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State of the county 2015: Please cooperate more

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett makes his eighth State if the County address.

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

In his eighth State of the County address, Emmett had choice words for both Austin – which is weighing a reduction in property taxes that form the backbone of county revenue – and for Houston – which has adopted a strategy of limited annexations of suburban areas but Emmett said will not adequately provide for its poor.

“County government must have the tools and resources necessary to improve those areas because I do not see a scenario in which the city steps up and improves the situation,” Emmett said at NRG Stadium to several hundred business leaders brought together by the Greater Houston Partnership.

A city spokeswoman said the limited annexations were two-sided agreements with utility districts, not city land-grabs.

Emmett nevertheless called for a “new model of urban governance” that would work for a booming unincorporated Harris County that is becoming increasingly urbanized. The county judge expressed concern that the unincorporated part of the county could struggle to provide health care for its indigent and build roads and railways for its economy.

Harris County, which soon will have more people living in these unincorporated areas than in Houston, has been mischaracterized by outside groups and policy makers as merely an urban core, Emmett said.

The city’s governance plan has included limited-purpose annexation of unincorporated areas. Those agreements strip suburban areas of possible revenue, and Emmett said he was prepared to spend some political capital to fight the city as it tries to bring neighboring areas into its jurisdiction.

“Suburbs and close-in areas that have been skipped over are struggling,” Emmett said. “For lack of a better term, suburban blight is staring us in the face.”

Equally menacing, Emmett said, is a state government that looks to implement “arbitrary limits” on the revenue or spending of the county, which is an arm of the state. While he supports lower taxes, Emmett derided proposed property tax caps Friday as merely “good sound bites.”

The state also should take some responsibility for health care for the indigent and the mentally ill, Emmett said, rather than relying solely on county resources.

“Should indigent health care really be a responsibility solely of the county?” Emmett asked. “Or is it time for the state to establish regional health care systems that support public and private clinics, hospitals and programs?”

Here’s the full text of Judge Emmett’s address. Just as a reminder, expanding Medicaid (which Judge Emmett supports) would go a long way towards addressing those needs. I don’t know enough about the annexation issue to have a strong opinion about it, but I wonder if going back to doing more full annexations might be a better way forward. As for the threat to the county’s revenue stream coming from Austin, the main problem there is too many Republicans in Austin that don’t really care about governing but are there to implement an ideological agenda. The Judge’s suggestion is for more November voters to get involved in the primaries. That may help, but I’d point out they could also make some different choices in November, too. Anyway, the end of the speech was about the Astrodome and the ULI plan for it. Whatever else happens, here’s hoping that gets some traction.

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One Comment

  1. Charly Hoarse says:

    Ed Emmett is one official that qualifies me as a split-ticket voter.