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Harris County judge says pre-school funding proposal will not be on ballot

Monday, August 26, 2013

the beginning of another school year, controversy continues over funding for early education.

A proposal for an initiative involving extra funding for early childhood education in Harris County appears headed for a legal battle.

Advocates of "Early to Rise" petitioned to get a bond measure on the November ballot that would pay for enhanced pre-school programs with millions of taxpayer dollars.

But despite tens and thousands of signatures in support, voters may never see that measure at the polls.

Almost nobody would argue against the value of an early education, enhancing what preschoolers learn across Harris County with the benefit of millions of dollars. More than 80,000 registered voters signed petitions through a group called Early to Rise, saying they'd be willing to a pay a penny-higher tax to fund it through the Harris County Department of Education to a private, tax-exempt foundation of sorts. And they want to vote on it, but it may not make the ballot in November.

"This is the strangest public policy issue in my career, and I think most people who have touched it, frankly, would say the same thing," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Emmett says Early to Rise wants to raise the tax through an arcane law, and though the signatures are legal and the law valid, the language on the petition isn't legal. He can't change it, and so voters can't vote on it.

"If you change the ballot language, then that's not what the people signed, so that creates an invalid election also," Emmett said.

The judge says he's spent two months consulting with attorneys and education experts about the proposed tax and the ballot language. He says that, whether or not he's for the tax increase, this was about the law.

That is exactly why Early to Rise is filing a lawsuit.

"The law we believe is clear. This is not a discretionary obligation," Attorney Richard Mithoff said.

Mithoff says this is too important an issue to postpone, and voters should get their say before the issue is settled, whether or not the language on the petition fits legal guidelines.

"Once the requisite number of signatures were placed on the petition, the county judge, according to statute, shall place the matter on the ballot," Mithoff said.

Find Tom on Facebook at TomAbrahams or on Twitter at @tomabrahams

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