December 12, 2016by Reagan Reed
Due to the ambiguous nature of Texas voter residency requirements, developers and local taxing entities are using a controversial “rent-a-voter” scheme to pass millions of dollars in bond debt and taxes without needing to secure the approval of the general population. However, Tea Party activists who attempted to use the same tactic to oppose the taxes are now facing time in prison.
In what has become a common practice, developers lobby the legislature to create special purpose taxing districts in undeveloped areas where they are wanting to build, however, the boundaries of the district are drawn to exclude all voters. Because an election is required for these districts to pass bonds, developers will hire people to register to vote temporarily in mobile homes they have set up inside the district’s boundaries.
An election is then held and the temporary voters unanimously approve millions, sometimes billions, of dollars in bond debt. As soon as the bonds have been passed, the trailers are removed and the voters move on, often to another district where the process begins again. The debt will be paid over the course of many years by future residents who move into the development.
Blaketree MUD, a development on the Tiger Woods golf course in western Montgomery County, is a recent rent-a-voter example. Two voters brought into the MUD approved over $257 million in bond debt in the November 8th election. The previous year, two voters in Conroe’s Camp Strake development approved approximately a billion dollars in bonds. The rent-a-voter scheme also approved a tax rate for the district and elected a board of directors, none of whom lived inside the MUD.
While powerful developers are able to hire top lawyers to help them navigate the intricacies of election law in order to pass debt with rented voters, ordinary citizens and grassroots activists often do not have that luxury.
Two conservative activists, Adrian Heath and Jim Jenkins, are facing three years in state prison for doing what they believe is no different than what the rent-a-voters are paid to do.
Heath and Jenkins set their sights on the abuses of RUD 1, a district in The Woodlands gerrymandered to include only commercial areas and exclude residential areas with voters. The district imposes taxes on local businesses, leading former State Rep. Steve Toth and others to decry it as, “taxation without representation.”