This arrived in my inbox a couple of days ago:
With only two weeks to go, we really need your help! We are working to get an initiative on the ballot in November 2013 to fund the Early to Rise Program.
The Early to Rise is a program designed to help young children up to age 5 get ready for Kindergarten through increasing the quality of early childhood education in Harris County. Here’s how you can help:
1. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!
2. Get the petition, sign it, complete it and pass it around among your friends and coworkers who are registered voters in Harris County. Then MAIL it back or CALL US (713-614-8812) and we’ll pick it up!
3 Vote for the program on November 5th, 2013.
Early to Rise Flyer (more Information on the program)
Early to Rise Petition (the Petition itself)
Petition Instructions (more instructions on the petition)
You can mail signed petitions to:
Texans Together Educational Fund
P.O. Box 1296
Houston, Texas 77251
It’s time to stand up for toddlers in Harris County and we can on the November ballot!
Ed Emmett should have been one of the first people to find out about a petition drive seeking to put a penny tax on the November ballot to improve early childhood education and teacher training in Harris County.
After all, as county judge, he’s the guy the petition directs to place the tax increase generating $25 million a year on the ballot.
But Emmett got the news from another source: “Gwen, my wife, comes in and says ‘I just got an e-mail asking me to sign a petition to the county judge.’ And I’m going ‘what?’ Obviously, I didn’t know anything about it.”
While the lack of heads-up signaled disorganization to Emmett, it was the petition’s reliance on an antiquated state law, the unchecked administrative role of a private nonprofit, and the requirement that the tax be collected by the politically controversial Harris County Department of Education that led Emmett to brand the initiative a “fiasco.”
“This has been handled politically about as poorly as any issue I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told me a few weeks ago in a phone interview.
I followed up this week to see if this thinking had “evolved” since he’s been able to talk with interested parties.
Yes, he told me. He’d gone from being “bemused and bewildered” to a point where he now says unflinchingly: “What they’re trying to do is just nutty. I can’t put it any other way. And I totally support doing everything we can for early childhood education. It’s put me in a real awkward situation.”
Falkenberg noted that there was going to be an open house by Early To Rise, the group behind this effort, on Friday. The Chron covered that as well, including an appearance by Judge Emmett, attending on his own.
The newly formed nonprofit Harris County School Readiness Corp., with the help of a variety of organizations and paid canvassers, has gathered about 40,000 of the 78,000 petition signatures it says it needs to require Emmett to put a 1-cent property tax hike on the upcoming election ballot. The increase would generate $25 million a year for a program called “Early to Rise,” designed to improve child-care centers in the county serving children up to age 5 by training teachers and buying school supplies.
“There’s been an outpouring of support,” said Jonathan Day, a member of the corporation’s board and a former Houston city attorney, expressing optimism the group will meet its mid-August deadline.
The statutes say Emmett would have to call an election to increase the property tax rate of the Harris County Department of Education if he receives a petition with a sufficient number of signatures.
Emmett said he has asked the county attorney’s office for an opinion on the petitioning laws and plans to ask the state attorney general for the same. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office has concluded that the laws are “still applicable” but that the final opinion may not reflect that “in light of a whole lot of statutes that apply to this situation.”
Day conceded the laws no longer are codified but says they still apply.
“We hope that he’ll reconsider,” said Day, who criticized Emmett for not offering an alternative to the proposal on Friday when his group, whose membership includes former Houston first lady Andrea White, held its first formal information session at the United Way of Greater Houston, which co-hosted the event with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and the Center for Houston’s Future.
“I think we have to come up with a better answer,” said Emmett, who went to the session to share his position with the dozens of attendees.
I really don’t know what to make of all this. I support doing everything we can for early childhood education, too, but I understand Judge Emmett’s concerns. The likelihood of a lawsuit, whatever County Attorney Vince Ryan and AG Greg Abbott say about the law in question, is basically 100%. There are still questions about governance of this program, if it comes to be; HCDE Board of Trustees Chair Angie Chesnut has said she can’t support it if HCDE doesn’t get to name at least one member of the corporation. Judge Emmett has pointed out that the one penny tax increase in the plan would make what HCDE levies exceed its statutory maximum, which will likely be another lawsuit magnet. There’s just so many questions to be answered. The goal of universal early learning programs is laudable and worthwhile. The path to get there has been strange, to say the least.
All questions about this aside, the fact remains that as with the New Dome Experience plan, petitions would have to be collected and certified in time for the item to be placed on the November ballot. They have a bit more time since Commissioners Court won’t be involved, but the signatures still need to be verified, and that takes time. The information is there if you want to participate, or go to the Early To Rise Facebook page for more. If this gets to the ballot, will you vote for it? Leave a comment and let me know.