UT-Austin medical school plans continue despite lawsuit


University officials remain unconcerned as a group of Travis County residents gear up to bring a lawsuit in state court challenging the tax increase that will fund UT’s new medical school. 

Proposition 1, passed by 55 percent of Austin voters in the Nov. 6, 2012 election, calls for a property tax increase of nearly 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The tax increase is projected to bring in $35 million annually for UT’s new medical school, and was proposed by Central Health, Travis County’s health care district. 

In October 2012, the Travis County Taxpayers Union, founded by Don Zimmerman, filed a lawsuit with two other Austin residents against Central Health in federal district court. According to the complaint, the lawsuit sought to invalidate the proposition on the grounds that it violated the Voting Rights Act, because the language could have been confusing to minority voters. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the lawsuit Jan. 31 after the plaintiffs filed for dismissal in order to bring the suit to state court.

President William Powers Jr. said UT is continuing with its current plans to build the school regardless of the upcoming suit.

“The University of Texas at Austin is actively working to establish a medical school — finding the right people, supporting the right decisions and building the right facilities,” Powers said. “A federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit challenging the November election. We will continue to respect this and all future judicial rulings as we move ahead.”

Zimmerman said language regarding the proposition on the November ballot too heavily advocated the positive outcomes of the tax increase.

“It’s such a dishonest thing to indulge in a ballot that nobody could possibly disagree with,” Zimmerman said. “They didn’t tell you the opposition — there are a lot of risks to corruption in the medical system.”

Stephen Casey, attorney for plaintiffs Don Zimmerman and the Travis County Taxpayers Union, said they filed to dismiss their own suit in federal district court in order to refile in state court.

“We are prepping a suit for state court,” Casey said. “We filed a plaintiff motion to dismiss — it was not any decision by the court to dismiss the case, and so stepping forward from that we think it will be more appropriate to file in state court.”

Casey said the plaintiffs will no longer be suing under the Voting Rights Act, and instead plan to argue that Central Health violated the Texas statute regarding election protocol and ballot language for propositions.

“Organizations and communities are allowed to create a health care district but it’s limited in scope,” Casey said. “You’re not allowed to cheerlead or advocate for a proposition [in the ballot language]. We think that they did not follow the law. If they did follow the law and it went through, then we wouldn’t have a case, but they didn’t.”

Central Health’s attorney Jim Cousar said the claims made by the Taxpayers Union are invalid and are actually wasting taxpayer dollars by taking Central Health to court.

“We were pleased to see the lawsuit dismissed,” Cousar said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Anyone with $160 can file a lawsuit in state court and say anything they want to. There’s no valid claim they can bring anything.”

Published on February 8, 2013 as "Med school plans progress despite suit".