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bond referendum

More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

Through at least two-dozen public meetings across the county’s watersheds, County Judge Ed Emmett said residents have a crucial role to play as they provide feedback for the projects they think most will benefit their neighborhoods.

“As that comes in, Flood Control can make adjustments,” Emmett said. “You could have some projects just completely dropped. You could have some projects added we hadn’t thought about.”

The bond vote is an all-or-nothing gamble by Commissioners Court, whose members hope residents will commit to strengthening flood infrastructure after Harvey flooded 11 percent of the county’s housing stock this past August. If the bond passes, Harris County will have access to as much as $2.5 billion to make, over the next 10 to 15 years, the largest local investment in flood infrasctructure in the county’s history. If the bond fails, engineers will be limited to the flood control district’s annual operations and capital budgets, which total a paltry $120 million in comparison.

“This is the most important local vote I can remember in my lifetime,” Emmett said. “We either step up as a community and say we are going to address flooding and make our community resilient, or we kind of drib and drabble on, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone.”

A preliminary list of projects includes $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Also included is $184 million, coupled with $552 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain – more than the flood control district’s buyout program has bought in its entire 33-year history.

The draft list includes $430 million — nearly a fifth of the total — for contingency funding and “opportunities identified through public input.”

[…]

The bond would not finance the construction of a third reservoir in west Houston, but does include $750,000 to study, with the Army Corps of Engineers, whether another reservoir is necessary.

Other line items call for de-silting channels that lead into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, or possibly providing funding to the Army Corps to remove silt and vegetation from the reservoirs. Addicks and Barker are managed by the Army Corps, not Harris County, leaving any decisions about the future of those basins in the hands of the federal government.

The flood control district plans to work through the summer on the list of projects the bond would fund, and Emmett has pledged to publish a complete list by the time early voting begins in August. Until then, Emmett said plans may continue to change based on input from residents.

See here for the background. The county has a lot of work to do to finalize what the to-do list is, and to educate voters about it. Of course, first they have to make sure that the voters even know this is on the ballot in the first place, in August, at a time when no one has cast a vote in recent memory. I’m going to keep harping on this, because while I understand the reasons for expediting the election, I remain skeptical that it was a wise idea. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It’s going to be fun trying to guess what turnout will be, I’ll say that much.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

You got something to say about the Harris County bond referendum?

You’ll get a chance to say it.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday announced a series of public meetings to seek input from residents on an estimated $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that commissioners plan to put before voters on the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in August.

“On August 25, the voters of Harris County will make one of the most important decisions, I think, in our history,” Emmett said.

Throughout June, July and August, the county will hold public meetings on the bond in each of the county’s 23 watersheds.

[…]

Flanked by Harris County Flood Control District head Russ Poppe, Emmett said the $2.5 billion sum is a ballpark figure, and projects may be added or subtracted before commissioners decide on a final amount on June 12.

Emmett said the county intends to publish a list of planned projects by the first week of August, when early voting on the bond begins.

An initial list of possible projects and information about the community meetings can be found at www.hcfcd.org/bondprogram.

See here for the background, and here for a list of the meetings that have been scheduled so far. There’s one for each watershed, though as you can see most are not yet on the calendar. There’s a lot we need to know about this, and just two months before we start voting on it, so find a meeting near you, learn what you can, and ask questions. We all need to know what we’re voting on.

HISD begins prep on a 2019 bond issue

Wait till next year.

Administrators on Thursday recommended Houston ISD seek voter approval for a $1.7 billion capital projects bond in May 2019, charging forward with long-term spending plans even as the district faces uncertainty about its leadership and ability to maintain local control over decision-making.

District leaders said the $1.7 billion bond would finance much-needed rebuilding of 18 existing elementary and middle schools, construction of three new campuses, security upgrades at all 280-plus schools and the purchase of new buses, among other costs. HISD administrators said it was unclear whether the proposed bond package would result in a tax increase, saying they will have a better idea when the Harris County Appraisal District finalizes property values in August.

HISD trustees would have to approve a measure to send the bond referendum to voters, with board members likely making a decision in late 2018 or early 2019. If approved, the bond would be HISD’s first since 2012, when 67 percent of voters backed a $1.89 billion package.

The 2019 proposal, however, could meet more resistance than usual amid ongoing upheaval in the district.

[…]

Houston ISD voters have approved four capital projects bonds since 1998, totaling $4.2 billion. In recent years, residents of school districts throughout the five-county Greater Houston area also have overwhelmingly supported large school bonds, passing 30 out of 31 packages that totaled at least $100 million.

Few districts, however, have sought bonds amid such turbulence.

“Comparing ourselves to surrounding districts, they’re not making national news for negative reasons right now, so we need to remember what the public opinion is of our district overall,” HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard said, referring to media coverage of last month’s school board meeting.

University of Houston political science Professor Richard Murray said the district’s more affluent voters, who turn out in higher numbers during off-year May elections, likely will be key to the referendum. Those voters traditionally have supported school bonds, but they also have seen their local tax bills dramatically rise in recent years as property values have gone up.

The district’s upheaval, Murray said, also makes it more challenging to win support for a bond.

“It’s obviously a loss to have this vacuum of a visible superintendent in place that could be the public face of the effort,” Murray said. “You’ve also got a board that’s made some headlines that are not particularly attractive. It’s not going to be an easy thing.”

HISD’s recommendation Thursday represented a shift from its first presentation about a potential bond in January, before all the tumult. At that time, HISD leaders discussed the possibility of a $500 million bond issue that would result in no tax increase, or a $1.2 billion bond that would come with an increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 in taxable value.

[HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian] Busby said the proposed bond amount has changed as district leaders further assessed campus and maintenance needs.

See here for more on what was presented in January. At that time, it looked like the goal was to get something on the November ballot, but like some other might-have-beens, that’s not what will happen. I don’t mind pushing this off till next year – I agree with everyone who says that a bit more time, as well as things like the hoped-for Harvey waiver, a new Superintendant, and a (hoped-for, again) return to normality will help their chances a lot – but I do object to doing it in May. Have it in November, when people expect to vote. The suggestion that May turnout levels would be better for this than November turnout levels is questionable to me, both as a logical proposition and as a matter of representative government. If we’re going to take the extra time to do this right, then do it all the way right. Campos, who sees a lot of obstacles ahead, has more.

Abbott approves August flood bond referendum

One more step forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday approved Harris County’s request to call a multi-billion-dollar bond election to pay for flood control measures on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

By state law, the county needed Abbott’s permission to call the “emergency special election” in spite of his oft-stated goal of reducing property taxes. The flood control bond package almost certainly will be accompanied by an increase in Harris County’s property tax rate.

Abbott granted the county’s request to put the issue to the voters, affirming his stated belief that responding to Harvey does “qualify as an emergency” and stating that he is “committed to working with Harris County to achieve its goals in the most efficient way possible.”

“As this request for an emergency special election was duly passed by a unanimous vote of the Harris County Commissioners Court, I hereby grant approval as governor of Texas for this emergency special election to be called for bonds to fund flood-related mitigation projects that respond to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott wrote in a letter accompanying his decision.

[…]

The county plans to launch a public outreach campaign to seek input on what to include in the bond package, as well as drum up support for the measure. [County Judge Ed] Emmett said the focus would be on helping the most people possible.

“The worst thing we can do is say, ‘Just give us money and trust us,’” Emmett said. “It’s got to be a very open, transparent process.”

See here for the background. Commissioners Court still has to officially call the election, which means they have to define what the issue covers and what the wording of the referendum will be. There’s stuff in the story about that, but we’re not really any farther along than the “well, we could have this and we could have that” stage yet. That will all work itself out one way or another.

I’m more interested in the politics of this. What will the county’s strategy be to sell people on this idea and get them to come out at a weird time of year to vote for it? Who will spearhead the effort, and how much money will they spend on it? Who will be on Team Referendum, and who (if anyone) will stand in opposition? As I’ve said before, while city of Houston bonds tend to pass with room to spare, Harris County bonds tend to have less margin for error, and can’t be assumed to be favored even in the absence of organized resistance. They’re going to need to figure out what this thing is quickly so they can start selling it ASAP. Among other things, the difference between an election in August and an election in November is that people expect to vote in the latter. The first part of the sales job is going to be making sure people know that they need to vote at a different time. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

Will we or won’t we get a county bond election for flood control?

Answer unclear, try again later.

Judge Ed Emmett

In an interview with the Chronicle, [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett described the various factors that are at play as the county grapples with the possible bond referendum, which would be one of the biggest ever proposed by the county.

There isn’t a clear picture yet of what would be part of the bond referendum. At a recent Commissioners Court meeting, officials emphasize the need to keep the language vague enough to give them flexibility in how to spend the money, but specific enough to make sure the voters know what they are buying.

Emmett said the construction of a highly-anticipated third dam and reservoir northwest of the city would not be part of the measure.

County officials previously have described buyouts and improvements to Houston-area bayous as things that could be paid for with the bonds.

What is included depends, in part, on what happens in Congress, and whether the state is willing to pay for any projects.

The timing and content of what will be included in the referendum have, thus far, hinged on knowing what the federal government is willing to pay for. That will not become clear until Congress passes legislation that could fund at least some flood control projects, such as improvements to Brays, White Oak, Hunting bayous or Clear Creek.

[…]

“You have some in Washington who say if the local government calls a bond election before they act, that will send a signal that ‘Well they don’t necessarily need as much money because they’re doing it locally,'” he said. “There’s another group up there that says if a local government calls a bond election, that shows they are real partners.”

See here for the background. This week’s Congressional budget deal includes the long-awaited disaster relief funds, so perhaps that will clarify things a bit for Commissioners Court. I can’t really imagine them not putting something on the ballot, it’s just a matter of what. We’ll see if they can figure it out now.

HISD working on a bond issue

It’s going to be quite the year for HISD.

Voters living in Houston ISD could be asked to approve a new school bond totaling at least $1.2 billion as early as November, according to a recently unveiled district financial plan.

The bond would finance major construction projects, technology upgrades, fine arts purchases and other capital costs. If the bond request totals $1.2 billion, it would likely come with a tax increase of 3 cents to 7 cents per $100 of taxable value, depending on Hurricane Harvey’s impact on property values, district administrators said.

For a homeowner with a property valued at about $275,000, roughly the average in HISD in recent years, the increase would amount to $80 to $190 per year.

District leaders unveiled the plans over the weekend during a wide-ranging preview of major changes to the district’s budget, magnet schools program and approach to long-failing schools. HISD’s last bond election came in 2012, when two-thirds of voters approved a $1.89 billion request.

District leaders did not present specific projects or amounts, but they’re expected in the coming months to finalize a proposal for school board members. Board trustees must approve sending a bond election to voters.

Administrators said the bond would help finance new campuses in pockets of the city’s west and south sides, where student enrollment has grown, along with upgrades to outdated elementary and middle schools. The 2012 bond largely focused on renovating and building new high schools, with 26 campuses getting about $1.3 billion worth of construction.

The district’s financial staff estimates that a $500 million bond request could be passed without raising taxes, but the amount “would not do much for a school district of this size,” HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby said.

“It would be something that would possibly pass, depending on what you do, but it would not be as impactful as we need a bond to be, based on our strategic vision moving forward,” Busby said.

Add this to the other items already on the plate and once again you can see what a busy year the Board has for itself. The initial reaction I saw to this on Facebook was not positive, which may have been the result of this coming on the heels of the announcement about changes to the magnet school program – lots of people I know are already plenty anxious about that. It’s also a weird year for politics, people feel like there’s too many things for them to keep track of, and I’m sure some people are wondering why there’s another bond issue six years after the last one. HISD bond issues generally pass easily – the one in 2012 got 69% of the vote – but I suspect the Board and Superintendent Carranza are going to have to put together a solid plan and sell it to the voters, with a strong promise of engagement and accountability. I would not take anything for granted.

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

Precinct analysis: Two facts about 2017 turnout

As always after an election, I received an early copy of the canvass report, which tells me how the vote went in each individual precinct. Unlike other years, I didn’t have a clear direction for what to do with it, because there’s no obvious basis for comparisons. There are no partisan races, and no Mayoral contest, so it’s hard to say what questions to try to answer. So I sat on this for awhile, but with 2017 about to exit stage right, I figured I should finally do something with the data I had. Since turnout, or lack of it, is what everyone was talking about in this election, I thought I’d try to learn something about that. In general, we know what usually brings people to the polls in city elections – a contested Mayor’s race and contentious referenda. We had neither this time, so I thought I’d try to see if the bond issues we did have did more to draw people out than the HISD races did.

I don’t know that I have an answer, but I do have a couple of data points. First, in the precincts where there was an HISD race on the ballot, did more people vote in that HISD race than they did in the bond elections?


Dist  PropA    HISD
===================
I     9,490   8,900
III   3,365   3,114
V     8,583   7,656
VI    7,182   6,396
VII  11,848  11,471
IX    7,622   7,454

I used Prop A, the pension obligation bonds issue, as my proxy for all the city issues. It didn’t actually have the most votes, but their totals were all within about one percent of each other, so it’s good enough for our purposes. The totals for some districts, especially V and IX, are less than what you’ll find on the County Clerk’s page, because several of the precincts in those districts are outside city limits. Note also that I added up total votes cast in each, not ballots cast. That’s basically the whole point here – if someone voted in the HISD race but not for Prop A, I assume the HISD race is the main reason this person voted, and vice versa. In all cases, Prop A drew more votes.

The other way to look at this is to simply compare turnout in precincts that had an HISD race to precincts that didn’t. If you add up the total votes cast for Prop A in the precincts that had no HISD race, you get 48,630 votes cast out of 613,206 voters, for 7.93% turnout. The figures for the districts are as follows:

District 1 – 9,490 votes, 78,067 voters, 12.16% turnout
District 3 – 3,365 votes, 55,207 voters, 6.10% turnout
District 5 – 8,583 votes, 60,555 voters, 14.17% turnout
District 6 – 7,182 votes, 72,931 voters, 9.85% turnout
District 7 – 11,848 votes 88,949 voters, 13.32% turnout
District 9 – 7,622 votes, 74,716 voters, 10.20% turnout

Add it up and for all of HISD you get 48,090 votes, 430,425 voters, and 11.17% turnout. So yes, as one would expect, having an HISD race on the ballot in addition to the city bonds meant people were more likely to show up than just having the bonds. The difference, in this case, is a bit more than three percentage points.

So there you have it. There may have been other questions to investigate, but like most people, my attention turned to 2018 as soon as this was in the books. The next city election will be more like what we’re used to. We’ve got plenty to occupy ourselves with until then.

My thoughts following the 2017 election

1. Turnout in Houston was considerably higher than anyone predicted. Adding in Fort Bend to Harris yields 101,178 voters. Harris County had 149,730. The Houston share of Harris County was 66.43%, which is lower than I expected as well.

2. Early voting in odd years is not the same as early voting in even years. In even years, a significant majority of voters are showing up before Election Day. In odd years, Election Day still reigns supreme. In Harris County, 59.49% of the total vote was cast on Election Day. For the Houston part of Harris County, that total was 58.74% of the vote. It’s not clear to me why this is the case, but if I had to guess I’d say that the presence of big well-funded campaigns is a big part of the reason people vote early, because they are being told to vote during the early process. In the absence of such campaigns, people don’t think about voting before Election Day nearly as much. Just a guess, but one that will inform how I think about the next odd year election.

3. After the 2015 election, the HISD Board of Trustees had four men and five women. After the 2017 election, it will have one man and eight women. It will also be all Democratic, as the three Republican men who served in districts V, VI, and VII have all been succeeded by Democratic women. Let that sink in for a minute.

4. A lot will be said about the national election results and what that means for Democrats and Republicans going into 2018. We haven’t really had an election that has been cast in that light – unlike the 2015/2016 cycle, for example, there have been no special legislative elections. I think you have to look at the 2017 HISD results as a piece of that puzzle, even if they weren’t run as Dem-versus-GOP referenda. The Democratic candidates won the three formerly Republican-held Trustee seats because more Democrats showed up to vote. I don’t want to over-dramatize that, but it has to mean at least a little something.

5. Of course, if one wants to be cynical, it could mean that the TEA will have more reason to drop the hammer on HISD if one or more of the Improvement Required schools fails to meet standards. Who at the state level will care about disbanding an all-Democratic Board of Trustees?

6. In the runup to Tuesday, the lower-than-usual turnout projections were cited as a reason why the city bond issues might have trouble. This was going to be a weird year with no city elections, and Harvey caused a lot of disruption, but the main piece of logic underpinning that was the assumption that lower turnout = a more Republican electorate, which in turn would be dangerous for the bonds. Remember, while no one officially opposed the pension bonds, the Harris County GOP and associated conservative groups did oppose the other bonds. It turned out there was no cause for alarm, as all the issues passed by huge margins. While I think that Republicans were more favorably inclined to the bond referenda than we may have given them credit for, this needs to be a reminder that sometimes it’s Republican voters who don’t show up in the expected numbers. The HISD results point to that. If we want to draw an inference for 2018, it’s that overall turnout doesn’t have to be huge for Democrats to have a good year. Who is motivated to vote matters.

7. There will be three runoffs on the menu for December, two in HISD (District I, Elizabeth Santos versus Gretchen Himsl, and District III, Jesse Rodriguez versus Sergio Lira) and one in HCC. One quick thought about that:

Meanwhile, Eugene “Gene” Pack and Pretta VanDible Stallworth were the top vote-getters in a three-way contest for an open seat in District IX. Pack, a retired auto broker, narrowly edged out Stallworth, a business consultant, for the top spot. But both fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. David Jaroszewski, a professor, was well behind.

Earlier Tuesday night, Pack expressed optimism that his early lead indicated voters endorsed him as an “outsider.”

“They’re tired of the direction the board has been going in,” he said.

Maybe, but with all due respect I’d suggest that Pack’s strong showing was a combination of his simple name and top spot on the ballot. My advice for the runoff to Pretta Stallworth is to make sure the voters there know that Pack is a Trump-supporting Republican. I’d guess that would outweigh any valorization of “outsider” status.

8. Finally, the Chron is in a scolding mood.

The ballot featured neither president, nor governor nor mayor, but Tuesday’s election was one of the most important to face Houstonians in decades.

So how did we respond? By not participating. Turnout – at less than 10 percent – was abysmally low.

By approving a $1 billion pension obligation bond, voters set City Hall on track to financial reforms that will cut expenses and, hopefully, usher our city out of a 16-year fiscal crisis. Months of negotiations, years of failed efforts, all came down to this vote – and the vast majority of Houstonians couldn’t be bothered to weigh in.

The immediate issues at City Hall – or Commissioner’s Court or school board – often have a greater impact on American’s everyday lives, yet the local issues have a way of getting lost in the cacophony of national politics. Blame it on media consolidation or the spread of Facebook and Twitter, but our government loses a core of its representative nature when elections that deserve all the attention of a professional sporting event pass with the fanfare of a Little League game.

Something has to change in our civic culture. Easier voting processes. Making Election Day a national holiday. Better promotion efforts. Local officials and nonprofits need to start work now on improving this atrocious turnout.

Actually, we know exactly what drives turnout in Houston municipal elections: the combination of a contested Mayor’s race and a controversial ballot proposition. This year had neither. But you know, one reason why those factors I cited generate turnout is that a lot of money gets spent by the campaigns to entice, encourage, and enrage people to go vote. Maybe what we need when faced with a low key slate like this is a dedicated source of funding to simulate a more exciting election year. How we can accomplish that is left as an exercise for the reader. Oh, and if we’re casting about for blame, I’ll just note that pre-Tuesday coverage from the Chron included one lame overview of the HISD races, and exactly nothing about the HCC ones. Maybe the lack of interest from voters was a reflection of that.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Election Day 2017

It’s time to vote if you haven’t already. Not many people have, as we know.

Harris County turnout is expected to remain feeble through Election Day, with no marquee race to draw voters to the polls and thousands still displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Fewer than 59,000 of the county’s more than 2.2 million registered voters cast a ballot by the end of early voting Friday, a paltry showing even in a traditionally low-turnout state.

“Nobody’s voting because really nothing overly controversial is on the ballot,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, projecting total voter participation will reach of 80,000 to 100,000.

Unlike in recent off-cycle elections, Houston residents do not have mayoral or city council races to weigh in on, thanks to a recent change to term limits.

Instead, the city ballot features several propositions, as well as races for the Houston ISD and Houston Community College school boards.

What’s interesting about this is that Prof. Jones is suggesting that somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the total votes have already been cast. That’s a higher percentage than what I estimated, and it feels a bit peculiar to me because early voting has topped out at around half of the final total in odd-year elections. Maybe this year will be different – Lord knows, it’s different in many other ways – but I would like to understand the reasoning behind that projection. In any event, going by my “Houston is 70% of Harris County in odd year vote totals”, that suggests final citywide turnout of 56,000 to 70,000, which is similar to my estimate but with a lower ceiling.

Here’s the usual press release from the County Clerk’s office:

“Regardless of where voters reside in Harris County, voters will see seven state propositions on their ballot,”said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, alerting the registered voters in the County that Tuesday’s November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections is a countywide and statewide election. In addition to the State Propositions, the ballot also features items offered by 29 political jurisdictions within the County.  Polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm.

“Voters can view their individual sample ballot and review the items on which they may vote by visiting the County Clerk’s election website,  www.HarrisVotes.com,Stanart specified. “This election merits the attention and participation of all voters. Aside from the State, there are five cities, 14 ISDs, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot.”

“Voters should know the address of their voting location and the acceptable forms of identification required at the poll before going to vote,” advised Stanart.  “The polling location in approximately 30 voting precincts in areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, have changed.”  There will be 735 Election Day polling location available throughout Harris County.  On Election Day, voters must vote at the voting precinct where they are registered to vote.

“Voters in the City of Houston should be aware that this is the first odd-numbered year election when the Mayor, Controller and City Council races are not on the ballot,” informed Stanart.  “Don’t be surprised if you don’t see those contests on your ballot.”

Voters may find their designated Election Day polling location, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at their poll at www.HarrisVotes.com. Voters may also call 713.755.6965 for election information.

Stan Stanart is the Clerk, Recorder and the Chief Elections Officer of the third largest county in the United States.

 

List of Political Entities on the Nov. 7, 2017 General & Special Elections Ballot in Harris County, TX
State of Texas Pasadena ISD
City of Baytown Spring Branch ISD
City of Bellaire Stafford Municipal SD
City of Houston Tomball ISD
City of Missouri City Crosby MUD
Houston Community College System Harris County MUD No. 61 (defined area)
Aldine ISD Harris County MUD No. 551
Alief ISD Harris County MUD No. 552
Crosby ISD Mount Houston Road MUD
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 6
Deer Park ISD Northwest Harris County MUD No. 22
Houston ISD Cypress-Klein UD
Katy ISD Prestonwood Forest UD
Klein ISD Harris County WC & ID No. 133
New Caney ISD The Woodlands Township

Finally, if you have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey, please read this information from the Secretary of State Short version: you can still vote in your original precinct, as long as it is your intent to return there at some point. Note that state election law says you don’t actually have to return, you just have to say you intend to. You can re-register another time. So no excuses, go and vote if you haven’t already. I’ll have results tomorrow.

2017 EV daily report: Just remember, the reports we get are all of Harris County

Here are today’s numbers, and here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   11,953   7,513   19,466   19,581
2015   36,322  19,789   56,111   42,520
2011   10,818   3,823   14,641   13,697
2007    8,080   3,126   11,206   12,775

So 2011 appears to be the closest comparison so far. That might imply a much higher level of turnout than what I’ve been suggesting, but I’m not prepared to believe that yet. The main reason for this is that less than 40% of the vote was cast early in 2011, and I seriously doubt that’s what we’re going to get this time. Odd year elections skew more towards Election Day and less towards early voting than even year elections – in 2015, just over half of the vote was cast early – but I think this year we will see a higher percentage of the vote cast early. The message from the County Clerk is to take advantage of the early voting period because a number of polling sites are unavailable thanks to Harvey, and I think people will heed that. We’ll take our guesses about that later in the EV period, but for now just keep that in mind. 2017 may be a bit ahead of 2011 in early voting, but I suspect that’s because more people will be voting early than usual.

It should also be noted that these reports encompass all of Harris County, so some of those numbers above are not for Houston or HISD. I’ve gone through this exercise before, but let’s review the percentage of county turnout that was in Houston in these elections:


Year   Harris  Houston   Share
==============================
2015  421,460  268,872   63.8%
2013  260,437  174,620   67.0%
2011  164,971  121,468   73.6%
2009  257,312  178,777   69.5%
2007  193,945  123,413   63.6%
2005  332,154  189,046   56.9%
2003  374,459  298,110   79.6%

“Share” is just simply the percentage of the county vote that came from Houston. There’s a big span here, but that comes with an asterisk, because the conditions were not the same each year. For example, in 2015 and 2007, Harris County had bond elections in addition to the state constitutional amendments. In 2005, the notorious state anti-gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, which coupled with a non-competitive Mayoral election meant a much larger county share. Finally, in 2003 there was the Metro referendum, which covered all of the county. There were also no state constitutional amendments on the ballot, as those had been voted on in September, to enhance the odds of the tort “reform” amendment passing.

Bottom line, with boring constitutional amendments on the ballot, I’d suggest that county/city ratio will be like the other years, which is to say between 67 and 73 percent. Let’s say 70%, just to split the difference. That’s another thing we’ll have to take into account when we do our projections later on.

What about those constitutional amendments?

Would you like someone to explain to you what those seven Constitutional amendments are about, in painstaking detail, with a recommendation for how to vote on each? Daniel Williams is here for you.

It’s that time of the biennium again! Time for voters to consider constitutional amendments on small minutia of public policy. Texas has the longest state constitution in the nation. It’s so detailed and specific that many ordinary and noncontroversial provisions of the law must be submitted to the voters for approval. That means that we the voters have a responsibility to educate ourselves on all that ordinary and noncontroversial minutia and do our best to vote in an informed and thoughtful way.

I’ve included the text of each proposed constitutional amendment, along with an attempt to briefly explain what the amendment is trying to do and how I’ll be voting when early voting starts tomorrow. I’ve also included information on how various advocacy groups and media outlets on all sides of the political spectrum have endorsed. If I’ve left off a group you think should be included let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.

Click over to read said painstakingly detailed explanations, the TL;dr version of which is “vote FOR props 1, 3, 5, and 7, and AGAINST props 2, 4, and 6”.

If you want further reading on the amendments, the League of Women Voters 2017 guide has you covered, though they don’t make recommendations. They do have information about the city of Houston bond referenda, and a brief Q&A with the HISD and HCC candidates; all but two of them provided answers. Finally, the Texas AFL-CIO has a guide to the amendments as well, along with their recommendations. You may find this exercise exasperating, but you can’t say you don’t have sufficient information to make good decisions.

On the matter of other elections, Instant News Bellaire has coverage on the elections for Bellaire’s Mayor and City Council. And if you live in Alief ISD, Stace has a slate for you. Now get out there and vote!

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

The Chron circles back to where they started this endorsement season.

The spotlight of public attention has focused on the billion dollar pension bond referendum, Proposition A, whose passage is absolutely critical to Houston’s financial future. But if you’re a Houston voter, you’ll also find on your ballot four bond issues that will pay for a long list of projects and equipment essential to our city government.

Proposition B would authorize the city to borrow $159 million for the police and fire departments. The Houston Police Department needs the money for everything from improvements to its training academy to pouring new pavement at HPD facilities. The Houston Fire Department would use its funds to pay for renovating and expanding some of its fire stations. And both departments need to tap the bond money to update their aging fleets of cars, trucks and ambulances.

Proposition C would authorize $104 million in bonds for park improvements, including upgrades to 26 of the 375 parks around the city, making sure they are usable, safe and fun. To take one example: Baseball and soccer are popular with both young and older athletes in many neighborhoods, but many city ball fields are equipped with old wooden light poles. The bond issue would allow the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to replace them with new metal poles, energy efficient lights and underground wiring. The upgrade would also include a remote control feature that would reduce personnel costs.

Proposition D would raise $109 million for a variety of public health and solid waste disposal expenses. Much of this money would go to renovating and rehabilitating old multi-service centers, which are used as everything from health clinics to election polling places. Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, the people who pick up our garbage, would spend their share of this money on a “to do” list that includes a new disposal facility and a storm water mitigation project.

Proposition E would go a long way toward upgrading library services throughout the city with a $123 million bond issue, directly benefiting at least 24 of the city’s 42 libraries. Not everyone can afford a home computer, yet in this digital age access to a computer is crucial to success. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many of Houston’s neighborhood libraries are in disrepair. The bond proceeds will replace the roofs and repair the exteriors of ten libraries and will rebuild four neighborhood libraries.

Maybe you’re wondering why these propositions don’t include money for flood control after Hurricane Harvey. It’s a logical question with an equally logical answer. In order to appear on the ballot in November, the plans for these bond issues were presented to city council in early August, weeks before the storm hit.

Beyond that, flood control in the Houston area has mainly been the responsibility of the county and federal governments. When voters ask why more hasn’t been done to mitigate flooding, those are questions that need to be addressed mainly to the county judge and commissioners as well as our elected representatives in Washington.

The Chron had endorsed these bond issues in their first such editorial of the cycle, but that one was primarily about the pension bonds, and only mentioned the others in passing. You read what these are about, it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose them, but a lot of people don’t know much about them, and of course some people will always oppose stuff like this. As you know, I believe the bonds will pass, but we’re all just guessing. We’ll know soon enough.

Endorsement watch: State propositions and Katy bonds

Hey, did you know that there are constitutional amendments on the ballot? It’s true! (Spoiler alert: There are constitutional amendments on the ballot every odd-numbered year.) The Chron has some recommendations for how to vote on them.

State of Texas, Proposition 1: For

This amendment would allow the Legislature to exempt partially disabled veterans and surviving spouses from paying property taxes on a home received from a charity at less than the market value. An exemption has already been granted when homes are given for free, and this opens the door to some cost sharing.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 2: Against

Consider it a form of post-traumatic stress. Any time banks ask for looser rules, we get flashbacks to the 2008 economic crisis. Financial institutions granted bad loans, good loans – some even made fake loans – knowing that the instruments would eventually be wrapped into a package and sold off. If the debt went bust, some other sucker would be stuck holding the bomb.

The global economic system ended up as the big loser in that game of hot potato.

Now the Texas Legislature is asking voters to tear down some regulations that help keep lenders in line. We recommend voting against.

[…]

State of Texas, Proposition 3: Against

The governor selects hundreds of unpaid appointees to serve on state boards and commissions, most of which run for four- or six-year terms. But if the term expires and no replacement is appointed, that volunteer is allowed under the state’s “holdover” provision to remain until the slot is filled. This amendment to the state Constitution would force out the incumbents even if there’s no new appointees and render the positions vacant.

We have no quarrel with the current “holdover” rule and recommend voting against.

There are seven of these in total, so I presume this was part one of two. I did receive a mailer the other day in favor of one of these, so there’s at least one active campaign involved. I don’t remember which one it was, though. This is why you need to send more than one piece of mail to ensure that your message penetrates, kids.

Moving a bit outside the usual boundaries, the Chron casts a virtual vote in favor of Katy ISD’s bond referendum.

Katy needs more schools.

That simple fact becomes obvious to anybody who looks at the Katy Independent School District’s explosive growth. During the decade between 2005 and 2015, Katy ISD’s enrollment rose by a whopping 47 percent.

Take a deep dive into the numbers and you’ll discover another telling insight from the state comptroller’s office, which diligently tracks data on Texas school districts. Between 2006 and 2015, Katy ISD’s tax-supported debt per student actually declined by a little less than 1 percent.

Now one of the fastest growing school districts in Texas wants voters to authorize a bond issue allowing them to borrow another $609 million. Katy ISD officials have earnestly made a compelling case for passing this referendum. Even some longtime activists in the district who’ve opposed previous bond issues fully support this one. Voters should, too.

As the piece notes, despite being one of the hardest-hit areas by Harvey, KISD’s enrollment was up this year, highlighting just how rapid its growth has been. This is one of those “you can pay now, or you can pay later” situations, and paying now – especially when interest rates remain low – is almost always the better choice.

Another contemplation of turnout

Let’s see where this one takes us. Last time, I made some guesses about turnout in the HISD races based on overall turnout in the city of Houston. Now I’m going to turn that around and take a shot at pegging city turnout based on HISD.

It was suggested to me that we do have a model for a low-turnout HISD election scenario, and that was the May special election to revisit the recapture question. A total of 28,978 people showed up for that exercise. How can we extrapolate from that to the full city? Most years there isn’t a direct connection, since most years there isn’t an election for all of HISD. But such a connection does exist in two recent years, years in which HISD had a bond issue on the ballot. Let’s take a look at 2007 and 2012, the latter of which works because there were also city bond issues up for a vote. Here are the numbers:

2007: Houston = 123,410 HISD = 85,288 Share = 69.1%

2012: Houston = 576,549 HISD = 388,982 Share = 67.5%

“Share” is just the ratio of HISD turnout to Houston turnout. It’s quite pleasingly compact. If we take the midpoint of the two – 68.3% – and apply it to the May 2017 special, and we get a projected total for the city of 42,428. Which, also pleasingly, is well in line with the numbers I was noodling with last time.

What does that tell us? In some sense, not that much, as we don’t have a district-wide election in November, we have six district races. But it does give another figure for our estimate of hardcore voters, and a tad more faith in my own guess of around 50K total for the city. We can get from there to numbers for the individual races if we want. It’s still all hocus-pocus, but at least it’s based on something.

On a tangential note, we do remember that there’s also another Heights alcohol vote on the ballot, right? I’ve heard basically nothing about this since the petitions were validated. The signs like the one embedded above started showing up within the past week or so, but that’s the only activity I’ve seen or heard about, and this light Press story is the only news I’ve found. The area that will be voting has some overlap with HISD I, so it’s not touching many voters who wouldn’t already have a reason to be engaged, and as such probably wouldn’t be much of a factor even if it were a hotter ticket. Anyway, I just wanted to work something about this item in, and this seemed like as good a place as any.

Still some fretting about the bonds

Generalized anxiety, nothing specific.

Pro-bond mailer

Fire engines bursting into flames at a scene. Roof leaks damaging walls at city health clinics. Bike trails eroding into the bayou.

Those are among the reasons Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking voters to approve $495 million in public improvement bonds this fall. Early voting starts Oct. 23.

As with the marquee item on the Nov. 7 ballot – Proposition A, the $1 billion bond needed to secure the mayor’s landmark pension reform package – Turner acknowledged that his chief opponent for city propositions B through E is Hurricane Harvey.

The historic storm not only knocked the city on its back, it also disrupted typical campaign efforts, cutting the pro-bonds Lift Up Houston committee’s fundraising targets and, perhaps, preventing it from funding a TV ad blitz, the mayor said.

“The biggest obstacle is not coming from political parties or political groups, it’s not that,” Turner said. “It’s that people are having to deal with some immediate concerns presented by Harvey. And we have to convince them to take some time to go to the polls to cast a ‘yes’ vote.”

[…]

City Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected financial watchdog, said an organized “no” campaign might not be necessary to make the vote closer than past city bond elections, which tend to pass easily. Brown said he was concerned to hear contentious discussion on the improvement bonds at a Monday night meeting of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of civic clubs.

“They had a lot of very specific questions about the bonds, which, you know, this is a standard issuance,” Brown said. “I guess they hadn’t gotten enough details about what exactly was going to be funded. I chalk some of that up to Harvey. But, especially post-Harvey, the needs just increase. It’s in the public’s best interest to approve these.”

Well, they’re sending out mail – the embedded image is a picture of what was in my mailbox on Friday. Again, I remain basically optimistic, especially with the lack of any organized opposition. The goal is not so much persuasion as it is reminding the people you expect to be in favor, or at least those who will be on the Mayor’s side when they know he’s got something he’s asking them to do, to go out and vote. And while the Lift Up Houston committee may be having a hard time making its fundraising targets, Mayor Turner has plenty of cash on hand to bridge the gap if he needs to. I fully expect them to send more mail, and to get some TV and radio spots up shortly.

An unsatisfying attempt at projecting turnout

So as we all know, this in an unprecedented election, as there are no city races on the ballot. This has everyone wondering about turnout, because the usual drivers of turnout are a Mayor’s race and/or a big referendum, and we have neither of those. What can we guess from past turnout?

There are two components of interest here, overall turnout in the city and in the districts that have contested races. Those races of interest are in HISD, so my first thought was to look at some past elections to see what we could learn from the ratio of voters in each district to total voters in Houston. If that’s reasonably consistent, then we can make a projection for the districts on the ballot based on what we think the top level is.

HISD Trustee terms are four years, so our points of comparison are the years in which the same districts are up. Here are the citywide numbers from the Harris County Clerk:


Year      Turnout
=================
2001      284,748
2005      189,046
2009      178,777
2013      174,620

Yes, there are city voters outside Harris County, but none of them intersect with HISD, so we can safely ignore them. Now here are the totals for the five HISD districts that are normally on the ballot in these cycles:


Dist   2001 Share    2005 Share    2009 Share    2013 Share
===========================================================
I    12,515  4.40  10,159  5.37   9,823  5.49  10,521  6.03
V    21,761  7.64                14,550  8.14
VI
VII                                            12,394  7.10
IX   17,524  6.15  12,372  6.54  12,299  6.88  11,245  6.44

And right here you can see why I called this an “unsatisfying” attempt at this projection. The County Clerk only shows the results for contested school board races, and Districts V, VI, and VII haven’t had a lot of those in recent years. We do have good data in I and IX, and those numbers are interesting. District IX is very consistent. If you know what overall city turnout was, you can make a pretty good guess as to turnout in IX. District I, on the other hand, shows a steady upward trend. I’d say that’s the result of changes in the district, which encompasses a good chunk of the Heights and surrounding areas that have been gentrifying. As such, I’d consider the 2013 numbers to be a floor for this year.

That leaves us with the question of what citywide turnout might be. We do have a model for guessing turnout in elections with no Mayor’s race. Since 2005, there have been six At Large City Council runoffs with no corresponding Mayor’s runoff, and in 2007 there was a special May election with June runoff for At Large #3. Here are the vote totals in those races:


2005 At Large #2 runoff = 35,922
2007 At Large #3 May    = 33,853
2007 At Large #3 June   = 24,746
2007 At Large #5 runoff = 23,548
2011 At Large #2 runoff = 51,239
2011 At Large #5 runoff = 55,511
2013 At Large #2 runoff = 32,930
2013 At Large #3 runoff = 33,824

Those numbers are pretty consistent with my earlier finding that there are about 36,000 people who voted in every city election from 2003 to 2013. There won’t be a Mayor’s race this year, but the school board candidates are out there campaigning, and I expect they’ll draw a few people to the polls who aren’t in that group. Similarly, there will be a campaign for the bond issues on the ballot, and that should nudge things up a bit as well. I think a reasonable, perhaps slightly optimistic but not outrageous, estimate is about 50,000 votes total. If that’s the case, then my projections for the school board races are as follows:


District I   = 3,000 (6% of the total)
District V   = 4,000 (8%)
District VII = 3,500 (7%)
District IX  = 3,250 (6.5%)

You can adjust up or down based on your opinion of the 50K overall estimate. If these numbers represent the over/under line, I’d be inclined to put a few bucks on the over in each, just because there will be actual campaign activity in them and there won’t be elsewhere. I don’t think that will be a big difference-maker, but it ought to mean a little something. All of this is about as scientific as a SurveyMonkey poll, but it’s a starting point. I’ll be sure to follow up after the election, because we may want to do this again in four years’ time, when the next Mayor-free election could be.

The fire department’s needs

This is a conversation we need to have, but it’s one we need to dig into and work all the way through.

Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department’s readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatuses and the training.

The department has a “moral and legal” duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

“We haven’t allocated the right resources to ensure we’re preparing our firefighters to do the job we’re asking them to do,” said Pena, who became chief last December. “What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we’ve had, but it’s a reality that we’re living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we’re willing to fund.”

[…]

On Tuesday, he told the council’s public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD – along with police and city trash haulers – have been working with inadequate vehicles.

“Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve,” Turner said. “This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be.”

See here for some background. The bond issue on the ballot would help the Fire Department replace old equipment, but it would not be enough to also buy more flood-rescue gear or pay for training on it. That will require further spending from the city, including from general revenue, at a time when there’s not a lot of spare change lying around and the city’s revenue stream is hamstrung by the stupid revenue cap. We should, as I have said here and in that earlier post, have a real discussion about what HFD needs and how we’re going to pay for it, and I trust everyone agrees that kicking the can down the road isn’t a great idea. But that discussion needs to include how HFD spends its money now, because as the Chron editorial board reminds us, their track record on fiscal matters is not good.

Tensions between City Hall and Houston firefighters have simmered for years, and things finally boiled over. Firefighters are frustrated because pension reform cut their benefits; they haven’t received a raise in years, and City Hall has failed to spend enough on much-needed high-water vehicles and other equipment.

Those grievances can sound pretty convincing until you look at things from the perspective of a taxpayer.

The firefighter pension system was unsustainable and needed to be reformed. In June, the firefighter union rejected a 9.5 percent pay raise as insufficient. And City Hall has budgeted more than $5 million per year for the next five years to purchase new fire equipment.

Fire Chief Sam Peña told City Council this week he wants double that amount.

Perhaps Peña should first ask his own staff for cash. HFD’s Life Safety Bureau alone racked up $5.6 million in overtime, according to a recent city audit, all while fudging building inspection numbers. And three years ago – under a different chief – a single year of unexpected overtime blew an $8 million hole in the fire department’s finances. Five percent of that budget gap was due solely to firefighters taking off the first weekend of hunting season. (Note to Peña: Deer season opens Nov. 4).

The board renews its call again for a blue ribbon panel to review HFD’s operations from top to bottom, noting that while the department is geared towards fighting a declining number of fires, the vast majority of the calls it receives are for emergency medical services, for which fire trucks are dispatched. I’m prepared to spend more money on HFD to bring them up to speed on the things we need from them, but I want to know that we’re using that money wisely. If we’re not also prepared to answer that question, then I don’t know when we ever will be. The Press has more.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

The key referendum, Proposition A, is a solution to Houston’s potentially disastrous pension problem. A complex deal ushered through the Texas Legislature by Mayor Sylvester Turner would reduce the $8.2 billion unfunded pension burden now carried by Houston taxpayers to $5.2 billion. Union leaders representing police officers and municipal employees have agreed to sacrifice benefits worth roughly $1.8 billion. But the whole arrangement depends upon voters approving a $1 billion bond issuance, 1 of 5 city bonds on the ballot.

The pension bond wouldn’t raise taxes, nor would it increase the public debt. Houston already owes this money to its retired employees; this deal will take care of a debt that’s already on the books. The bonds will be paid off over the course of three decades. By coincidence, this happens to be a good time for the city to borrow money. This is like refinancing your mortgage when interest rates are low.

On the other hand, Turner bluntly and accurately told the Chronicle’s editorial board, if the pension obligation bonds go down, “it’s worse than the financial impact of Harvey.” Before this deal was struck, our city government was staring at the grim prospect of laying off more than 2,000 employees, about 10 percent of its workforce, a cut that would almost certainly impact police and firefighters.

[…]

Meanwhile, four other bond proposals would pay for facilities and equipment at everything from police and fire stations to city parks and libraries. At a time when our police officers are driving around in cars that are more than a decade old, we voters need to pass these capital improvement bonds.

The campaign for the bonds is underway, and I do expect them to pass. But this is a weird year, and turnout is going to be well below what we’re used to – and we ain’t used to particularly robust turnout – so anything can happen. The big task in this election for all campaigns is just making sure people know they need to go vote. If you’re reading this site, you already know that much. I say vote for the bonds as well, for all the reasons the Chron gives.

Lift Up Houston

Hey, you know there are bonds on the ballot, right? And Mayor Turner would like you to vote for them.

Mayor Sylvester Turner spent much of his first year and a half keeping the civic conversation focused on winning legislative approval of his plan to end Houston’s spiraling pension crisis, and then, last May, achieved it.

Then came the historic hurricane. It may take a little time to get the public’s attention back, but local leaders do not have much to spare.

“There are some competing issues and needs out there, but this is one time where we’re going to have to do more than one thing at one time,” Turner said. “This is one issue the city’s been grappling with for the last 17 years and November is the people’s opportunity to put a bow on this pension reform package and for us to turn the page and to really focus on our recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey.”

If the bonds fail, many of the hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would be rescinded.

The mayor acknowledged he is concerned at the short window he has to grab voters’ attention – early voting starts Oct. 23 – but University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said local leaders may have just enough time to make their case.

“It’s these kinds of issues where people could change their minds, or see the value of the bonds and vote accordingly,” he said. “Partisan votes don’t happen that way, but on a bond election where people know just a little bit of information, a little bit of communication can go a long way.”

[…]

The Lift Up Houston campaign, which is advocating for the pension bonds and $495 million in city general improvement bonds that also will appear on the ballot, started knocking on doors in August, Turner said. However, he acknowledged the hurricane disrupted those efforts and several political fundraisers that had been planned to support them.

“The unfunded liability is $8.2 billion, is costing the city $1 million a day, and a ‘yes’ vote will reduce that unfunded liability by $3 billion. That is significant. And, let me add, without raising anybody’s taxes,” Turner said. “We’re on the 10-yard-line, but we need to complete the work, and it won’t be completed without a yes vote for the pension obligation bonds. That will complete the full package.”

Rottinghaus said local leaders would be in error if they assume the bond election will glide to victory because most bond elections do or because both Democratic and Republican leaders support it.

“There are still sentiments from the grass roots that reject any big-government initiative, including one that is developed from a Republican legislature to save the city pension system,” he said. “There’s only so much directing that those leaders can do.”

See here for more on Lift Up Houston. The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any organized opposition to the pension bond issue. The Harris County GOP declined to get involved, while other Republican-oriented groups like the C Club did endorse it (though they oppose the other bonds). That gives the Mayor and Lift Up Houston a clean shot at getting their message out and targeting their voters. You never want to take anything for granted, but they ought to be able to get this done.

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.

[…]

Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

Bond issue set for November

Should be pretty straightforward, though I suppose you never know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

November’s ballot will feature $495 million in public improvement bonds after City Council agreed Wednesday to send the package to Houston voters.

The general bonds, which would not require a tax hike, would fund improvements to libraries and parks, as well as items like new police and fire trucks. They will appear alongside $1 billion in pension obligation bonds.

“Many of our police officers are driving in vehicles that are 10 to 11 years old, if not longer. Same thing for firefighters,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Solid waste – driving in trucks that are stopping while they’re out collecting trash. So the public safety issue is important.”

In all, the bond package before voters asks for authorization to issue $159 million in public safety bonds, $104 million for parks, $109 million for general government improvements and $123 million for libraries.

[…]

The general bond measure before voters simply would authorize Houston to issue additional bonds. It would not obligate the city to further spending without City Council approval.

If voters agree, the pension obligation bonds set to appear alongside the improvement bonds would complete the mayor’s pension reform deal by infusing Houston’s underfunded police and municipal pensions with $1 billion.

See here for some background. The last bond elections we had in Houston were in 2012. All five passed, four with over 60% of the vote and the fifth with 55%, with turnout in the neighborhood of 400K. Suffice it to say, turnout will be lower this time around. My guess for the baseline is in the 50-75K range, with the possibility of a bit more if the firefighters’ pay parity proposal is on the ballot and there’s a lot of money spent on it one way or the other. I don’t think this lower level of turnout affects the odds of passage in either direction. I do think the type of person who is likely to show up for this kind of issue is also the kind of person who probably supports bond issues; whether that gets us into 2012 range or not I couldn’t say. I also expect to take any polling for this with an enormous amount of salt. What do you think?

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.

Bonds on the ballot

Mayor Turner has one more item to deal with this November.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is poised ask voters to approve bonds this fall to fund improvements to city parks, community centers, fire stations and health clinics, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to a crowded November ballot.

The proposed five-year capital improvement plan, unveiled at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, calls for $6.7 billion in airport and utility projects, to be funded by user fees, as well as $538 million in improvements such as expanded police and fire stations, renovated libraries, miles of bike trails and repairs to city buildings to paid for with taxes or philanthropic gifts.

The plan relies on a November 2017 bond vote as one of its key funding sources, with about $190 million worth of projects in the five-year plan contingent on approval of new debt.

Houston’s last bond vote was in 2012, and the city’s capital spending is expected to quickly exhaust the debt voters authorized then.

“It’s not a question of going to voters with debt. We will be going to the voters with an investment proposal, a package of community improvements that are important to delivering the kind of services Houstonians expect and deserve,” Turner said. “Those improvements, whether they are police or fire stations, libraries or community centers or parks, make our city a better place for all of us to live.”

City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday the size of the bond package has not been determined, but Houston typically seeks enough leeway to last a bit beyond any one five-year capital plan.

[…]

The mayor has pledged to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

Turner’s landmark pension reform bill, which takes effect Saturday, also requires voters to approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. Should voters reject it, those groups’ substantial benefit cuts could be rescinded, hiking the city’s costs overnight.

Adding a general bond issue to the ballot alongside the pension bonds and what amounts to a tax hike is risky, said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political scientist professor.

“The more measures you put on the ballot, the more confusing it becomes for voters and I think the more attention is taken away from selling the one item that absolutely must pass, and that’s the pension obligation bonds,” Aiyer said. “It would make a whole lot more sense to make the pension obligation bonds a standalone and push some of these other items off.”

First of all, “what amounts to a tax hike”? Leave the spin out, please. Four of the five bond issues in 2012, which totaled $410 million, passed with at least 62% of the vote; the fifth drew 55%. That was a very high turnout context – there were over 400K votes cast for each item – while this year will not be. Even if the Supreme Court intervenes and puts city elections on the ballot, far fewer people will vote this year. Still, bond issues usually pass. Especially if there aren’t city elections, all of these issues will come down to how successful the Mayor and his team are at getting the voters they need to come out and support him.

I would push back on the notion, as expressed by the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott, that having these bond issues makes the November ballot “ugly”. We are basically talking three items – revenue cap change, pension obligation bonds, and these bonds, though they will likely be split into multiple smaller items – in an election where there may be no city candidates on anyone’s ballot. Remember, there will be no Metro vote or Astrodome vote – what we have now is all we’re likely to get. Frankly, unless the Supreme Court sticks its nose in and orders city elections this fall, the number of votes people will be asked to cast will likely be smaller than what it usually is in an odd-numbered year. In addition, only the revenue cap vote is one that will be in any way complex – we have bond issues all the time, people understand them, and the pension obligation bonds are just a special case of that. Ugly to me will be having a bunch of campaigns put together on short notice and sprinting towards the finish line with far less time to do the sort of retail-politics outreach that most city candidates get to do. YMMV, but if what we have now is what we end up with, I’ll consider it a relaxing stroll. Campos has more.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.

[…]

At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

The State of Metro

Metro Chair Carrin Patman gave a “State of Metro” speech at the Greater Houston Partnership this week, and among other things she said that another referendum is in the works to finish some tasks from the 2003 vote and to address the issues we see today.

HoustonMetro

One of the projects that remains unfunded is the proposed 90A rail line that would bring commuters in from the west. And Patman says Houston still doesn’t have rail service to Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports.

“I think there’s a lot of popular support for that,” says Patman. “Another one is some kind of connection between downtown and the Galleria.”

In her speech, Patman called for a regional plan that would link Metro’s services with other transit providers. But how much will it cost to do all this?

“Once we have the projects we want to go back with, we’ll then be able to go back with cost estimates on those and then determine from there the amount of bonding authority we need,” adds Patman.

You can see video of the speech here, and I have a copy of Chair Patman’s slideshow here; unfortunately, there is no written copy of her speech. I don’t think there’s anything in this that we didn’t already know – all of the possible rail projects are left over one way or another from 2003, though not all of them were on the referendum. The main piece of news is that the bond referendum that would be needed for any further rail construction might be next year. That would make for an interesting companion to the revenue cap-lifting proposition; at first blush, they ought to go well together, with the type of person who would vote for one probably also likely to vote for the other. It would also intensify the opposition, but I doubt there was any way around that. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Write On Metro has more.

Mayor Turner announces pension fund deal

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Negotiators for the City, the Houston Police Officers’ Pension System, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund and the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System have developed Preliminary Points of Understanding on a structural approach to long term, sustainable, defined benefit pension reform. Detailed formal plans continue to be developed and will need to be presented to the governing bodies of the three pension systems, City Council and the state legislature for approval.

“This reform accomplishes the objectives I set at the beginning of this process,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “The plan I am outlining today immediately reduces and later eliminates the unfunded pension liability, controls costs going forward, allows us to retain employees and allows us to present to the state legislature a much more united front. It is a budget neutral, 30-year fixed payoff plan that includes significant cost avoidance from what the City would need to pay in the absence of reform. No other plan does this and takes the issue off the table permanently. We will have fully funded, secure, sustainable and affordable defined benefit pension plans that our employees can rely on and our taxpayers will find fiscally responsible.”

With implementation of the changes, the City’s unfunded pension liability immediately drops by $2.5 billion and continues dropping for the next 30 years, at which time it will be paid off. This approach replaces the present practice of restructuring the liability every year with a 30-year closed amortization model that is a pension best practice and a requirement of the City’s financial policies. Just like a fixed rate consumer mortgage, the liability will be paid off at the end of 30 years.

To substantially reduce risk related to market performance and in keeping with the national trend for pension systems, the assumed rate of return on pension investments will be reduced to 7%.

To further stabilize the pension funds, the City will be required to make the full annual contribution to all three pension systems. Payroll contribution rates will be fixed over the 30-year period, providing more predictable budgeting. The proposal cuts the City’s annual obligation to a manageable level and, most important, is budget-neutral while significantly reducing what the City would need to pay to cover the full annual contribution without reforms.

The plan also employs $1 billion in pension obligation bonds for funds that have not received the full annual required contribution from the City in recent years. This will increase the City’s debt, but earnings from pension investments are anticipated to more than offset the borrowing costs.

To ensure the City does not find itself in the same place again, there is a cost-management component. If future market changes cause costs to exceed specified limits, the City and the pension systems will return to the negotiating table to work out adjustments to bring costs back in line. Mayor Turner characterizes this as a cost management corridor that contains a thermostat that must be kept at a set temperature. The thermostat concept is the only point on which all of the parties lack unity. The police and municipal pension systems have gotten comfortable with it, but the firefighter pension system has not, so far. Talks are continuing.

“These points of preliminary understanding are historic in nature because of how impactful they are,” said Mayor Turner. “I have discussed them with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature. The response has been very positive. To my knowledge, no other city in the nation has crafted a plan that addresses the problem in quite the same way. We have a way to solve our pension issues for good, and our approach can serve as a model for other cities.”

There will be changes in employee benefits. They are different for each pension system but, basically, will affect one or more of the following: cost of living adjustments, future benefit accrual rates and the DROP program. More details will be forthcoming once the finer points of negotiation are finalized and the governing bodies of the pension systems consider these agreements.

“These changes are being made in a manner that minimizes the impact on the thousands of police, fire and municipal workers eligible to retire today,” said Turner. “We must retain these employees to continue to serve the residents of this city. I appreciate the pension system representatives who have recognized the status quo must change and have been willing to move away from previously held fixed and non-negotiable positions. The pension systems have also shared more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on the right way to share the data we need to manage our costs going forward. There is still much work to be done, and I know there will be disagreements along the way, but we have come so far since we first began talking seven months ago.”

Mayor Turner has never wavered from his promise to accomplish pension reform while still maintaining defined benefit plans. However, he did have his financial analysts study implementation of defined contribution plans. They found that option would increase immediate costs and provide no financial relief for at least 30 years.

This contribution from City employees is step one of the shared sacrifice model Mayor Turner is asking everyone to help with. He does not expect City employees to shoulder the entire burden. Once pensions are fixed, he intends to ask voters to repeal the revenue cap that handicaps the City’s ability to keep up with the needs of a growing population. No other governmental body in the state has such a restraint.

“I took this job knowing that our City faced difficult public policy challenges,” said Turner. “I promised pothole repairs in record time, and we delivered. We followed that achievement by closing Houston’s biggest budget gap since the Great Recession. We delivered a budget built on sustainable, recurring improvements, and it was adopted by City Council unanimously and in record time. Now, we bring you a solution to Houston’s pension challenge that meets the needs of our City, its employees and its taxpayers. To all concerned, I say you can trust this solution to deliver on our promise of pensions that protect our employees’ retirement security while remaining affordable and sustainable for the City and its taxpayers”

The proposed pension reforms announced today have been discussed with numerous stakeholders and key members of the state legislature with very positive results.

The annoucement of the press conference for this came out just after midnight last night. ABC’s Miya Shay posted news of it on Facebook a couple of hours before then. The actual press release shown above hit may mailbox at 3:45 PM. As the Chron story notes, representatives of the police and municipal employees’ pension funds were there, but no one from the firefighters’ pension fund was in attendance. This press release, which I received maybe ten minutes after the one above, explains why:

The Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (“the Fund”) is continuing to work with the City of Houston, but as yet, no agreement has yet been reached on adjustments to the Fund’s current plan “We have discussed economic changes that would fit within the guidelines set forth by the Mayor. We have also presented issues that are important to us. However, no resolution has been made,” says David Keller, the Fund’s Chairman.

“This has been a challenging process for numerous and various reasons along the way. The HFRRF became the strongest of the three Houston pension funds and one of the most successful in the State by careful deliberation and due diligence. We have been applying the same approach here. Every adjustment proposed was considered based on the impact it would have on the various populations of the membership.”

The Fund began discussions with the City of Houston with the purpose of helping to shape reforms rather than having them imposed by the Legislature. It is the Fund’s goal to resolve issues with no threat to the earned benefits to Houston firefighters. The Fund believes these benefits are part of the total compensation of its members.

The statutes that govern the Fund are thorough and reasonable, employing a sound formula that determines contributions and solid funding. The Fund is one of the best funded public pension plans in the State of Texas. The City of Houston pays only about 20% of the cost of benefits going to retired firefighters with the remaining 80% or so coming from the Fund’s investments over the long term of the Fund’s existence and the firefighters’ own contributions to the Fund.

Still a few things to be worked out, I guess. Even without that, there are still plenty of details to be filled in about how this will work and what legislation will be needed to enable it. As for the pension obligation bonds, Mayor White floated some of them while in office. It would be nice to know whether the experts think that was a good idea or not. In this case, interest rates are sure to be lower than they were then, and this time there will be an overall plan in place for paying down the long-term liability. If this is everything Mayor Turner claims it is, and if all three funds and the Legislature are on board, it’s a huge win and a big item to cross off his to-do list. As always, the devil is in the details, and we’re waiting on those. But it sure does sound promising.

No bonds this year

Maybe next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner likely will not ask voters to approve bonds this November to replace the nearly depleted debt residents approved in 2012, a move that may delay several projects.

[…]

Having addressed a $160 million shortfall with the unanimous passage of his first budget last month, Turner said he now is focusing on negotiating reforms that will decrease the city’s $5.6 billion pension underfunding and lower the city’s bill for retiree benefits.

Until both cost-cutting measures succeed and are checked off his list, Turner said, he would rather not ask voters to spend more. That likely will delay a bond vote, he said, until November 2017.

“I certainly am not inclined to ask people to approve any bonds or any borrowing until the city’s finances have been handled,” Turner said. “On the budget, we’ve done that. The pension issue, I want that resolved. When we go and ask for something, I simply want to let voters know that we’re doing everything we can to be fiscally sound and prudent.”

November 2017 also is when Turner has proposed asking voters to lift a 12-year-old rule that limits what the city collects in property taxes, again presuming pension reform passes during next year’s legislative session.

Of his vision for the 2017 ballot, Turner said, “I want to be able to say, ‘If you vote for this, this will take the city to the next level,’ that it will be transformative in nature.”

I agree with the Mayor’s assessment of this. He’s made clear the need to revise the stupid revenue cap we live under, but he’s packaged that as a part of an overall financial fix that includes dealing with the immediate budget issues and putting the pension funds on firmer footing. He can claim progress on the first item, but he needs to have tangible results on pensions to complete the sale. By the same token, more bond money would be a much easier ask next year, when these items can be crossed off the to-do list, and pairing a bond issue with a referendum to change the revenue cap ought to make for a compelling pitch. There are some items from the 2012 bond referendum that are still not started, and the city needs to do all it can to keep the promises that were made in that issuance. Beyond that, I think this is the right decision.

Montgomery County Judge suspended for road bond allegations

This just keeps getting better.

A state commission has suspended Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal without pay after a grand jury charged him with violating Texas’ open meetings law while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

The move by the State Commission on Judicial Review came four days after the indictments of Doyal, County Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley and a political adviser for allegedly engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations before putting a $280 million road bond measure on last November’s ballot. Voters passed the bond package.

The commission’s order strips Doyal of the ability to perform official duties while the criminal case is pending. He has requested a hearing within 30 days to ask the commission to lift the suspension.

“I understand the open meetings laws,” Doyal said at a news conference at his attorney’s office. “I did not violate the open meetings laws, nor did I conspire to violate the open meetings laws.”

See here and here for the background. I have no opinion the merits of this, or on the likelihood of any particular outcome. I’m just enjoying the show.