Not for this we don’t, anyway.
Less than five months ago, the future of the Astrodome seemed to be more secure than it has been in the decades since it hosted its last Astros game, with Harris County commissioners moving forward on a massive renovation project they said would usher in festivals, conferences and commercial development to the aging stadium.
Now, that future again might be getting hazier. Veteran state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Friday he plans to introduce legislation next week that would require the county to hold a referendum on its $105 million project to raise the floor of the stadium and create 1,400 parking spaces, a move many thought would be its saving grace.
Citing concerns about how the county is spending taxpayer dollars, Whitmire’s move is the latest in a series of skirmishes over the stadium, the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium for sporting events. It comes more than three years after voters rejected a $217 million proposal to turn the Dome into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space, which many believed doomed it to demolition.
“I’m trying to allow the public to have a vote, the taxpayers to have a vote, before we spend over $100 million on the Dome with no stated purpose,” Whitmire said.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed repurposing the Dome and was one of the chief advocates of the $105 million plan, said Friday that Whitmire’s proposal “risks derailing” that solution, which he called a “fiscally prudent decision.”
“The Dome is a vexing issue,” he said. “But to me, it’s an asset.”
Emmett said he had not heard about Whitmire’s plans to file the bill before Friday.
“It’s a little unusual for a legislator to file a piece of legislation that affects a specific piece of property that’s totally paid for,” Emmett said. “I have never heard of that before. It’s also unusual to have legislation filed directly that tells a county how tooperate without talking to the county.”
The exact language of Whitmire’s bill, which he said he is calling the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, will not be finalized until it is filed next week. He said it would be worded to target projects like the Astrodome that had been targeted by referenda in the past. He said it had “broad bipartisan support.”
Gov. Dan Patrick could not be reached for comment. But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick confidante and Houston Republican, said he supports Whitmire’s proposal.
“It’s a good idea,” Bettencourt said. “We had a referendum. The vote was no. Everyone was promised they would not use property tax money in that project. And now that’s effectively what they’re proposing to do.”
Whitmire also said: “I just think it’s a very hazardous way and irresponsible way to deal with taxpayer monies.”
He said he took issue with different components of the funding, saying that some of the funds used for the $105 million project could also be used for other facilities, like NRG Stadium.
See here and here for some background. I do not support this bill, whatever winds up being in it. We require a vote when a government entity like Harris County wants the authority to borrow money via bonds, which was the case with that $217 million proposition from 2013. We do not require a vote on individual budget items, any more than we require a vote on (say) the county’s budget as a whole. We elect people to write those budgets, and if we don’t like the way they do it we can vote them out. Requiring a vote for how a county government spends county money is a gross incursion on local control, which is something we’re already had way too much of. I will not support this.
Now to be sure, part of the problem here is that the stakes of that 2013 referendum were never made clear. “The people rejected this specific plan that was put forward to rehab the Dome” and “The people rejected the idea of rehabbing the Dome and want it demolished instead” are both valid interpretations of that vote. Commissioners Court and Judge Emmett did not communicate to the public what their intentions were if that referendum was voted down as it was, and as a result we have been in a state of confusion since. Many ideas continue to be put forth for the Dome, which has since gained Historical Antiquity status, making demolition that much harder to do if that’s what we wanted to do. There’s no clear consensus. That may be the best argument for requiring a vote, but it’s still a violation of local control, and any such election would occur in either a low-turnout context (as in this November) or one where it was overshadowed by other campaigns, as would be the case next year. I say let Commissioners Court move forward with what they are doing, and if you don’t like it take a lesson from your friends and neighbors who are busy raising their voices on many other issues and tell the Court what you think. Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work? Swamplot has more.