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Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to lay off up to 400 firefighters as he prepares to award pay raises required by Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank, according to five Houston City Council members who were briefed on the plan Thursday.

The apparent move to fully implement the pay parity measure comes after talks between the city and fire union about phasing in the raises over five or more years became strained last week. Meanwhile, city officials are preparing council members for the difficult task of closing a $197 million deficit in the annual budget that must be adopted for the upcoming July 1 fiscal year. About $80 million of that budget gap comes from the firefighters’ raises, council members were told.

In addition to the firefighter layoffs, Turner will seek to close the deficit by asking all city departments to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent, a move that is likely to require layoffs of, perhaps, 100 municipal workers, the council members said. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she was told no police officers will be laid off.

On May 9, Turner’s administration plans to issue back pay to firefighters retroactive to Jan. 1, which will total about $30 million, multiple council members said.

“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” said Councilman Greg Travis. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”

The city plans to mail layoff notices to firefighters within weeks, Travis said. Among the layoffs are 68 fire cadets who Turner has declined to promote amid a citywide hiring freeze than has spanned more than five months. The mayor nonetheless promoted more than 60 police cadets Monday.

The fire cadets filed grievances against Turner Thursday alleging that the mayor was discriminating and retaliating against them.

[…]

Turner, who repeatedly has warned of potential layoffs, told reporters his hands were tied because the charter amendment did not come with a funding mechanism. He also said the fire union rejected a city proposal to phase in pay raises. That offer did not appear to fully implement the charter amendment over the city’s proposed five-year window, falling short of increases in incentive pay that the finance department projects would be necessary to reach full parity.

“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

During negotiations, the firefighters proposed to phase in Prop. B raises over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2018. The raises then would be distributed based on firefighters’ length of service, with all members reaching full parity by July 1, 2020.

No one can say they didn’t see this coming. One of the main arguments against Prop B was the cost, which would inevitably lead to layoffs because the vast majority of the city’s expenditures are personnel costs. It seems a little crazy that there wasn’t a way to agree to a phase in to avoid any drastic actions, but here we are. Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. That severely restricts options, and that’s the place we are in now. We’ve been through this before, back in 2010 when then-Mayor Parker faced a huge deficit caused by the downturn in the economy. She wound up laying off hundred of municipal employees. Police and firefighters were exempted from that, but this time it’s the firefighter pay parity referendum that is driving a big part of the deficit. Where should the cuts come from this time? You tell me.

One uncertainty appeared to stem from differences in educational requirements between the departments. For example, police officers must have a master’s degree to be promoted to assistant police chief, a stipulation that does not exist for assistant fire chiefs and fire marshals. Some firefighters may receive reduced raises due to the differing requirements, multiple council members said, explaining why the latest cost estimate of $80 million falls more than $30 million below Turner’s previous estimate.

There is speculation this will lead to a lawsuit. I’ve expected that from the beginning. And I fully expect it will still be litigated the next time the Mayor is on the ballot in 2023.

Here comes the House school finance plan

Not surprisingly, they go bigger than the Senate.

Rep. Dan Huberty

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise … with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

[…]

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employeecriticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

See here and here for some background. A preview story about the House bill is here, and a story about that Senate bill is here. The Senate bill covers raises for teachers and librarians, but not other support personnel like nurses or bus drivers, which is one reason why the more-flexible approach is favored by school districts; that said, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association released a statement emphasizing the need for a Senate-style guaranteed teacher pay raise. The House is also taking a different approach on property taxes, as noted in that preview story:

According to the summary, the bill would increase the base funding per student by $890 to $6,030 — the first time that allotment has been raised in four years. It would also lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, helping to reduce so-called Robin Hood payments that redistribute money from wealthier districts to poorer ones. The compression could save the owner of a home with $250,000 in taxable value about $100 annually in school district taxes.

That method of property tax relief is different than one proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott last year, which would cap annual increases in school districts’ tax revenues at 2.5 percent.

There’s also the Democratic proposal, some of which is in HB3. All of this is a starting point, so I don’t want to get too far into the weeds. None of these bills will be adopted as is, and some of them may not get adopted at all. This and the budget will be the last pieces of business the Lege deals with, and the main reason why there could be a special session. We’ll keep an eye on it all. The Chron has more.

Dems propose their school finance bills

It’s good to have a broad array of options.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus laid out a $14.5 billion plan for school finance reform and property tax relief Thursday, releasing a list of priorities in advance of a key school finance bill Republican education leaders are expected to file and support.

The Democrats’ plan is composed of dozens of bills members have filed — or will file — to increase teacher pay and benefits, pay schools more for educating low-income students, and provide more counselors for school districts. It does not include two policy items that may be included in Republican-filed legislation: merit pay for teachers or paying schools more for higher student test scores.

“We hope to work with our colleagues to incorporate some of these ideas into their bills,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who chairs the caucus.

[…]

Some of the House Democrats’ proposals dovetail with recommendations in the school finance panel’s report. [Rep. Mary] González filed House Bill 89, which would increase the base funding districts get per student and ensure they receive more funding for low-income students and those learning English.

A few House Democrats have filed bills that would fund full-day pre-K for all school districts, an estimated cost of $1.6 billion.

The proposal also includes $3.78 billion for teacher pay and benefits — around the same amount Senate Republican leaders have proposed in across-the-board $5,000 raises for full-time classroom teachers. House Democrats are championing proposals that would increase salaries for not just teachers, but also support staff, while also boosting financial support for teacher health care premiums. The exact amount of the proposed raises for each person has not yet been determined.

See here for more on the school finance panel report. Some of these ideas will be included, in whole or in part, in the omnibus school finance bill that Rep. Dan Huberty will file. Others are there more as a statement of values, since none of these bills will pass without sufficient Republican support. If I could pick just one thing to make it to Abbott’s desk, it would be the full day pre-K, which will have a big return on investment if we do it right. When all is said and done, I’d love to know how much of what was on offer today makes it through into the final bill.

City proposes partial pay raise to firefighters

Progress, of a sort.

Houston officials have offered to raise firefighters’ base salaries, but not sufficiently to establish pay parity with police officers as approved by voters, city and firefighter union officials said Wednesday.

“In my mind, the proposal makes no effort to implement Prop B,” union attorney Troy Blakeney said, referring to the ballot item reflecting a city charter amendment approved in a Nov. 6 referendum. “It makes an effort to pay firefighters additional salaries that do not include all the components of Prop B.”

The proposal nonetheless marks the first evident progress made since Mayor Sylvester Turner met last month with Blakeney and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton to discuss Proposition B, which compels the city to pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority.

City Attorney Ron Lewis confirmed the city had made an offer, but neither he nor Blakeney disclosed the amount.

Still, it was clear Wednesday that Turner and Lancton remain far from an agreement to phase in the raises over time. Both say they support that idea, with Turner arguing the city cannot afford to instantly implement Proposition B.

Lancton told reporters Wednesday that the city’s legal efforts to invalidate the proposition, based on the argument that it is unconstitutional, are hampering negotiations.

“He appears to be a victim of his own ego,” Lancton said of the mayor. “His relentless political and legal war on Houston firefighters and their families must end.”

Turner has said the firefighters’ decision Jan. 15 to seek a court order compelling the city to implement the proposition has similarly soured negotiations. Lancton has said the city should already be paying firefighters because the proposition became law nearly three months ago, which is why the union sought the court order.

See here for some background. At this point, I don’t have anything new to say. I don’t know how this ends and I don’t know how long it will take to get there. If we’re still fighting about this in the next city elections in 2023, I won’t be surprised.

Things the Rainy Day Fund was not intended for

This, for one.

A pair of conservative lawmakers want Texans to help pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall and plan to ask lawmakers to take $2.5 billion out of its rainy day fund to cover the costs.

Reps. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, and Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, told Breitbart, a conservative news publication, they plan to file legislation that would cover costs to “design, test, construct, and install physical barriers, roads, and technology along the international land border between the State of Texas and Mexico to prevent illegal crossings in all areas.”

Texans and Texas-owned companies would be given preference on all bids and contracts, the publication reported.

“If Congress refuses to keep Americans safe, then Texas will answer the call,” Cain said in a statement. “Our office is receiving many calls in support of this effort. We’ve even received calls from citizens of other states offering to help fund the wall.”

[…]

Texas now spends about $400 million a year on border security. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that lawmakers will renew that commitment over the next two years. The proposal from Cain and Biedermann would spend $2.5 billion by Aug. 31, according to Breitbart.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when this was known as the Economic Stabilization Fund. I’m also old enough to remember what its original intent was:

Texans approved a constitutional amendment creating the ESF in 1988, following an oil price plunge and economic recession that forced lawmakers to raise taxes to keep state government in the black. The Legislature structured the fund to automatically set aside some tax revenues in boom years to help the state during downturns.

It actually worked that way for awhile, too. Then Rick Perry came along and used the cover of the 2011 budget deficit to declare that the ESF was actually a fund for helping the state cope with natural disasters, and not to be used to avoid the deep and damaging cuts to things like public education and Medicaid that happened during that session. That change by executive fiat, along with the popular moniker of “The Rainy Day Fund” led to many people demanding its use in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which Greg Abbott refused. It’s still not clear what the state will do to help further the recovery from Harvey, but tapping into the ESF in a time of need for one-time expenditures is at least within hailing distance of its original purpose. The Cain/Biederman exercise in pants-wetting and xenophobia, on the other hand, is not. I’m glad we had the chance to have this little conversation. The Observer has more.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Always beware revenue caps

They’re always a bad idea.

Flanked by the state’s top legislative leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that both chambers of the Texas Legislature will push to curb property tax growth by limiting how much money local governments collect without voter approval.

Fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as the heads of both chambers’ tax-writing committees, joined Abbott in making the announcement. Their news conference followed the filing of identical bills in both chambers, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2.

Abbott said it was “completely unprecedented” for lawmakers to be so closely aligned on such an important issue this early in the session.

“Most importantly, it’s a testament to the voters in this state,” he said. “The voters demanded this, and this demonstrates that the Texas Legislature is responsive to the needs of our voters.”

But two Democrats who sit on the House Ways and Means Committee said the proposed legislation is far from being a done deal. And an advocate for city governments said there are plenty of unintended consequences that need to be worked out. Chief among them is ensuring that cities aren’t suddenly unable to afford police officers and firefighters.

Thursday’s bills seek to require voters to approve tax rates that allow government entities like cities, counties and school districts to collect an additional 2.5 percent in revenues from existing property compared with a previous year. The threshold would not apply to small taxing units — those with potential property and sales tax collections of $15 million or less.

Currently, cities and counties can collect an additional 8 percent in revenues without involving voters. But even then, residents must collect enough signatures to force an election. The new pair of bills would automatically trigger what’s called a rollback election. If voters shoot down the measure, the government entity would have to set a tax rate that allows it only to collect revenues from existing properties that are less than 2.5 percent more than the previous year.

The rollback rate is also based on the appraised value of properties within a taxing unit’s borders. That means a city or county could hit the rollback election threshold without changing its tax rate — or even if it lowers the tax rate — if there is a significant increase in local property values.

The legislation does not apply a cap to individual property tax bills. Because it would limit only how much government entities can collect in property tax revenues before getting voter approval, an agency could stay below the rollback election rate, and that portion of a property owner’s tax bill could still increase.

Local officials are almost certain to to push back. Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which advocates for city governments. His organization estimates that about 150 of the state’s largest cities would be affected if the legislation passes. He said that the rollback threshold is lower than inflation and could prevent cities from paying for first responders’ raises, filling potholes, and keeping recreation centers or libraries open.

As the story notes, this is more ambitious than what Abbott and Patrick pushed for in 2017, and they’re doing it with smaller majorities. On the other hand, these are the highest-priority bills they have (hence the HB2 and SB2 designations), and they’re no doubt going to go all out. It’s very possible they could succeed.

But here’s the thing. This is what they rolled out after making big promises about reforming school finance and giving more money to schools. Did you notice what was missing in this rollowt?

They were so tuned in to their harmonic convergence, they didn’t talk much about what their legislation would actually do, leaving the details to the bill sponsors to explain later.

They did say they were going for a 2.5-percent growth limit on property taxes in local school districts, cities, counties and other government bodies. It’s aimed at overall taxes, a leash on the overall mix of property values and tax rates that determine what happens to the average taxpayer’s bill. Anything that increases a local government’s property tax revenues by more than that would trigger an automatic November election asking voters for permission.

You might wonder how public education is going to get more financial help, as proposed by this same group of elected officials, if the state is going to limit school districts’ ability to levy taxes.

The short answer is that the state’s going to pay for it. The House’s proposed budget for the next two years adds billions to what the state is spending on schools. The Senate’s plan doesn’t spend as much, but the increases are significant (and in one case, more specific: Patrick has proposed $3.7 billion in teacher pay raises). Abbott floated the idea of holding down local taxes and tax increases — an answer to loud and persistent complaints about property taxes — and increasing state spending to fill the gap. And Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the fourth official at those weekly breakfasts, has proposed requiring the state to pay at least 40 percent of the cost of public education, along with any increases due to inflation.

But they haven’t said where the state money will come from. Nobody in the state government’s high places has proposed raising a tax, cutting other state spending to produce money for education, or weeding through the state’s tax exemptions and loopholes to shore up the state’s share of the public education load.

In other words, right now it’s all underpants gnomes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting much more in the way of details about how this is supposed to do all the things they say it will do.

Firefighters go back to court

I dunno, man.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.

The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.

“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”

In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.

“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”

[…]

Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.

On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.

“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”

Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

I don’t know what the way forward is. I feel like we’re here now because the firefighters are mad about the pension reform law that got passed. Which confounds me to this day, because were they not listening to what Turner and others were saying on the campaign trail? Did they think they were going to somehow be magically exempt? Anyway, I agree that there should be a date set for when this will be implemented, and a plan that outlines what that will mean. No one knows what it means because that was never part of the marketing for Prop B, but it has to mean something, so let’s get to it. And when the firefighters don’t like what it means, well, the courts will still be there.

State House mulls big increase in school funding

That’s a good start.

As Texas’ Republican leadership calls for property tax cuts and a school finance overhaul, the Texas House on Monday pitched a bold proposal: Pump roughly $7 billion more state funds into public schools — but only if lawmakers can satisfactorily overhaul the school finance system to slow the growth of property taxes.

Budget documents published Monday evening show the House has offered up a whopping 17 percent increase in K-12 public education funding so long as lawmakers achieve a few lofty goals in reforming how the state pays for public schools: Reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes, decrease the need for the unpopular Robin Hood system that requires property-wealthy school districts to subsidize poorer ones, and maintain an equitable system of school finance, as required by the state Constitution.

Counting all sources of funding — including local property taxes, state revenue and federal dollars — the state’s public education budget would grow to about $70.6 billion in the two-year cycle from 2020 to 2021, according to a Legislative Budget Board summary of the proposed House budget. That’s an increase of 16.7 percent from the previous two-year budget cycle, when the state spent about $60.5 billion on public schools.

[…]

The state is forecasted to have about 8.1 percent more funding available to spend over the next, two-year budget cycle. The House’s proposed budget would also withdraw $633 million out of the state savings account, called the Economic Stabilization Fund, to pay for retired teachers’ pensions, school safety improvements and disaster-relief programs.

That account, also known as the rainy day fund, has grown to a record level thanks to booming oil and gas production. Even after the House’s proposed $633 million withdrawal, the fund’s balance is projected to reach $14.7 billion in 2021.

The budget recommends spending $109 million on school safety, which lawmakers have discussed as a priority item since the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting near Houston left 10 dead. Included in school safety funding would be about $12 million for children’s mental health programs.

Notably, the House budget decreases state funding for health care and human services by about 3.2 percent. Education and health care make up the vast majority of state spending.

Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, would see a decrease of $1.4 billion in state funds, for example.

There are a lot of details to be filled in here. Making this contingent on property tax reform can be dicey, as the last time the Lege “fixed” school finance by way of tax reform they screwed over the revenue stream for years to come. Cutting Medicaid payments is a serious no-go. All of this has to actually be written into the budget and then approved by both chambers and not line-item-vetoed by Abbott. Lots of things can go wrong or turn out bad. But all that said, this is a great starting point, and hugely refreshing after too many sessions of cuts.

Meanwhile, in the Senate:

Leaders of the Texas Senate are proposing giving schools $3.7 billion to provide $5,000 pay raises to all full-time classroom teachers — on the heels of a House budget proposal that includes $7 billion more for public education.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed Senate Bill 3 Tuesday morning, which would mandate that schools use the billions in additional funding specifically for teacher pay raises. Speaking at his inauguration Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, lauded the proposal as one of his main priorities this legislative session and said the funding would be permanent.

[…]

Nelson’s proposal appears to build a new formula into the school finance system that would distribute state funding to schools based on the number of full-time classroom teachers they employ, and require they use that money for raises over the previous year.

Here’s SB3. We now know that while the Senate is also proposing more money overall for school finance, it’s not as much as what the House is proposing. This is what I mean when I say there’s a long way to go to get to a finished product. Be that as it may, this too is a good start.

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

Here comes the latest school finance report

I figure the smart money is always on efforts like this to fail, but you never know.

After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.

The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.

“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.

“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.

A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”

[…]

Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:

  • $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
  • Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
  • $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
  • $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
  • Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
  • Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools — a proposal from Abbott.
  • No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.

The report hasn’t been published yet, so this is all we know. I don’t see any reason to trust Greg Abbott, who is more interested in cutting property taxes than in providing schools with the resources they need, and of course Dan Patrick will be heavily involved in whatever happens. I think the commission has generally good motives and for the most part the ideas are fine, but we could do a lot more, and that’s before we address the huge need for special ed funding. It’s all a matter of our priorities, and of our view of what “fixing” school finance looks like. The Chron has more.

The legal option for Prop B

Here we go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask Houston city council Wednesday to hire a law firm to advise the city on possible litigation related to the firefighter pay parity measure, setting in motion a potential court challenge to the item approved by voters earlier this month.

While the firefighters union has urged the city to return to the negotiating table, Turner has questioned whether the city could preempt the ballot measure approved by voters, suggesting a judge should settle the question first.

Firefighters and labor attorneys contend the mayor does not need to seek a judge’s opinion, saying Texas’ collective bargaining laws preempt the city charter.

The city still has not sought a legal opinion on the matter.

[…]

The mayor, who instructed each city department in September to submit plans for reducing their respective budgets by 3.4 to 5.2 percent, has remained tight-lipped about how he plans to make the cuts he has warned are needed to square the city’s budget.

The Chronicle submitted a public information request seeking copies of the departments’ budget-cutting memos, but the city has sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on whether the documents can be exempted from disclosure.

Several city departments — including the Administration of Regulatory Affairs, the Solid Waste Department, and Public Works and Engineering — declined to say how Prop B-related cuts would impact their services and referred all questions to the mayor’s office. Alan Bernstein, a mayoral spokesman, referred the Chronicle to the months-old memo asking departments to submit “reduction scenarios.”

We knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting there to be litigation over this from the beginning, regardless of who won. Now we get to see what form this takes.

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

[…]

Turner told reporters after the meeting that he would have legally challenged Proposition B before the election, but found legal precedent that said such a move had to wait until voters approved the measure.

“There’s only one issue right here: whether or not it was preempted by state law,” Turner said. “If a judge should come back and say to the City of Houston it wasn’t preempted by state law, then we’ll have to move very quickly to implement it.”

Basically, as I see it there are three possible outcomes:

1. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does not conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, thus paving the way for Mayor Turner and the firefighters to sit down and hash out an agreement on how to implement Prop B in a way that doesn’t kneecap the city financially. This is the firefighters’ preferred resolution.

2. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely win a lawsuit because of that, or because of some other reason. You know what happens next in this case.

3. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely lose a lawsuit. This way leads to budget cuts, layoffs, quite possibly litigation from one or more of several other groups – the firefighters, the police who are threatening their own legal action anyway, some other aggrieved citizens – and an unknown amount of chaos going into the 2019 election. At least it won’t be boring.

Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.

[…]

“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”

[…]

“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Will teachers turn out for Mike Collier?

He sure hopes so.

Mike Collier

On his long-shot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.

Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.

Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.

But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?

[…]

If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.

As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.

“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”

If public education is your issue, then I don’t know how you can even think of voting for Dan Patrick. It’s just that generally speaking, public education hasn’t been a big motivating issue for a lot of people, even those who have a direct stake in it. Maybe this is the year, I don’t know. The story talks about how pro-education candidates lost in this year’s Republican primaries, but that misses the point. Collier doesn’t need a majority of Republican voters to defect for him to win. If base Democratic turnout is sufficiently high – still a big if, even with the encouraging early voting numbers so far – he probably needs between ten and twenty percent of them. That’s doable, and it’s within the range of past performances. That’s an if on top of an if, but at least it’s a chance. If the teachers want to send a message, it’s in their capacity to do so.

Endorsement watch: City propositions

The Chron says Yes on Prop A:

Here’s the blunt truth: Voting “against” on Proposition A won’t cut your taxes. It will, however, open the door to more municipal debt.

That is why Houstonians should vote “for” Proposition A, which will reaffirm the decision they correctly made eight years ago to fund needed drainage and street improvement projects in the city by a pay-as-you-go system.

A second vote is being taken to fund the Rebuild Houston program because the Texas Supreme Court ruled a similar ballot question in 2010 was incorrectly worded. The earlier proposition asked, “Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

A subsequent class-action lawsuit said the ballot question should have specifically explained that city residents would be asked to pay a drainage fee through their water bills to fund those infrastructure improvements.

And No on Prop B:

If Proposition B were a referendum on our love and affection for Houston firefighters, as their union president claims, the choice would be easy. We’d back it. And so would Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was endorsed by firefighters in his mayoral campaign after decades of advocating for them. Instead, the mayor is dipping into his personal campaign funds to fight the measure on which too many influential Houstonians have remained mum.

Voters, don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

In Prop. B, firefighters are asking for more than just appreciation. They’re asking for pay parity with police of comparable rank and seniority. They’re asking for what the mayor says amounts to a 25 percent raise that could cost the city an estimated $100 million the first year, forcing deep cuts to services and nearly 1,000 layoffs of firefighters and police.

Yes, we value firefighters. We value our kids, too. But most of us can’t go out and buy Junior a Lamborghini just because he asks for it.

And we can’t ignore that firefighters’ jobs are different from those of police. Both entail a great deal of risk, but firefighters have long been able to tailor their schedules to accommodate second jobs and businesses. Several Houston firefighters live out of state. And yes, as police point out, firefighters are allotted sleep time during their longer, 24-hour shifts.

Firefighters are asking voters for something police earned through years of hard-fought negotiations that required give and take from both sides.

I still think the ruling against the Renew Houston referendum was a screw job by the Supreme Court, but here we are. You can listen to my interview with Marty Lancton and my interview with Mayor Turner if you want to hear more about Prop B, and in the case of the Mayor, more about Prop A as well.

The problem with the revenue cap, in two short paragraphs

From the Chron:

The average homeowner has saved a cumulative $436 thanks to the rate adjustments driven by the revenue cap since 2014, an average of $87 per year.

The same adjustments have prevented the city from collecting $533 million than it otherwise would have.

So in return for a negligible reduction in your property tax bill, which you almost certainly didn’t notice, the city of Houston lost over a half billion dollars in revenue over the past five years. That’s more than enough on a per-year basis to bridge all the shortfalls that have been projected, more than enough to cover even the highest-end estimate of what the firefighters’ pay parity proposal would cost, more than enough to hire however many more cops we’re supposed to need, more than enough to make all of the employee pension systems a hell of a lot more stable, more than enough to buy out a crapload of floodplain-located homes, etc etc etc. Amazing what a little thing like $500 million dollars can do, isn’t it? And don’t forget, even though the average property tax cut was small, the biggest share of it went to the people with the most expensive property. (Not to mention, if you’re a renter, you got exactly zero out of this.) This right here is why I hold self-proclaimed fiscal peacocks who favor the revenue cap like a certain former Mayoral candidate I feel no need to name in such contempt. We cannot undo this stupid, harmful policy soon enough.

The pay parity proposal debate that wasn’t

Let’s not get ready to rumble!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s firefighters union has withdrawn from a Saturday debate with Mayor Sylvester Turner on their proposal to seek pay “parity” with police officers, saying the event’s host, the Harris County Democratic Party, had given the mayor too much control over the event.

The hour-long event would have marked the first time the mayor and the union addressed the contentious issue on the same stage.

“We looked forward to the debate,” Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said in a Wednesday morning statement, “but we recognize that party insiders failed to stop the manipulation of the ground rules to advantage the mayor. We are disappointed in the HCDP’s acquiescence to the mayor, but are grateful for the support of HCDP precinct chairs and the many Houstonians they represent.”

Among the union’s complaints were that Houston Chronicle opinion editor Lisa Falkenberg was to serve as moderator (the editorial board expressed opposition to the parity proposal in July 2017), and that Democratic Party officials did not agree to let Lancton address precinct chairs or let them vote on whether to endorse the proposition.

Alas. Here’s the earlier story announcing the event that was the original basis of this post. I am not able to be there for this not-a-forum, but perhaps you can be.

County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter said the party engaged in “extensive conversations” with both camps on the format of the discussion but respects the union’s decision to withdraw.

“The event details appeared in a Facebook announcement seen and approved by all parties last week. It is unfortunate the firefighter’s union has determined these details do not meet their needs,” she said. “We regret voters will not hear from the firefighter’s union at this time. Mayor Turner and Lisa are welcome to use the full hour we have allotted for this event.”

The party’s leadership committee, after hearing from the fire union at a recent meeting, Schechter said, voted to schedule the debate to hear from both sides. She said the gathering was never envisioned as ending in a vote, saying such votes only occur at quarterly gatherings of all precinct chairs, the last of which was held Sept. 13.

Yes, speaking as a precinct chair, that’s how our rules work. Precinct chairs vote to endorse or not endorse ballot measures like this at our quarterly meetings. We endorsed the flood bond referendum at the June meeting, for instance. There were members from the firefighters’ union at the September meeting, talking up their proposal, but no motion for an endorsement vote. Which I have to say would have been contentious, and because of that I’m glad it didn’t come up. I don’t know what may or may not have happened behind the scenes, but I do know they could have made a pretty big fuss about this at the meeting if they had wanted to.

Personally, I think an event like this, aimed at the general public, rather than an agenda item for a normally dry meeting of precinct chairs, would be a much better way to allow both sides to air their views (I’m assuming that if Lancton had been given time to address us, then Mayor Turner or a representative from his office would have been given time as well). But hey, whatever. Perhaps the Mayor and Lisa Falkenberg can discuss the cost of this referendum.

The cost of Houston firefighters’ push for pay parity with police of corresponding rank and seniority could be 14 percent cheaper than what Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration has estimated, city Controller Chris Brown said Tuesday.

Brown’s office estimates that the proposal, which will appear as Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot, will cost $85.2 million a year, lower than the $98.6 million figure Turner has used. Neither estimate includes the 7 percent raise police would receive over the next two years if the city council approves a new proposed contract this week. That would increase the cost if voters decide to link fire and police salaries.

Brown acknowledged his analysis required a series of assumptions related to how the parity proposal would be implemented, and said the estimate shows the cost of the proposal would be “unsustainable.”

“The controller’s office believes that a sustainable solution exists but can only be achieved through negotiation in the collective bargaining process,” Brown said while presenting his estimate to the city council’s budget committee. “It’s through that process that the men and women of HFD should be able to negotiate a well-deserved raise, but also a well-deserved raise the city can actually afford over the long term.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton viewed Brown’s analysis as vindication of his view that Turner’s estimate is inflated.

“As the city controller proved today, the mayor’s Proposition B claims cannot be trusted. His math, like his judgment, is driven by an obsession with punishing Houston firefighters,” Lancton said.

[…]

Brown and Turner’s estimates are nearly identical on the projected increase to firefighters’ base salaries and the associated increase in retirement benefits: that roughly 20 percent increase would cost about $65 million per year.

The two estimates differ mostly on various incentives and allowances known as “special pays,” some of which firefighters receive now but which parity would increase, and some of which firefighters would receive for the first time if voters approve the measure.

Not sure how a reduction in the cost estimate from $98 million to $85 million is a vindication of the firefighters’ case, especially when $85 million is still a pretty damn big number and Controller Brown calls it “unsustainable”, but maybe that’s just me. I continue to believe this thing is going to pass so I sure hope the cost estimates we are seeing are overblown, but all things being equal I’d rather not have to find out. Be that as it may, if you don’t know what to make of all this, go attend the not-a-forum and see what you think.

The firefighter pay parity proposal sure seems like it’s going to pass

What are ya gonna do?

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is holding town halls to try to convince voters that the city can’t afford Proposition B, a ballot measure that would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police. It’s turning into an uphill fight.

Mayor Turner argues that full pay parity would cost Houston nearly $300 million, at a time when the city is wrestling with chronic deficits. But Turner is having a hard time getting voters to see this as anything other than attacking the firefighters.

“The default mode is not only to support equity pay but to support it by very big margins,” says Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

That’s particularly the case if Democrats turn out in larger-than-usual numbers. “You’ll have a lot of voters coming out who are predisposed as Democrats to support equity pay for public employees,” Stein says. “On top of that, the firemen not only have a good campaign message, but they’re going to get national support from national public employee associations and unions to support this equity pay raise.”

I’ve already seen three pro-Prop B signs in my neighborhood. Mayor Turner has been busy holding town halls and writing op-eds, but beyond that I’ve not seen much of a campaign. So yeah, I expect this to pass, quite possibly by a lot. And I’d say Mayor Turner is making the same judgment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has instituted a hiring freeze across the city government’s roughly 21,400 positions, ordering department directors seeking exceptions to meet with him or his chief of staff in person.

The directive, he wrote in a memo dated Friday, will be reviewed “at a later date this year.” Executive positions are exempt from the freeze, but those already require mayoral approval.

Mayoral spokeswoman Mary Benton said the order was spurred by Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot. That measure would give firefighters the same pay as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, costing the city an estimated $98 million annually.

“The impact would financially cripple the city and force layoffs and cutbacks to services,” Benton said. “The mayor believes it is not prudent at this time to hire additional city of Houston employees, who would lose their jobs as a result of the election.”

I mean, what did you expect? At this point I’d say the city’s best strategy is to find some plaintiffs for the ballot language lawsuit, and hope to get an injunction preventing it from being implemented while it gets hashed out in court. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome either, but the odds have to be better than beating this thing at the ballot box.

Property tax revenue up, school funding down

Welcome to Texas.

An early projection has Texas decreasing state funding to public education, and largely using local taxes to fill the gap.

In its preliminary budget request ahead of next year’s legislative session, the Texas Education Agency projected a drop in the state’s general revenue for public education by more than $3.5 billion over the next couple of years, in part because the revenue from local property taxes is expected to skyrocket. General revenue only makes up part of the state’s education funding.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath confirmed this projection in front of a state budget panel Wednesday morning as he laid out the state agency’s budget request through 2021.

The Foundation School Program, the main way of distributing state funds to Texas public schools, includes both state general revenue and local property tax revenue. Local property values are expected to grow by about 6.8 percent each year, and existing statute requires the state to use that money first before factoring in state funding.

Just a reminder, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are lots of things that could be done differently, but they all require legislative action, not to mention state leadership. There is one thing we can all do to facilitate this kind of necessary change, and that’s to vote for candidates who want to make that happen. Start with Mike Collier, who has plenty of ideas for how to fix this mess, but don’t stop there. We have a years-long record to tell us what we’re going to get if we have the same old same old in government next year. Vote to do something different or quit complaining when you don’t get it. The Chron editorial board has more.

HFD Chief warns of layoffs

To be fair, this isn’t the first time we have heard this.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña on Tuesday warned of dire consequences — including possible layoffs of more than 800 firefighters and deferred maintenance or upgrades on aging equipment, if voters approve the firefighters’ pay parity initiative on the November ballot.

Peña’s warning came during a City Council Committee on Budget & Fiscal Affairs meeting to provide city leaders with their first look at how the Houston Fire Department might handle the costs of the ballot measure, which proposes to raise firefighter pay to that of their police peers.

In its latest estimate, the Turner administration says approval of the referendum would cost the city $98 million in its first year and would lead to cuts at the fire department as well as in other city agencies.

“A reduction of this size in personnel cannot be accomplished without a major restructuring of the current operations,” said Tantri Emo, director of the city’s finance department. Emo said the city’s $98 million estimate million came from comparing salaries of firefighters and police at similar ranks, and said the city did not yet have estimates that might factor in costs to the city’s pension system.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton questioned the city’s calculation on how much pay parity would actually cost taxpayers. Lancton repeated past assertions that the city refused to negotiate or work with firefighters on issues ranging from pay to operations to equipment, but he did not provide the union’s cost estimates.

Emphasis mine. We all agree that this referendum will cost the city some money if passed, right? I mean, there’d be literally no point for the HPFFA to push for it if it didn’t mean higher pay for their members. As such, the fact that the union has refused to provide their own number whenever the city has cited one is telling. Obviously, the firefighters are going to argue that the city is exaggerating the cost, and they’re very likely correct about that. But it’s one thing to say “oh, it will only cost $10-20 million”, which the city probably could afford with at most minimal cuts, and another entirely to say “oh, it will only cost $50-60 million”, which the city can’t do without real cuts and starts to sound pretty expensive besides. If the firefighters can’t or won’t provide their own estimate of how much this will cost the city – and let’s be real, they most certainly do have their own estimate – then the city’s number is the one we must accept. And that’s a number that will absolutely lead to job cuts, including among HFD’s ranks.

Will this affect the outcome of the election? Maybe, if the city can get that message out. Holding a few town halls is nice and appreciated, but it’s not going to spread the message far and wide. Remember, nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the city in 2010, with over 330K votes tallied in the Renew Houston and red light camera elections. You’re not going to reach that many people without significant outreach, and so far all I’ve seen is one pro-firefighter web ad. If there’s a campaign in the works, it’s going to need to get going soon.

We really need to replace our crappy old voting machines

This is embarrassing.

Local election administrators in Texas are eager to replace voting machines purchased more than a decade ago in time for the 2020 presidential election. Increasingly susceptible to malfunctions, upkeep for the aging machines can exceed $300,000 annually in the biggest counties. Election experts have also raised security concerns about the paperless electronic devices used in most of the state.

The little help Congress has offered comes in the form of recent funding that will be used for cyber updates and training, not voting machines. And state leaders have shown no interest in chipping in, even as scrutiny over the security of the country’s election systems ratchets up in the face of Russian attacks.

In 2017, budget writers in the Texas Legislature seemed lukewarm to the idea of replacing aging equipment. Legislation that would have created a state fund for new voting equipment died without getting a committee vote in the House. The bill received a late-session hearing during which one lawmaker on the panel, Representative Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, asked county officials to shorten their testimony because a college basketball championship game had just tipped off.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until a crisis, but we are walking on thin ice when it comes to the integrity of our voting machines,” said state Representative Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and the sponsor of the 2017 legislation.

More than 200 of Texas’ 254 counties still need to replace their voting machines and it appears unlikely that all will be able to do so in time for the next presidential election. The full price tag, according to election officials, is around $350 million — and local officials are having to find inventive ways to cover the costs. Travis County, for example, is expected to announce the winner of a new voting machine contract this week and plans to sell local bonds to come up with the anticipated $15 million.

The situation has grown dire. Some counties are using equipment that’s no longer manufactured. Machine failures are growing more common and it’s becoming harder to find replacement parts. County workers often have to scour eBay and Amazon to locate bygone tech relics such as as Zip disks and flash drives compatible with older machines.

Yeah, ZIP drives. Remember them, from the 90s? If you are relying on this kind of technology today, You Are Doing It Wrong. There’s no excuse for this – even if one thinks the counties should pay for the upgrades themselves, the cost cited in that penultimate paragraph is something like 0.3% of the state’s annual expenditures. It would be super easy to solve this if we gave a shit, but clearly our Republican leaders do not. But hey, I’m sure nothing bad will ever happen.

Council discusses firefighter pay parity proposal

It will cost some money if it passes.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said Thursday that his firefighters deserve raises, but he would be hard-pressed to maintain his department budget without reducing his ranks if voters approve a measure granting firefighters “pay parity” with police.

“This is not a scare tactic,” Peña told a city council committee. “They’re simple numbers. In order to deliver the expected service this community wants we’re going to have to do restructuring. Even at that, I won’t be able to meet the entire gap.”

Peña’s comments were in response to questions during a city council committee meeting Thursday in regard to a proposed “pay parity” measure the Houston firefighters union wants to appear on the November ballot.

Others, including city officials, business leaders and police union members, told the committee that passage of the parity measure would force the city to cut services and lay off workers and could risk a credit downgrade for City Hall.

[…]

The firefighters union wants the referendum on the November ballot, but Turner said he will let the council choose the election date at its Aug. 8 meeting. The deadline for getting something on the November ballot is Aug. 20.

Turner this week said the committee hearing was intended to be informational.

“When you’re talking to your constituents and they ask you approximately how much this will cost, I’d like to think you’ll want to have an answer,” he told the council Wednesday.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story about the Council meeting, which was not the very special meeting that failed to reach a quorum. The firefighters are correct that Council has a duty to out the measure on the ballot, and to do it any later than this November would justifiably be seen as another stall for time. Their complaints about Council discussing the price tag rings hollow to me, given 1) the lack of clarity of how a pay parity proposal would be implemented; 2) the experience of other cities that have done this; 3) the potential impact on pension costs; and 4) the city’s overall financial picture. You know how I feel about this, and let me note again the certainty that someone will file suit over the ballot language no matter how the vote goes. I agree with Campos that the fight over this issue will be contentious, with the police department and the Greater Houston Partnership siding with the city against the firefighters. It’s not great to contemplate, but it’s pretty much baked in at this point. We’ll see what Council does on August 8.

HISD approves its budget

In the end, they took what they initially rejected.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously passed a $2 billion budget Monday that is nearly identical to the one they narrowly rejected two weeks ago, signing off on significant cuts and agreeing to draw as much as $17 million from the district’s rainy-day fund.

At an hourlong early-morning meeting, trustees said they wanted to pass balanced budgets after back-to-back years of dipping into reserves, but they ultimately approved the spending plan ahead of a June 30 deadline.

[…]

The approved budget calls for about $83 million in spending cuts, which will result in hundreds of layoffs of support service staff. Hundreds of teaching positions also will be eliminated, but HISD administrators said they expect the vast majority of those jobs will be cut through attrition.

The budget includes about $17 million in new spending on dyslexia services, special education, the district’s plan for low-performing campuses and a comprehensive outside performance review. Trustees shaved about $1.5 million off the projected shortfall in recent days by choosing to use the state’s Legislative Budget Board for the performance review instead of a third-party vendor.

Trustees approved a budget last year that used $106 million in reserves to cover a shortfall and pay for raises ranging from 2 to 4 percent for many staff members, though they ultimately used less rainy-day money than expected.

At the June 14 budget meeting, several trustees said they were reluctant to tap reserves again, even on a smaller scale.

Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budgeting and financial planning, said the district likely will not spend as much as is currently budgeted, and it could receive more tax revenue than was projected. As a result, Reed said: “I don’t expect to dip into our reserves next year.”

Administrators built the plan assuming a 1 percent increase in property values, but the Harris County Appraisal District expects HISD to see a 2 percent increase. Concerns about property appraisal appeals related to Hurricane Harvey led to the conservative projection.

HISD is expected to have about $275 million in reserves at the end of June, equal to about a month and a half of operating expenses. District officials have recommended keeping at least 3 months’ worth of operating expenses in reserve to cover emergency costs.

See here for the background. They could have done this last week, but it was definitely more exciting this way. In all seriousness, I get the urge to not want to dip into the reserve fund again, but 1) given the justifiably conservative revenue estimates that the district will almost certainly exceed, they probably won’t need to, and 2) sometimes the alternatives are worse. This was one of those times, so good call on taking the original path. The Press has more.

HISD Board will need a budget do-over

It’s never boring over there.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly rejected the district’s proposed $2 billion budget, did not move forward with making Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan the district’s permanent leader and voted to end the employment of acclaimed Furr High School Principal Bertie Simmons during an eventful meeting Thursday.

In a surprising split, board members voted 5-4 to reject the budget proposal after several trustees expressed concern about using $19 million from HISD’s rainy-day fund to cover a shortfall. Trustees had voiced little public opposition to the budget until Thursday’s meeting.

Trustees now have until June 30 to comply with state law and pass a budget for 2018-19. HISD administrators are expected to present a revised budget proposal in the coming days. A date has not been set for the next board meeting.

HISD’s budget has been subject to intense scrutiny since January, when district administrators forecasted a deficit of about $200 million. Administrators revised their projections after receiving a sunnier revenue outlook in recent months, cutting the expected deficit in half. They proposed slashing about $83 million in spending — which would result in hundreds of layoffs — and using $19 million from the rainy-day fund to cover the remaining shortfall.

Until Thursday, much of the discussion surrounding HISD’s proposed budget had centered on the distribution of cuts. At several public budget meetings in recent months, trustees gave no indication that they would reject the proposed budget because it used rainy-day funds.

But several trustees on Thursday said HISD needs to stop using reserves to balance its budget. Last year, board members voted 8-1 to take $106 million from the district’s rainy-day fund to cover its deficit.

The proposed budget already contained a lot of cuts, as this earlier Chron story details. If the concern is about using $19 million from the reserve fund, then either they’ll have to find money elsewhere or cut some more. That doesn’t sound great, but I’m not sure how they can accomplish the former, so options – and time – are limited. The Press has more.

Council approves Mayor’s budget

The annual ritual is observed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council adopted Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $4.9 billion budget by a vote of 13-4 Wednesday, ending three hours of otherwise amiable debate with an impassioned speech from Councilman Jack Christie that concluded with the councilman resigning his post as budget committee chair and voting no.

Christie was joined in opposing the budget by council members Mike Knox, Greg Travis and Michael Kubosh, who said they wanted the mayor to make more of an effort to cut spending.

“I can keep playing politics, go along to get along, or start fighting vigorously for our tax-paying citizens and not waste their money,” Christie said, listing his past ideas for constraining costs or forming commissions to study cost-cutting that were not implemented. “As a political body, we are failing the people of Houston.”

Turner rejected the criticism. He said the budget is “sound,” and noted that Kubosh’s lone amendment would have given each council member an additional $100,000 for staff salaries. Knox submitted no amendments, and Travis submitted amendments that sought cost-cutting recommendations from the administration but listed no specific cuts.

Christie also submitted no cost-reduction amendments, and, in fact, twice admitted one of his items — earmarking $150,000 to fund an external study on the emissions of the city’s vehicle fleet — was “a waste of money” because he already knows a shift to alternative fuels is the right move.

“It’s so easy to just say to the administration, ‘Mayor, you didn’t cut enough,’” Turner said after the meeting. “Every individual that voted ‘no’ put forth no ideas, no amendment to reduce the cost. Not one. Not that they offered it and we voted them down — they didn’t offer any. To the contrary, they put forth amendments that would increase the amount that we were going to have to expend.”

[…]

The general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $2.5 billion. That fund is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase largely is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package.

Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously-agreed-to raises for police that take effect July 1. About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety — the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The story also notes the $17 million the city may wind up being short thanks to an unfriendly Census estimate and the stupid revenue cap; it’s not clear to me if that would apply to this year or next if the city’s appeal fails. I’m not surprised there were no cost-cutting amendments of any substance. Turns out that’s a hard thing to do, especially in a budget that’s mostly about public safety, trash pickup, parks, and libraries. You know, basic things that people want and need. Good thing talking about it remains free.

The revenue cap is stupid and harmful

Reason #4,739:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In posting a sluggish population growth estimate for Houston, the U.S. Census Bureau blew a $17 million hole in the city budget.

City officials had expected the count would show Houston had added about 30,400 people by January from the year prior. The Census Bureau on Thursday, however, estimated the city grew by just 9,200 between July 2016 and last summer.

Because the revenue cap voters approved in 2004 limits the city’s annual increase in property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, that means Mayor Sylvester Turner must adjust his proposed $2.5 billion general fund budget.

Or he will, if he is unsuccessful in challenging the Census estimate. The city’s estimates, he said, are more up to date and are “based on greater familiarity with local indicators.”

To challenge the estimate, Houston can submit data on topics such as residential building and demolition permits, mobile home placements, household sizes and apartment occupancy rates.

Houston successfully challenged its formal count in the 2010 Census, and also added 3 percent to its population estimate via an appeal in 2006, and a little more than 1 percent to its 2008 count, according to the Census website.

The city’s press release is here. Neither the rate of inflation nor the rate of population growth have anything to do with the city’s needs or its financial capacity. It also as you can see puts an awful lot of power in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats. Who I’m sure are fine people, but they’re not accountable to the voters of Houston. I mean seriously, who thinks this makes sense? The whole stupid thing needs to be repealed.

Turner’s 2019 budget

Here’s the plan for making ends meet for next fiscal year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July would close a shortfall of $114 million without employee layoffs by drawing down the city’s reserves, transferring money from special accounts to the general fund and cutting spending.

In a proposal unveiled Tuesday, Turner plans to spend $2.5 billion from the general fund, which is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase chiefly is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package. Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously agreed to raises for police.

“This is a very, very tight budget,” Turner said. “I have scrubbed this budget, every line item that exists. I invite anyone to take a look underneath the hood. Because there are two departments that will always drive this budget: Police and fire.”

About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety – the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations. Another $400 million goes to debt service. Parks, libraries, health services, trash pickup and most other city functions get the rest, about $672 million.

[…]

Turner acknowledged two key developments helped prevent layoffs in the proposed budget, providing most of the $84 million the mayor intends to pull from the city’s reserves to spend in the upcoming budget.

First, the city settled a lawsuit it had filed against Towers Watson, an actuarial firm it blamed for contributing to the city’s pension crisis, saying city officials’ reliance on the firm’s advice led them to boost benefits in 2001 and saddle taxpayers with unaffordable pensions costs. That settlement, which was approved by city council last month, injected $29 million into the general fund.

The city also, as it routinely does, conservatively estimated the sales tax revenues it would receive in the current budget year. As a result, the city collected an “extra” $28 million that will be available for the upcoming budget year.

Yeah, that pension projection lawsuit settlement sure came in handy. I don’t know what rabbits there will be to pull out of next year’s hat, however. We’ll see what Council makes of this when it comes to them for a vote.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

For eight-straight years, Cypress-Fairbanks and Conroe ISDs earned the Texas Smart Schools Award, bestowed on school districts with prudent financial practices and high academic achievement.

Now, Cypress-Fairbanks faces a $50 million deficit next school year, and Conroe is projected to face its first deficit in nearly a decade in the next two to four years.

They are not alone.

As the Texas Legislature studies potential changes to the state’s school funding mechanisms, the majority of large Houston-area school districts are facing budget shortfalls they say stem from a lack of state aid. Of the 10 largest Houston-area school districts, all but three approved budgets last summer that included deficits of more than $1 million, according to a Chronicle review. At least nine say they may have to dip into reserve funds within the next three to five years if revenues do not increase.

For some, it is more dire. If nothing changes at the state or local level, district officials say Spring Branch ISD in west Houston will be financially insolvent in three years. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD will use up all its reserve funds in four or five years. Pasadena ISD only avoided a $20 million shortfall for the next school year by passing a tax hike referendum, and multiple districts are considering similar measures to keep their schools afloat.

That pain is felt in large and small districts across the state. North East ISD in San Antonio expects to cut $12 million from its budget next year, likely leading to teacher layoffs, according to the San Antonio Express-News. By 2020, budget documents in Ysleta ISD near El Paso show the district likely will draw down its reserve funds by $12 million. Friendswood ISD, which educates roughly 6,000 students in a sliver of southeast Greater Houston, is facing a $1.9 million budget shortfall next year.

“If we’ve been one of the most efficient districts in the state, and we’re facing this crisis, imagine what other districts are dealing with,” Cy-Fair ISD Chief Financial Officer Stuart Snow said.

[…]

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who sits on the Commission of Public Education Funding, said districts should expand their revenue streams to include sources other than local property taxes and the state. He pointed to Dallas ISD, which pulls in about $10 million annually from philanthropy. United Airlines also staffed one of DISD’s schools with 25 full-time employees, a partnership Bettencourt said should inspire districts elsewhere.

“It’s not going to be one-size fits all — there are many, many ways to do it right,” Bettencourt said. “At end of the day, we want the education system to get students the best educations they can get for best deals taxpayers can support. But we need to look for all the ways we can do it right.”

First of all, to Paul Bettencourt: You cannot be serious. Philanthropy? Are you kidding me? Dallas ISD’s 2017-2018 general revenue expenditures were over $1.4 billion. That $10 million represents 0.7% of the total. You gonna suggest everyone search their couch cushions, too? Oh, and I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember when two of the biggest philanthropic entities in Houston were Enron and Continental Airlines. Good thing HISD didn’t make itself dependent on them, you know?

This is entirely the Legislature’s responsibility. We are here because they refuse to adequately fund schools, and because they use the increases in property valuations to fund the rest of the budget, while blaming local officials for their shortfalls and tax hikes. As with everything else in this state, nothing will change until the people we elect change. If you live in one of these districts, don’t take your frustrations out on your school board trustees. Take it out on the State Reps and State Senators who skimp on school finance, and the Governor and Lt. Governor who push them to keep doing it.

HISD will not change its funding mechanism

Not this year, at least.

Houston ISD officials have abandoned plans to overhaul the way the district funds its schools, opting to keep HISD’s long-standing financing system as they work to fill a $115 million budget deficit.

Schools will continue to receive an allotment of money based on their enrollments next school year, but the amount campuses receive will shrink by nearly $200 per student.

The announcement walked back proposals made by former Superintendent Richard Carranza in January to centralize some staffing and budgeting decisions now made by principals.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district needs to do more outreach and study its funding mechanisms before changing the way schools are allotted money. The district will create a committee in the coming months to study resource allocation.

“We wanted to pause and take a step back and give some proposals to the board about how do we engage the community about the funding allocation,” Lathan said. “What does it look like for HISD and our community?”

See here and here for some background. I was in full-on primary mode when the original plan was announced and I never quite had the brain space to pay close attention to it, and now it looks like I won’t have to. The plan now is the old-fashioned easier-to-understand one of cutting back a little bit here, there, and everywhere. It may be simpler, but I hope HISD will do outreach to make sure everyone has a chance to know what to expect. The Press has more.

From the “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” files

Same song, second verse.

If budget writers don’t come up with money to address a state employee pension shortfall and mounting needs for public schools, health care and transportation, credit agencies are likely to downgrade Texas’ AAA rating in the near future.

That was the warning Comptroller Glenn Hegar gave lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee in Austin. Though the Texas economy is growing at a healthy pace, Hegar said, the state’s budget is riddled with enough unfunded liabilities to worry credit rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.

“We’re not at a crisis,” Hegar said, but “we’re going in the wrong direction.”

A downgrading of Texas’ credit rating would make it more expensive for the state to borrow money — and perhaps damage state leaders’ credibility when advertising Texas as “open for business.”

“I want to avoid that, because I think that’s a black eye on the state of Texas,” Hegar said.

Rebounding oil prices, natural growth and migration to Texas have led to an increase in tax collections, according to the comptroller’s office. But much of that new revenue is already dedicated to historically underfunded programs such as the state highway fund, meaning that Texas lawmakers likely won’t have more money at their disposal in 2019 when crafting the next two-year budget.

At the same time, lawmakers will need to plug holes in the pension system for state employees, and they’ll face pressure to make solvent a health insurance program for retired teachers. On top of that, big bills coming due for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled that is perennially underfunded by the Legislature, could put the state budget $2.5 billion in the red before lawmakers even convene in 2019. (The state’s current two-year budget is about $217 billion.)

In addition, state leaders will have to tackle the bills from Hurricane Harvey recovery.

I’ll just say again here what I said in January: The vast majority of these issues are the result of deliberate choices made by our Governor, our Lieutenant Governor, and our Republican-controlled Legislature. Instead of seriously addressing the needs of the state, current and future, our Republican leaders have been obsessed with trivia, from bathrooms to plastic bags to trees. We have gotten by and done all right because times have been good, but we are in a far more precarious position for when the economy goes south than we should be. In the meantime, we are squandering this opportunity to ensure a better future for all of us by making such cavalier and ill-advised fiscal choices. Every Democratic candidate running for state office needs to internalize and articulate that message going forward.