Thursday, May 14, 2009

Convention Center Hotel: Thoughts on the Results

If you had any interest in the results to begin with, then I’m sure you already know that the proposed Charter Amendment to prohibit the City of Dallas from owning a hotel (Proposition 1) failed last Saturday. I am pleased that the hotel will probably (barring some additional problems) now be built, but I’m a little concerned about the election results and what I have learned about the processes behind them.

The vote on Proposition 1 failed by 2,095 votes or .37% of the registered voters in the City of Dallas—that’s 37/100 of one percent, not 37%. The overall turnout rate for the City of Dallas County was about 15.8%. That means that 43,382 voted for the hotel; 41,287 voted against it; and 477,210 people didn’t vote. The total number of signatures required to get a vote on a charter amendment is 20,000 or slightly over 3.7% of registered voters—only about one third as many as would be required to change a city ordinance. That makes no sense. It would be as if it was easier to change the United States Constitution than a law enacted by Congress.

Granted a convention center hotel isn’t something that will affect most people’s lives, so I’m sure that depressed the turnout. But, on the other hand, about $8 million was spent on the election campaign (or about $100 for each vote actually cast), and one would think that might have increased the number of voters. I worry that some obscure ballot initiative proposed by special interests could be placed on the ballot and pass because not enough voters understood it and were willing to make the effort to vote.

I did a search and found a job listing on Craig’s List that paid $1.50 per signature for election petitions. A 75% validity rate was required. That means the cost to get an amendment to the Charter of the City of Dallas (that’s the “Constitution” for the city) is about $26,600. That’s way too cheap. You don’t want to eliminate the right to ballot initiatives, but a substantial issue should have more support and volunteers willing to gather signatures.

Proposition 2, which also was defeated on Saturday, is the best example of why the current rules are a problem. It was put on the ballot for spite. A New York union put it on the ballot because it was upset that it wasn’t guaranteed jobs in the proposed Convention Center Hotel project. Proposition lost 58% to 42%, but if it had passed, it would have required a popular vote on any subsidy for a private project in excess of $1 million. Waiting for a vote for each subsidy would have substantially slowed down any future development in the City, and Proposition 2 got 42% of the vote, even with no real campaign in favor of it.

It isn’t hard to imagine a proposition getting passed more or less by accident that is bad for the city and good for some special interest.

What ought to be done? Several states (Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon, Ohio, and Montana) have outlawed paying by the signature during petition drives. The federal courts have taken different positions on whether that restriction is legal, and in any event it would take action by the State of Texas.

Perhaps the best solution would be to amend the Dallas City Charter to require the same number of signatures (10% of registered voters) to put a charter amendment on the ballot as it does for an ordinance. That would increase the number of signatures to about 56,000 and almost triple the cost to put an amendment on the ballot by paying for signatures.

For only about $26,600—the cost of 20,000 signature, you could put this idea on the ballot for the next city election!

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