At least, I think it has been put to bed. You never know – with this much money at stake, there remains the possibility of a challenge despite the AG’s opinion. But I digress.
Yesterday, the Texas Attorney General’s office finally released an opinion of the legality of the Early to Rise Initiative. For those who have forgotten what that was, it was an attempt by a private group to force an election proposing a tax increase by the Harris County School Trustees, aka the Harris County Department of Education. If approved by voters, the tax rate would have gone up 1 cent per $100 of property appraised valuation, raising approximately $30 million per year, with the proceeds being turned over to the private group for disbursement to various pre-school “education” programs. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett rejected the petition, lawsuits erupted, and the 14th Court of Appeals ultimately upheld Emmett’s rejection, thus killing the initiative for 2013.
You can read the full AG opinion here. The relevant part:
A court would likely conclude that section 11.301 and former chapter 18 of the Education Code do not authorize a countywide school district to hold a petition-initiated election to increase the county equalization tax.
Judge Emmett issued a press release:
TEXAS ATTORNEY GENERAL CONFIRMS
ILLEGALITY OF ‘EARLY TO RISE’ BALLOT INITIATIVE
Opinion Reaffirms Decision By County Judge Ed Emmett
The Texas Attorney General’s Office confirmed today that last year’s attempt to force a petition-initiated tax increase for the Harris County Department of Education violated state law. The opinion, released today in response to a request by state Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, confirms a decision by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett last year not to allow the proposal on the Nov. 5, 2013, ballot.
Using a repealed section of state law, a group named Early To Rise collected more than 80,000 signatures in an effort to force Emmett to place the tax increase on the November ballot. Proceeds from that tax increase were to be directed to an early childhood education training program operated by the Harris County School Readiness Corp., a private group.
After researching the issue and consulting with education law experts, Emmett rejected the advice of the Harris County Attorney and concluded that the arcane law the group tried to use to force the tax increase did not apply. The group then sued Emmett to force the issue on the ballot, but the 14th Court of Appeals refused to overturn Emmett’s decision.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released a legal opinion today stating that state laws “do not authorize a countywide school district to hold a petition-initiated election to increase the county equalization tax.”
“I am grateful for the attorney general’s clear opinion today confirming the illegality of the Early To Rise initiative,” Emmett said. “Despite numerous threats of lawsuits, it was clear to me that this bizarre proposal was illegal and wrong-headed. It’s gratifying to have the confirmation of both the appellate court and the state of Texas.”
Although it was Emmett that blocked the election, the AG’s opinion was in response to a request from Sen. Dan Patrick on September 23, 2013 about the legality of holding such an election. You can read Sen. Patrick’s request here.
Interestingly, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan might have forced the AG to go ahead and issue the opinion by submitting his own request on February 3, 2014. In his request, Ryan, who supported the initiative and the private group trying to get taxpayer money, suggested that the group might try again:
Although the litigation has ended and the November election is over, it is our understanding that the petition may be presented to the Harris County Judge again for an upcoming election. The facts are essentially as presented before with the addition of information about the intended method of distribution of the equalization funds. According to news reports, the HCDE would have collected the tax, and the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a nonprofit behind the Early to Rise Initiative, would have distributed the money. The Early To Rise website says: “the additional revenues will be overseen by the Harris County School Readiness Corporation, a public/ private partnership board … “
So like I said above, it may well not be over with this much money at stake. But the AG’s opinion surely helps Emmett’s case.
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