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Legal Battle Brewing Over Medical School Ballot Language?

Wells Dunbar, KUT News

Early voting began in Travis County today, including voting on Central Health's Prop 1. Designed to bring a medical school and a new teaching hospital to Austin, if approved Prop 1 would raise the Central Health district's tax rate from 7.98 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of accessed property value. (The average Travis County homeowner would pay an additional $107 a year.)

The measure is facing opposition from the Travis County Taxpayer's Union. Today, the group filed a lawsuit claiming Central Health improperly augmented the language printed on the ballot. The group argues that Central Health added language that encourages voters to vote for the measure.

The original proposition is recreated below, with the district's addendum in bold:

Approving the ad valorem tax rate of $0.129 per $100 valuation in Central Health, also known as the Travis County Healthcare District, for the 2013 tax year, a rate that exceeds the district's rollback tax rate.  The proposed ad valorem tax rate exceeds the ad valorem tax rate most recently adopted by the district by $0.05 per $100 valuation; funds will be used for improved healthcare in Travis County, including support for a new medical school consistent with the mission of Central Health, a site for a new teaching hospital, trauma services, specialty medicine such as cancer care, community-wide health clinics, training for physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals, primary care, behavioral and mental healthcare, prevention and wellness programs, and/or to obtain federal matching funds for healthcare services.

Attorney Stephen Casey represents the Taxpayers Union. "My clients are specifically opposed to it because they don't think it's the government's job to be able to do this,” he says. “And if they are going to put it in front of the voters, they are not allowed to be on one side of the ballot as a cheerleader without someone else on the other side."

Casey goes on to say Central Health’s change of the ballot requires pre-clearance from the Department of Justice (per Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act); Casey says there is no evidence showing that pre-clearance was obtained.

Keep Austin Healthy is advocating for Prop 1. Attorney and Keep Austin Healthy committee member Tim Taylor says the opponents of the prop are just wrong: there are no violations of the Voting Rights Act, and the entire lawsuit is a frivolous publicity stunt.

"Our opponents are playing political tricks with no basis in the facts or the law," says Taylor. "Unfortunately, they're playing games with the rights of hundreds of thousands of Travis County citizens. That alone should disqualify them from ever being taken seriously again on the issues facing Central Texas.”

If the Taxpayer's Union win the lawsuit, they will ask for a judge to intervene and stop the counting of the ballot until the proposition has a more straightforward and neutral interpretation.

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