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Tax cuts, teacher pension increases at stake after misinformation-led challenge to 2023 election

The Texas governor certified the November election results amid multiple lawsuits asking a court to prevent the voter-approved constitutional amendments from taking effect.

Travis County residents wait in line to vote at the County Tax Office polling location on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Pflugerville. (Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune)

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Update, Dec. 8: Gov. Greg Abbott certified the results of the election on Dec. 4, allowing the constitutional amendments approved by voters to go into effect. In court filings, the Texas Attorney General’s Office said the governor was not from prevented from certifying the results because the election contests were procedurally flawed.

Lawsuits based on false claims about voting equipment could delay millions of dollars in cost of living increases for retired teachers expected to arrive in January. The lawsuits also threaten to hold up state property tax cuts for homeowners — arguably Republicans’ signature policy achievement this year.

Voters widely approved both policies this fall. Now Texas lawmakers are scrambling in hopes of preventing further delays.

The election contests challenging the results of the November constitutional amendment election were filed in Travis County district courts days after the November election by right-wing activists. They are based on false claims that Texas’ voting equipment is not certified and that voting machines are connected to the internet. Abbott has not certified the results of the election and won’t be able to until the lawsuits are resolved in the courts — which experts say could take weeks or months.

Voter advocates say the election contests are yet another attempt to undermine trust in elections. This time, though, it could have immediate negative implications for millions of Texans.

“I think this is a perfect example of the real impact in peoples’ lives when we delay the certification of our vote because of misinformation,” said Katya Ehresman, voting rights program manager at Common Cause Texas.

At least six lawsuits — filed by residents from Bexar, Llano, Denton, Rains, Brazoria, Liberty, and Atascosa counties who have ties to local promoters of election conspiracies — are challenging the 14 constitutional amendment propositions that were on the ballot in November.

By law, challenges to constitutional amendment elections can’t go to trial earlier than a month after it’s been filed — unless requested by the contestant — and not later than six months after it was filed.

But on Friday, in the middle of Texas’ fourth special legislative session this year, a state senator introduced a bill that would eliminate that requirement and to compress the timeline under which such challenges are heard. The bill was then hastily passed through a committee and sent to the Senate floor, where it passed 23-1. It will now go to the House, which was also in session Friday. Its author, Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said that if it isn’t passed that property tax cuts and extra money for retired teachers would be in jeopardy.

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“It’s a big deal,” he said.

In order for the bill to become law, Gov. Greg Abbott would have to add the issue to the special session’s agenda. On Friday, an Abbott aide said he’d consider doing so if both chambers can agree to a bill.

Some of the issues at stake for voters

Cost of living increases for about 400,000 retired teachers and public school employees could be delayed for months, unless the lawsuit moves quickly through the courts. Advocates say that, for many, this would be the first raise they will see in nearly 20 years.

Lawmakers earlier this year passed Senate Bill 10, which provides some retired Texas teachers with cost-of-living raises of between 2% and 6% to their monthly pension checks. The Legislature then put the proposition on the ballot, seeking voters’ approval to use $3.3 billion from the general revenue fund.

Eli Melendrez, a staff researcher with the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said the average monthly pension of a retired educator is about $2,174. The pension increase would add about $80 more to their monthly checks, he said. “That sounds really small, but if you look at it in aggregate, we’re talking about $30 million per month in these retired educators’ pockets,” Melendrez said. “It’s definitely significant.”

Retired teachers’ first pension check of 2024 will be delivered at the end of January. “Time is very much of the essence when it comes to these issues,” he said and added that it isn’t clear yet whether retired teachers would receive back pay to cover any delays.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas in a statement said it’s still working to understand the impacts the lawsuits would have on the timing of distribution of the pension increases. Officials said their website will be updated as more information becomes available.

The lawsuit also imperils, at least temporarily, what is arguably Texas Republicans’ top priority this year — cutting property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott made big promises this year to use a record $33 billion surplus to deliver tax cuts to Texas property owners — who, largely because the state doesn’t have an income tax, pay some of the highest property tax bills in the nation, according to the conservative Tax Foundation.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Republican who championed the policy in the Legislature, could not be immediately reached for comment.

After months of infighting among the state’s top GOP leaders over how exactly to make those cuts, lawmakers greenlit an $18 billion tax-cut package aimed at driving down school taxes, the biggest chunk of property taxes. Voters signed off on the measure, dubbed Proposition 4, at the November ballot box by a wide margin — 83% of voters in favor, 17% against.

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The package includes $12.7 billion in new tax cuts. Of that, $7.1 billion is slated to go to school districts so they can replace local tax revenues with state dollars. The proposition also gives a significant boost to Texas’ main tax break for homeowners: the state’s homestead exemption on school district taxes, the slice of a home’s value that can’t be taxed to pay for public schools.

Those cuts will tally up to more than $2,500 in tax savings over the next two years for the typical Texas homeowner, according to figures provided by Bettencourt’s office, which nets out to a little more than $100 a month. Seniors who are homeowners are expected to get bigger savings.

The lawsuit also jeopardizes a slate of other tax changes in Proposition 4, including a new cap on how much certain businesses’ property values, which helps determine an owner’s tax bill, can grow each year. The proposition also expands the pool of businesses that don’t have to pay the state’s franchise tax — and allows voters in counties with at least 75,000 residents to choose three new members of their local appraisal districts’ board of directors, which are appointed positions.

Who is suing and what are the claims

At least two of the six nearly identical lawsuits were filed by Jarrett Woodward of Bexar County. Woodward has in the past year spoken in front of county commissioners in Kerr, Uvalde, Medina, and Bexar counties trying to persuade them to ditch electronic voting equipment and to hand count ballots instead.

In the lawsuits, Woodward argues the voting equipment used in the Nov. 7 election was not properly certified and that “the ballot marking devices similar to those that Contestants were forced to use for voting in 2023 contain multiple severe security flaws including the opportunity to install malicious software locally or remotely.”

Voting machines used in Texas by vendors ES&S and Hart InterCivic have been certified by the Texas Secretary of State and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Neither the machines used to cast ballots nor the machines used to count ballots have the capability to connect to the internet. The process to certify election equipment in Texas is robust: After vendors submit an application for certification, state officials physically examine the equipment and test its accuracy.

Last year, Woodward and others filed similar lawsuits against multiple county officials across the state for using voting equipment they say is not certified; at least seven were dismissed and the others have yet to succeed. Similar unfounded claims have been made in other states across the country.

Woodward did not respond to Votebeat’s request for comment.

Woodward was part of a long lineup of speakers — including Mark Cook and Tina Peters of Colorado — who spread election conspiracy theories at an event in Kerrville in August and have ties to MyPillow CEO and well-known election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, an ally of former president Donald Trump. Cook is connected to clerks who have tried to illegally obtain access to voting systems. Peters is a former Mesa County Colorado clerk who was indicted last year on felony and misdemeanor charges related to election equipment tampering after she allowed unauthorized people break into her county’s election system in hopes of finding evidence of fraud.

Joshua Fechter at the Texas Tribune contributed reporting for this story.

Natalia Contrerars covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org

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