HOUSTON—A new poll indicates the Metro referendum on Houston area ballots will probably pass, but as early voting began a large number of voters hadn’t made up their minds.
About 43 percent of surveyed voters said they planned to vote for the referendum, while 28 percent planned to vote against it. But more than one in four voters – 27 percent—were still unsure.
“Most voters don’t know what they’re voting on,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who conducted the poll for KHOU 11 News and KUHF Houston Public Radio. “The ballot caption doesn’t tell them that.”
Both Metro and Mayor Annise Parker say the referendum item is simple, but critics argue that its implications reach far beyond what’s written on the ballot. And to understand the politics behind it, it’s important to know Metro’s history.
When Houston area voters passed the 1978 referendum that created Metro, they agreed to bankroll the transit agency with a new one-penny sales tax. By 1988, Metro critics led by future Mayor Bob Lanier had gained so much political traction the agency agreed to give one-quarter of its sales tax revenue to Houston, Harris County and 14 other smaller city governments.
Since that time, Metro has given the local governments $2.7-billion for street and road projects. But the deal is set to expire in September 2014.
Meanwhile, many of those local governments around Houston have chafed at how much money Metro is spending on light rail inside the city limits. Metro supporters feared that state lawmakers representing suburban areas would gut the transit agency.
So Metro has placed on the ballot a plan to continue the payments to local governments, but it would keep more of the money for transit, which it projects will total $400-million by 2025. Metro would have to spend that extra money on buses, bus shelters and paying down debt, but the transit agency would be forbidden from spending that money on rail.
“I think when people really look at the language, they recognize, ‘Oh, this is great, this is very simple,’” said Gilbert Garcia, the chairman of the Metro board. “Number one, it continues road payments. Number two, it pays down short term debt. And number three, it has money to restore the bus system.”
But the plan has made some strange bedfellows. Longtime allies of Metro have suddenly become its adversaries. Strangest of all, Barry Klein—who has dedicated much of his life to fighting Metro—is speaking out in favor of the transit agency’s referendum.
Rail proponents believe this idea essentially dooms any plans for rail expansion in the foreseeable future.
“We won’t have any more rail if we vote ‘yes,’” said David Crossley, an outspoken opponent of the referendum plan. “And so, if you want rail, you have to vote ‘no.’”
Crossley said he’s devoted much of his time during the early voting period trying to explain the issue to confused voters.
“I spend half my day on Facebook and other places explaining to people who say they’re confused,” he said. “’What should I do, because it doesn’t make any sense?’”
Garcia, who’s still an advocate for rail, disagrees with Crossley’s assessment.
“I don’t think it’s the end (of rail) at all,” he said. “In fact, in order to take the next step of rail, we’ve got to do two things. We’ve got to build up the ridership again ... and we’ve got to pay down the debt.”
Advocates for the Metro referendum and for the bond issues on the ballot all worry that voters will simply ignore the matters at the bottom of the ballot. Stein expects it to pass, but he points out that Metro’s proposal is the first ballot item voters will see after perusing through the names of candidates on a very long ballot.
“If you just look at these undecided voters, they really don’t know what the issue is about,” Stein said. “They’re most likely to miss this whole issue on the ballot.”