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Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.

[…]

The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

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10 Comments

  1. Joshua ben bullard says:

    In a single day,Sylvester Turner entertained a line of big taxi family members ,one by one handing over campaign checks for 5000$ each,Turner swears these monies insure good government policy but the record shows that every single taxi decision turners made has been in favor of big taxi and the severe disadvantage of the houstonians,Turners vision to nowhere is evident, makes perfect sense to me he wouldn’t want to swat a hornet’s nest come election time.

  2. Good political decision on his part. However, lets all remember that City Revenues are going up and up. The only thing we are debating here is how much we want to allow the City’s Revenues to go up year over year. Some people (progressives) would like to give as much money as they can to the government so the government can take care of us. Some people (the rest of us) would like to keep as much money as we can. An age old battle. For instance if you think we should be more like Greece or Venezuela that is fine it is not a heaven or hell issue.

  3. Wake us up when Michael Kubosh puts ideas on a website.

    It’s obvious Paul Kubosh doesn’t know the legal and financial differences between countries.

    So many dinosaurs, so few ideas

  4. Steve Houston says:

    People have an endless list of demands, even those regressives some call tea baggers. Every single demand has a price tag attached and most costs have increased over time. A friend pointed out just the other day how regressives demand the most expensive city services (more police and fire) while progressives demands, as a percentage of city budgets, tends to be modest by comparison. I’m not sure if I completely agree but those who want to pay HFD 20% more and/or want another 500 cops sure put a lot more pressure on the budget than those who want the city buying renewable power (marginal difference in price) or some additional park space.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    The city shouldn’t be adding anything that costs money to upkeep. The city can’t pay for what it has now, yet it need more parks, bike paths, trees, etc?

    They also should put a moratorium on new hires, police and fire included. Hire only to keep up with attrition. Houston needs to go on a long term austerity program to dig out from years of overpromising pensions.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, I agree with you that the city shouldn’t add expenses that require additional maintenance costs and it should reject demands by small/vocal groups to add amenities while core services are not completely covered. The thing is, expenses like pension costs that the city deferred for so long were not in excess of other governmental bodies, merely the scapegoat accounts because they were not immediately noticeable to the public.

    And your comment regarding hiring displays a lack of knowledge on the topic, it took the city over ten years to catch up from the attrition caused by previous pension cuts, the latest numbers not in just yet regarding the impact this year’s cuts have had. Becky and Mike over at the Chronicle have documented that at least two to three times the usual number of retirements have taken place with the cops in the city’s fiscal year that just ended, all while an academy class had to be cut due to city council’s demands to increase their yearly slush funds. HFD has been said to have many more retirements as well though specific numbers have yet to be provided, the belief was that many held out in hopes that one of their failed measures might prevail (as yet, they have lost on every front but their fight isn’t over just yet). The brain drain has been felt in other city departments, mostly in areas where technical expertise allows employees to find a better position elsewhere, but you’ll only hear about that when something goes wrong in the future.

    What the city needs to do is to cut expenses since moving forward, each of the next several years shows projected deficits. Instead of deferring expenses other than pensions, the Houston Zoo comes to mind with over $5 million in deferments this year, the city needs to completely remove such spending from it’s books to complete the privatization. Then it needs to find areas of service duplication with the county for further savings (not just try to shuffle costs off to the other body), find corporate sponsorship’s for various parks, and contracting out as needed to save where it can.

  7. Bill Daniels says:

    Steve,

    Austerity means every department takes a hit. When. We start making exceptions, we get…..in the red. Will people die with less police and fire? Probably. It is what it is.

  8. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, I actually agree with you but then again, one of the campaign promises was for 500 more new cops on the street. Like Charles, I have existing concerns regarding the way that department is run and I’m not sure more=better but when an extra 500 leave, history teaches us that they just don’t have the capacity to train that many in the near future. For their firemen counterparts, maybe they can adopt a less aggressive fire suppression strategy while rescinding the 4 men on a truck ordinance, simply waiting for additional trucks to arrive to fight the increasingly rare fires they get called to while leaving the EMS portion of their department alone, it comprising over 80% of their calls for help.

  9. Terrible decision. Paying for the pension bailout WITHOUT lifting the revenue cap will starve other parts of the city budget for funding. Meanwhile police funding is determined through the meet-and-confer agreement outside the city budget process. So that part of the budget will continue to rise, to the detriment of every other aspect of city government.

    I’m surprised you don’t “think Mayor Turner did anything wrong.” This is a blatantly bad idea, capitulating to people who basically don’t believe in math. I’d want to see the underlying budget projections, but at first blush, I’m tempted to say the pension bonds should be voted down if the Mayor doesn’t reverse course.

  10. Steve Houston says:

    Scott/Grits, apparently you are unaware that the pension deal as a whole is largely revenue neutral and if the pension bonds are voted down, all cuts to police and municipal pensions are removed. I’m curious where you came up with the idea that either the police or municipal meet-and-confer agreements are “outside the city budget process” since any raises for either group come with financial projections of fiscal impact but then you’re better versed in Austin area topics, yes?

    Both the HOPE and cop contracts expire next year (June 30 and December, respectively) just as HFD’s expired last month but they are always factored into the city budget process that takes place each spring. So if you have your way, the cops will get a 25% boost in compensation with restored pension benefits and those with HFD will be SOL…

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