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Emmett rejects voter initiative for early education

Fears ‘public imagination’

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Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is being sued by a local school readiness nonprofit after disallowing a November vote for an early education tax, according to The Houston Chronicle:

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday he would not place a 1-cent property tax on the November ballot intended to buoy area preschools, prompting a lawsuit by a local nonprofit that supplied tens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking him to do so.

Emmett, a critic of the effort since it launched at the beginning of summer, said the ballot language on the petition does not comply with a repealed chapter of the Texas Education Code.

As part of its Early to Rise campaign, the nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp. got more than 85,500 registered voters to support its initiative, well beyond the 78,824 it needed to require Emmett to order an election to expand the taxing authority of the Harris County Department of Education.

Emmett has cited concerns about the applicability of the decades-old state law on which the group based its petition drive, as well as oversight on how the tax revenue would be spent.

The law, dating back at least 78 years, was repealed in 1995 when the Legislature reorganized the education code. It says the county judge must call an election to raise the education department’s tax rate if enough valid signatures are gathered.

Citing a seven-page legal opinion by a private lawyer, Emmett conceded that the antiquated law still is applicable, because a section of the education code says it is, but said that the ballot language on the petition is too specific about both the nature of the proposed tax - specifically, that it says the tax would be “additional,” on top of the education department’s current 1-cent taxing authority - and how it would be used.

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“Describing the requested tax as ‘additional’ is a significant departure from the statute because there is no authority in Chapter 18 for more than one tax,” Emmett said at a news conference on Monday, the last day items could be placed on the Nov. 5 ballot. “If early childhood expenditures can be controlled by the general public through a tax election, then why not vocational educational, agricultural education, adult education, special education or any other source of educational programs that the public imagination might run to?”

...

Emmett revealed last week that he had chosen to hire outside counsel to review the law even after the county attorney, who typically handles civil matters, recommended he put the item on the ballot. He said he could not trust the office after it allegedly leaked its opinion to news media, which he described as a violation of attorney-client privilege. The office denies the leak.

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