AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texans are heading to the polls Tuesday to vote on several proposed amendments to the state constitution, including two that would reshape the state judiciary and one that lets houses of worship stay open during public health emergencies.
In the state’s capital city of Austin, voters are also set to vote on whether to mandate a minimum number of police officers.
Arguably the most politically motivated amendment on the ballot is Proposition 3. The measure would prohibit the state, county, or city governments from limiting religious services or organizations. Many supporters of the proposition, including Republican Governor Greg Abbott, say it is needed to protect religious freedom in the state.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many state and local officials gave orders for people to stay home and limited public gatherings, including church services. Abbott himself shut down churches for two weeks until he deemed them essential and allowed them to continue with services, while saying they should follow CDC guidance and limit gatherings to no more than 10 people.
Over a year later, Abbott now faces primary challengers to his right in the 2022 gubernatorial race. One of those challengers, Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas, has railed against the governor’s actions at the beginning of the pandemic, calling them “un-Texan” in an op-ed with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Opponents of Prop 3 see it as unnecessary and are concerned it would allow churches to operate during public emergencies like a pandemic.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 1239 earlier this year, which prohibits public officials from limiting religious services. Prop 3 would broaden the scope of what HB 1239 set out to do because it also applies to the “state and any political subdivision”.
Proposition 4 and 5
Two other proposed constitutional amendments aim to raise the standards and accountability of the state judiciary.
Proposition 4 changes the eligibility requirements to run for judgeships in Texas. All judges in the state are elected, including the justices on the Texas Supreme Court. A criticism of Texas’ judicial system is that bias is inevitable since judges are elected through partisan elections. As the state’s demographics and politics have changed over the past decade, courts have at times been subject to partisan takeovers.
If passed, Prop 4 would require candidates for judgeships to be a resident of Texas and raises the eligibility requirements for those running for a district court, appellate court or supreme court judgeship. Candidates must have at least eight years of experience as a lawyer or judge in a state or county court to run for a district court seat. An additional two years is required for candidates seeking a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, Court of Appeals or Court of Criminal Appeals. The new requirements would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2025.
During Texas' regular legislative session this past spring, lawmakers passed Senate Joint Resolution 47, which placed Prop 4 on the November ballot. For the Legislature to put constitutional amendments on a ballot, they must have a supermajority vote in favor of the measure. The Senate resolution for Prop 4 passed with bipartisan support.
Proposition 5 was also added to the ballot through legislative action when lawmakers passed House Joint Resolution 165 in the regular session. The amendment would give the State Commission on Judicial Conduct the authority to investigate complaints against judicial candidates the same way it does with officeholders. The commission would also have the authority to discipline candidates who have violated state ethics rules.
The commission investigates complaints against any judge who is alleged to have engaged in inappropriate behavior in the courtroom, committed illegal acts in their private life, used their office to advance personal interests or engaged in substance abuse. If the allegations are found to be true, judges are subject to private or public admonishment and could face dismissal or suspension from their office.
State lawmakers overwhelmingly supported adding Prop 5 to the ballot, as not a single state senator or representative voted against HJR 165.
While it is not a statewide proposition, residents of Austin will be weighing in on what has become a nationwide issue: policing.
In 2020, the Austin City Council voted to cut the police budget by a third, nearly $150 million. State lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature retaliated by passing HB 1900, which financially penalizes cities that cut police funding and forced the capital city to restore the Austin Police Department’s funding.
While APD remains funded and the threat of cuts has subsided, a local political action committee has worked to get more sworn officers on the streets of the capital city.
Save Austin Now is responsible for getting Prop A on Tuesday's ballot. The measure would require at least two police officers for every 1,000 Austinites. It would also mandate 40 more hours of training each year and increase pay for officers that have bilingual skills or are recognized for good conduct.
Proponents of Prop A argue the city has become less safe since the City Council cut funding last year. Despite the funding being restored, Save Austin Now claims that the move demoralized police and lead to a shortage of officers needed to keep the city safe.
Opponents of the measure say the money needed to hire and staff additional officers will be pulled from other city services, such as the fire department, library and parks and recreation department. They also see Prop A as a step back from the goals of groups like Black Lives Matter and the Austin Justice Coalition, who argue more police officers is not the solution to addressing strained relations with Austin’s low-income communities of color.
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