I have three things to say about this.
The city of Houston has been papering over multimillion-dollar budget deficits for nine years by borrowing money, tapping its rainy day fund, selling buildings and just plain putting off bills to the future, according to city finance officials.
This year, Mayor Annise Parker has pledged not to rely on the patches of the past. She has little choice. The city has spent nearly as much of its rainy day fund as it can without affecting the city’s credit rating. Parker does not support continued borrowing to meet pension obligations. And the mayor learned a difficult lesson last year when she included the sale of city buildings in the budget only to see a $20 million hole emerge when the sales did not come off as planned.
Parker may be able to tap an emerging political will to bring income and spending into balance. There are seven new council members.
One of them, District A’s Helena Brown, has raised eyebrows with her no votes on spending items that previously sailed through council.
“By voting me into office this past election, the voters were mandating that the city have a serious dialogue on its spending habits,” Brown said. “My expectations are simple: Balance the budget and end irresponsible spending.”
Two returning council members have political incentives to act as budget hawks as they seek higher office. And all of the re-elected council members signed off on last year’s creation of the task force, which culminated with this month’s stern warning from Chairman Mike Nichols: “We have no option but to take action and make decisions. … This is not a time to kick the can down the road.”
1. CM Brown’s definition of “irresponsible” spending is “spending with which she does not agree”. This is a very common feature among self-proclaimed “deficit hawks”. The two are not equivalent.
2. One of the two returning Council members who is running for another office is CM Wanda Adams, who is challenging State Rep. Alma Allen in the Democratic primary for HD131. I haven’t interviewed CM Adams yet, so I can’t say with certainty about how she intends to position herself in that race, but speaking as a Democrat I feel reasonably confident that in the first election after Rick Perry and the Republicans in the Legislature imposed savage cuts on public education and many other things that the electorate she faces will not be terribly impressed by boasts and promises of even more austerity.
3. For all of the tough talk about pensions, it remains the case that approximately two thirds of the city’s non-capital budget goes to police, fire, and emergency services. Last year, I interviewed thirty-eight candidates for city office. I don’t recall any of them saying that they intended to cut spending on any of that. Most of them, including quite a few who spoke at great length about the need to cut spending, declared that portion of the budget to be off limits, with some others suggesting that we needed to spend more on those services. If there’s an “emerging political will” to act differently in this budget, it’s not apparent to me.