Although it has appeared that there are three petition drives collecting signatures to stop the University Medical Center of the El Paso (UMC) from issuing non-voter approved debt on September 12, it now appears that there are two ongoing drives collecting signatures. As we previously reported, Vince Perez filed an assumed name certificate for El Paso Petition Drive to Oppose Property Tax Increase on July 7. Also, former city representative Michiel Noe filed paperwork creating a specific-purpose committee (SPAC) called the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government. There is also the petition drive led by El Paso’s chapter of the Libre Initiative.

El Paso News can now confirm that there are two active petition drives opposing the UMC debt. The first is Noe’s SPAC and the second one is the Libre petition. The El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government has sent out a mailer to El Paso voters asking them to sign the petition and return it.

El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government SPAC mailout envelope.

Karla Sierra’s group, on the other hand, is collecting signatures by canvassing. It is unknown how many signatures have been collected by either group.

According to the Texas Code (271.049) the groups collecting the signatures must collect the signatures of “at least five percent of the qualified voters of the issuer protesting the issuance of the certificates.” (271.046-5c) According to the County Elections Department, there are 502,501 registered voters in the county as of this morning. To be successful, the petition organizers must collect at least 25,126 signatures of registered voters. If the number of registered voters increases on September 12, then the signatures must equal 5% of the new number of registered voters on that date.

Other Certificate of Obligation Petitions

Although Texas government taxing entities can bypass the voters and issue public debt without voter approval through certificates of obligation (COs), Texas law provides a mechanism for voters to stop the issuance of the certificates of obligations by collecting and submitting signatures before the vote to issue the debt is taken. In the case of the UMC debt, the county commissioners are scheduled to vote on the debt on September 12. The petition organizers must submit their signatures by then to stop the issuance of the UMC COs.

The citizens of Kerrville collected signatures in 2011 to try to stop their city council from issuing COs without their consent. Their effort failed when only 642 signatures were submitted and only 536 were certified as valid. The petition leaders needed 695 valid signatures to stop the issuance of the debt. [1]

However, the citizens of Farmers Branch successfully stopped their city council from issuing $10 million in non-voter approved debt through a petition drive in 2020. Farmers Branch city council wanted to build a new library, which voters rejected on a two to one margin. Unable to build a new library, the city council attempted to issue COs to renovate one of the existing libraries. [2]

In response, Farmers Branch citizens collected 1,000 signatures in six weeks. The organizers successfully stopped their city council from issuing the COs, but offered the advice to other petition organizers, to collect extra signatures “in case some were disqualified (they were) or the number of registered voters increased (it did).” [3]

Following the experience of the Farmers Branch, El Paso’s petition organizers should collect more than the 25,000 they have announced that they are collecting.

Farmers Branch Petition Organizers

Both the El Paso petition organizers and the Farmers Branch organizers argue the same thing about why they are collecting signatures. It is not the debt they oppose, but rather they want the choice to vote on it. In the case of UMC, there remains confusion over how much it will cost El Paso’s taxpayers.

The True Cost Of The UMC Proposed Debt

To understand the true cost of UMC’s proposed debt we need to examine the legally required notice that UMC must provide the voters of its intent to issue the non-voter approved debt.

Publicly, UMC’s position is that they will be issuing additional public debt in the amount of $346 million. Which is technically correct. However, the true cost of debt is estimated to be $685,760,337, or almost $686 million, assuming their model for the interest remains valid when the COs are issued. Interest rates continue to rise because of the current economy.

More important is that UMC’s current debt load is $318 million, not accounting for the interest it accrues. Adding the interest cost, the total taxpayer-funded debt that UMC currently holds is about $514.3 million.

If UMC is allowed to issue the COs it is requesting, the total debt would be over $1 billion. ($1,200,125,940)

UMC Public Notice

These figures come directly from UMC’s own analysis. Not only does the proposed COs more than doubles the debt UMC is currently carrying but taxpayers will also be paying for the proposed COs through September 30, 2047. Should the two petition drives be successful, UMC would have to ask the voters for authority to issue the public debt. But there seems to be an issue with one of the petition drives.

Compliance Issues

El Paso News contacted the Texas Ethics Commission after questions were raised about possible violations of the political advertising required under the Texas Ethics Commission. We were pointed by the Texas Ethics Commission to its Political Advertising document. According to the document, “Texas Election Code requires certain disclosures and notices on political advertising.” [4]

In the case of the two petition drives, they fall under the provision of “express advocacy.” According to the Ethic’s document, “a disclosure statement is required” when “a political committee authorizes political advertising.” Political advertising includes communications “supporting or opposing…a measure (a ballot proposition).” [5]

The petitions opposing UMC’s debt are considered a ballot proposition.

There are currently two petition efforts underway. [6] One is led by Karla Sierra and the other is led by the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government. It is the latter that seems to be missing the required disclosures.

Sierra’s group has the necessary disclosures.

The required notice on Libre’s petition on the left of the notice on the door hangers used by Libre on the right.

However, the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government seems to be missing the required language.

Copy of the Responsible Government SPAC mailout.

Although the mailout sent out by the Responsible Government group includes the name of the SPAC and of Vince Perez’ assumed name, it does not contain the specific language “political advertising.” The Texas Ethics Commission identifies political communication as “express advocacy” when it “advocates the passage or defeat of a measure, such as a bond election,” as the petition drive does. [7]

The Ethics Commission notes that “the words ‘political advertising’ or a recognizable abbreviation such as ‘pol. Adv.’,” and the “full name” of the “specific-purpose committee supporting” the measure must be included. One exception the Texas Ethics Commission offers is that the communication costs less than $500 to create and mailout. [8]

It is unknown how many mailouts the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government has mailed. But assuming that they are seeking to collect 25,000 signatures it can be assumed that at least that amount was mailed. Including postage, both to mail and for the return postage-paid envelope and the cost to create the mailout, we can extrapolate a cost of between $8,000 and $22,000 to send the mailout.

This is clearly over $500.

However, the question is, is the lack of the required disclosure sufficient to derail the petition drive? Failure to add the political notice will not cause the signatures to be rejected. The Texas Ethics Commission can fine the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government for failing to properly disclose it is a political advertising, but only if a complaint is filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

However, two organizations “working towards the same goal but not in conjunction with each other” [9] brings up the question of whether the two signature drives can be combined to meet the required threshold to stop the county commissioners from approving the UMC debt request.

Can The Two Signature Drives Be Combined?

For example, if one group collects 14,000 signatures and the other collects 18,000 signatures, can the two be combined to total 32,000 signatures? The first problem are duplicate signatures. Since it appears that the two groups are not working together then it is likely that the same voter can sign the two petitions duplicating signatures. Although an examination of the two sets of petitions can remove duplicates along with invalid signatures, the lack coordination unnecessarily burdens the certification of the signatures.

The more important question is whether the District Clerk will accept the two sets of signatures as one set, or will they be accepted as two separate signature drives. If they are accepted as two separate sets of the signatures, then the question becomes, can the two sets be combined to create one set to meet the threshold? At this point it is unknown whether the two sets can be combined as one valid set of signatures to stop the UMC debt. This will likely lead to litigation if the signatures are challenged by voters supporting the issuance of the UMC debt.

Editor’s note: El Paso News would like to thank our team of researchers who quietly toil unnamed making the necessary phone calls and gathering the information we use for our reports. Without their invaluable help this would not be possible.

Martín Paredes became a partner of Politico Campaigns, a political campaign management firm, in June 2022. The views and opinion expressed in our publication are those of Paredes and do not necessarily represent the views of the firm or its other partners. El Paso News is funded primarily by Paredes, in part by donations from readers and online advertisement. Politico Campaigns plays no role in our reporting. El Paso News has an open editorial policy encouraging any author to submit any article from any point of view for consideration to be published on El Paso News.

Footnotes:

  1. Kerrville Texas Regular Meetings City Council Minutes, December 13, 2011, agenda item no. 4.
  2. Erin Anderson, “Citizens Stop City From Issuing Debt Without Voter Approval,” Texas Scorecard, September 18, 2020, https://texasscorecard.com/local/citizens-stop-city-from-issuing-debt-without-voter-approval/.
  3. Anderson, “Citizens Stop City.”
  4. Political Advertising, Texas Ethics Commission, July 16, 2019, title page.
  5. Political Advertising, Texas Ethics Commission, July 16, 2019, 1.
  6. Karla Y. Sierra, Email to author on August 9, 2022.
  7. Political Advertising, Texas Ethics Commission, July 16, 2019, 2.
  8. Political Advertising, Texas Ethics Commission, July 16, 2019, 2.
  9. Karla Y. Sierra, Email to author on August 9, 2022.

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Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.

2 replies on “One UMC Petition Drive Lacks Required Disclosure Other Meets Requirements”

  1. The Texas Ethics Commission identifies political communication as “express advocacy” when it “advocates the passage or defeat of a measure, such as a bond election,” as the petition drive does.

    There is no measure or bond election here that anyone can advocate for or against so how does this petition effort meet that criteria of “express advocacy?”

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