem content with keeping the constitution as is, Taylor said.

Constitutional reform last was attempted by state leaders in the 1970s, Taylor said, but that endeavor failed after political infighting broke out around labor issues and concerns about concentrating power in the executive branch.

Any attempt to reform the constitution today, Jones said, likely would meet the same fate.

He likened a constitutional convention to opening Pandora’s box, citing the current state of polarization and distrust between Democrats and Republicans.

Reforming the constitution could modernize the document’s language and give more power to the legislature or the governor, but Taylor said he believes state leaders are worried such attempts would be unsuccessful.

“We have an archaic constitution that needs to be fixed,” Taylor said. “Legislators and people in power are not necessarily interested in fixing it, so we're going to be stuck voting on constitutional amendment after constitutional amendment into the foreseeable future.”

Additionally, voters often complain of confusing language at the ballot box, leaving some unsure what they are being asked to consider.

That confusion leads to an affirmation bias among Texas voters, said Zachary Elkins, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Elkins’ research, voters are more likely to vote yes on a ballot initiative if they are unsure what it is asking. 

Voting yes, Elkins said, is cognitively the easiest way for voters to make it through a lengthy ballot while also feeling like they participated in the civic process.

Texans’ affirmation bias also could be linked to their level of trust in the state legislature, Elkins said, which is much higher than trust in Congress at a national level.

Amendments need bipartisan support — a two-thirds vote in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate — to be placed on the ballot.

That could make voters feel more comfortable voting in favor, Elkins said.

“They basically think that if something is put before them, that it's reasonably well thought out, and it's a good idea,” Elkins said.

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Tim Carlin is the Abdelraoufsinno's civic engagement reporter. An Ohio native, Tim comes to Houston after spending a year in Greenville, South Carolina, covering Greenville County government for The Greenville...