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October 18th, 2017:

Interview with Jasmine Jenkins of Houstonians for Great Public Schools

For obvious reasons, there’s going to be a lot of focus on HISD, both in the next year as the district recovers from Harvey and tries to fend off a takeover by the Texas Education Agency, and going forward, as these issues and others may fade but will never go away. The Board of Trustees will be very different than the one that was inaugurated after the 2015 election, and could be very different than the one we have right now. There’s been a lot of scrutiny on the HISD Board lately, due in part to concerns (expressed by multiple candidates in the interviews I’ve done) that the Board has not been very effective or collaborative lately. One group keeping an eye on this is Houstonians for Great Public Schools, whose mission is “to increase public understanding of the roles and responsibilities of school board members and to hold members accountable for high performance”. I had the chance to speak with their Executive Director, Jasmine Jenkins, about what that means and what they hope to accomplish. (If the name Jasmine Jenkins sounds familiar, I interviewed her last year when she was running for the Democratic nomination in SBOE 6.) Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all the interviews I’ve done as well as information about candidates and races at my Election 2017 page.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

Abbott loses nativity lawsuit

Merry secular Christmas!

A federal judge ruled against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision two years ago to remove a mock Nativity display from the Texas Capitol that advocated the separation and church state.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled late Friday that Abbott “violated [the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s] clearly established First Amendment right to be free from viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum.”

It all started in late 2015 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed a “winter solstice” display in the Capitol basement. The exhibit featured a cardboard cutout of the nation’s founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty looking down at the Bill of Rights in a manger.

Abbott ordered its removal, calling it a “juvenile parody” and writing that the “Constitution does not require Texas to allow displays in its Capitol that violate general standards of decency and intentionally disrespect the beliefs and values of many of our fellow Texans.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the decision. The FFRF press release sums up:

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, ruled that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Day, in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The display, depicting founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator.

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

“Defendants have justified removal of FFRF’s exhibit by arguing the exhibit’s satirical tone rendered it offensive to some portion of the population. That is viewpoint discrimination,” writes Sparks in a 24-page ruling. The court also held that a reasonable official in Governor Abbott’s position would have known that removing FFRF’s display based on its viewpoint would violate FFRF’s First Amendment rights, thus FFRF can sue Governor Abbott in his personal capacity.

“It is ‘beyond debate’ the law prohibits viewpoint discrimination in a limited public forum,” Sparks ruled.

Sparks did not find that Abbott’s actions violated the Establishment Clause, but also ruled in FFRF’s favor that FFRF has the right to depose the governor for one hour. Abbott had fought the request for a deposition.

I’ve read the decision and I’m a bit unclear as to what the deposition is about, but I believe it’s because there is an ongoing claim over Abbott violating FFRF’s free speech rights. I’m sure there will be appeals, so one way or another, this isn’t over. It is a reminder that if you’re going to allow religious-themed displays that you like on government property, you’re going to have to allow religious-themed displays that you don’t like. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, if you want to go digging for it. Trail Blazers has more.