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Ed Emmett

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Flood bond referendum passes easily

It was in the 85-15 range as of the 8:30 update from the County Clerk. Only a handful of precincts had reported as of that time, and I’m not going to stay up late waiting for more comprehensive numbers – I’ll post an update in the morning. There were about 95K early votes, and Stan Stanart was estimating another 60K on Saturday. The Yes vote had 70K more votes by this time, so it’s almost literally impossible for it not to pass if Stanart’s count of the Saturday tally is accurate. Not that this would have been likely in any event. The bond passed by a wide margin, so we go from here.

UPDATE: Final result, 129,944 in favor, 21,790 opposed, which is 85.64% in favor. Total turnout 152,305, for 6.66%, of which 57,365 were on Saturday. Some day I’d like to meet one of the 569 people who showed up at a polling place for this one election, and then did not pick one of the options available to them.

If Greg Abbott won’t call a special election in SD06, maybe Stan Stanart will

From the inbox:

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

Dear Mr. Stanart,

My firm and I, together with Robert Icesezen, Esq., have been engaged to represent Sen. Sylvia R. Garcia, individually and as the elected representative of the citizens of Texas Senate District 6. Governor Abbott has wrongly refused to order a special election to replace Senator Garcia, who recently served the Governor with a letter of resignation. Under the Texas Constitution, when the Governor won’t do the right thing, you must do it for him.

[…]

According to the Election Code, “an unexpired term in office” – like that of Senator Garcia – “may be filled only by a special election…” See Election Code 203.002. And, “[i]f a vacancy in office is to be filled by special election, the election shall be ordered as soon as practicable after the vacancy occurs…” Id 201.051(a) (emphasis added). This, someone must order a special election to fill the seat being vacated by Senator Garcia.

Under Section 13 of Article 3 of the Texas Constitution, that obligation falls first to the Governor. The Texas Constitution provides that “[w]hen vacancies occur in either House [of the Legislature], the Governor shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies…” Importantly, under that same section of our Constitution, “should the Governor fail to issue a writ of election to fill any such vacancy within twenty days after it occurs, the returning officer of the district in which such vacancy may have happened, shall be authorized to order an election for that purpose.”

Governor Abbott should have ordered a special election for Senate District 6 by August 20, 2018. He has refused to do so. As the returning officer for Senate District 6 [1], it is your constitutional duty to do it for him. Only you can fulfill the Election Code’s mandate that a special election must be ordered under these circumstances.

See here for the background, and here for the Chron story. The letter is signed by Brian Trachtenberg, and it’s cc’ed to Abbott, County Judge Ed Emmett, and County Attorney Vince Ryan. My extremely-not-a-lawyer’s take on this is that the stated authority for Stanart to call the election seems to hang on the definition of “returning officer”, for which we have this footnote:

[1] – See Election Code 67.007 (a) (“For each election for a statewide or district office, a statewide measure, or president and vice-president of the United States, the county clerk of each county in the territory covered by the election shall prepare county election returns.”)

Someone more lawyerly than me will need to evaluate that. Assuming it is valid, then it becomes a question of whether Stanart will be any more inclined to take action than Abbott has been, and whether a judge would force the issue when the motion is filed. I have no idea what would happen next. And as entertaining as it is to speculate about obscure corners of the state constitution, the situation here is serious, and easily avoidable if Greg Abbott weren’t being such a jackass. Whether Sen. Garcia prevails via this legal gambit or sucks it up and writes another resignation letter, she needs to do whatever it takes to get that election scheduled.

Flood bond referendum: Interview with Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Believe it or not, early voting for the August 25 flood bond referendum begins this week, on Wednesday the 8th. Those of you who make the effort to show up and vote will get to decide whether or not to ratify a $2.5 billion bond package put forth by Commissioners Court for a variety of projects involving bayous, detention basins, wetlands, emergency response systems, and more. You can find all of the county’s information about the bond package here. There’s a lot to read and there are lots of maps to look at, and you really should try to learn as much as you can about this not just so you’ll know what you’re voting on but also so that you’ll know what to expect and how to stay engaged should it pass. I’d like to do my part to help people understand the issue by doing what I do for elections, which is to say interviews. The logical place to start for that is with County Judge Ed Emmett, as he helped spearhead the drive to get a bond issue before the voters, and because he pushed to have it in August, on the one-year anniversary of Harvey, rather than in November. We talked about what’s in the package now and what might be in it later, why we’re doing this at such an unusual time, what else there is to be done, and more. Here’s the interview:

I’ll have another interview on Wednesday. Let me know what you think.

Early voting for the flood bond referendum

It’s a little weird, but there’s two full weeks of it and for the most part you can vote at the usual places.

Harris County will have 25 balloting locations during the first weekend of early voting for the $2.5 billion flood control bond election, and almost twice that during the rest of early voting, the Harris County Clerk’s office said Tuesday.

Roughly 700 voting locations will be open on the Aug. 25 election day, a date chosen to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Chief Deputy County Clerk George Hammerlein told Commissioners Court.

Early voting will begin Aug. 8. The number of early voting locations will be 45, except during the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, when there will be 25 polling places.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis had raised concerns about the clerk’s initial balloting plans, which they said called for just one early voting location downtown during the first weekend.

“We’re expanding so the goal is one per state representative district that first weekend,” Hammerlein said.

You can see the map and schedule here. Not clear to me if Hammerlein is saying that there will be more EV locations during that first weekend, but as noted there are two full weeks, including a second weekend. So you should have plenty of opportunity to turn out.

July 2018 finance reports: Harris County candidates

Let’s take a look at where we stand with the candidates for county office. January report info is here. On we go:

County Judge

Ed Emmett
Lina Hidalgo

Commissioner, Precinct 2

Jack Morman
Adrian Garcia

Commissioner, Precinct 4

Jack Cagle
Penny Shaw

District Clerk

Chris Daniel
Marilyn Burgess

County Clerk

Stan Stanart
Diane Trautman

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez
Dylan Osborne

HCDE, Position 3 At Large

Marcus Cowart
Richard Cantu

HCDE, Position 4, Precinct 3

Josh Flynn
Andrea Duhon


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
Emmett    County Judge   618,590    138,209        0    934,714
Hidalgo   County Judge   183,252     67,007        0    116,263  

Morman      Comm Pct 2   612,400    178,027   30,185  2,710,005
A Garcia    Comm Pct 2   342,182    141,745        0    154,693  

Cagle       Comm Pct 4   199,800    451,189        0    658,641
Shaw        Comm Pct 4     7,838     10,591        0      1,234

Daniel  District Clerk   106,675    113,813   45,000     59,920
Burgess District Clerk     5,527      1,504        0      9,476

Stanart   County Clerk     5,820      5,836   20,000     75,389
Trautman  County Clerk     8,705      4,236        0     23,749

Sanchez      Treasurer    86,185      4,801  200,000    281,383
Osborne      Treasurer     1,645      2,441        0        491

Cowart          HCDE 3         0          0        0          0
Cantu           HCDE 3       953      1,606        0        656

Flynn           HCDE 4       200      2,134        0          0
Duhon           HCDE 4     1,476      1,149        0        977

All things considered, that’s a pretty decent amount of money raised by Lina Hidalgo, especially as a first-time candidate running against a ten-year incumbent. She has the resources to run a professional campaign, and she’s done that. I don’t know what her mass communication strategy is, but she will need more to do that effectively. We’re a big county, there are a lot of voters here, and these things ain’t cheap. She was endorsed last week by Annie’s List, so that should be a big help in this department going forward.

Ed Emmett is clearly taking her seriously. He’s stepped up his fundraising after posting a modest report in January. Greg Abbott has already reserved a bunch of TV time with his bottomless campaign treasury, and I figure that will be as much to bolster local and legislative candidates as it will be for himself. Still, those who can support themselves are going to continue to do so.

Which brings us to Commissioners Court in Precinct 2, one of the top-tier races of any kind in the region. Adrian Garcia started from scratch after his Mayoral and Congressional campaigns, and he’s done well to get prepped for the fall. That’s a challenge when the guy you’re up against has as much as Jack Morman has, but at least Garcia starts out as someone the voters know and have by and large supported. I will be interested to see just what Morman has in mind to do with all that money, but until we see something tangible I have a dumb question: Why, if you have $2.7 million in the bank, would you not just go ahead and clear up that $30K loan? Is there some subtle financial reason for it, or is it just that no one cares about campaign loans being paid back? Anyone with some insight into these burning questions is encouraged to enlighten us in the comments.

Speaking of loans, that 200K bit of debt for Orlando Sanchez keeps on keeping on. Sanchez managed to get a few people to write him four-figure (and in one case, a five-figure) checks this period. I literally have no idea why anyone would do that, but here we are. It gives me something to write about, so we can all be thankful for that.

I’ve got more of these to come. Let me know what you think.

And now we’re going to fight about when elections can be

I have thoughts about this.

School districts and other local governments are intentionally holding elections at odd times this summer to drive down turnout in hopes it will help them win voter approval for tax increases and bond issues, state lawmakers say.

Local government leaders say they don’t set elections on odd days in hopes of a more favorable outcome at the ballot box, but the issue is fast becoming a new tension point in the sometimes adversarial relationship between local government agencies and the Republican-led Texas Legislature.

“There will be a response from the Legislature,” pledged State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.

Just last month the Klein Independent School District in Harris County held a tax increase election on June 16 — a Saturday. That was three weeks after Texas voters took to the polls for statewide runoff elections on May 22. And three weeks before that, the city of Houston held a special election on May 5 to fill a city council vacancy.

Next up: South San Antonio Independent School District is holding an election on Aug. 14 in an attempt to raise the district’s property tax rate by 13 cents per $100 of taxable value, which would increase school taxes by $130 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

And on August 25, Harris County will ask voters to approve a $2.5 billion bond issue to cover the cost of flood control projects. That same day, voters in Floresville ISD, just outside of San Antonio, are being asked to approve a tax increase.

“It is preposterously bad public policy to spend taxpayer money to hold special elections in the dog days of summer that almost always have a low voter turnout,” Bettencourt said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett shot back. “People who live in Senator Bettencourt’s senate district were affected by the flooding. He should be doing more to help them instead of worrying about election dates,” he said.

[…]

Klein ISD superintendent Bret Champion said the district wasn’t playing games with the June election. The district was looking for the earliest possible date in order to have time to prepare for the next school year budget, whether the measure passed or failed.

If the district had waited until November, he said, the election would have been two months into the budget year and its failure would have forced adjustments with the school year already well underway.

“It was a budgetary reason, not a political one,” Champion said.

As a matter of principle, I too would rather see elections generally held in November and May, when people expect them to be. It’s what I wanted for the flood bond referendum, as you may recall. It’s not just a matter of being more democratic, it’s also that I believe higher turnout is generally better for issues and candidates I care about. Not all the time, of course (Exhibit A: the year 2010), but more often than not. There’s a reason I care about things like registering voters and making it easier and more convenient to vote. I’ll admit it can be a tossup for things like the Klein ISD tax ratification election, where only the most interested will participate and it’s not obvious who those people will be, but give me a choice and I’ll take the higher turnout scenario.

That said, I have some sympathy for school districts that are only holding these dumb elections because legislators like Paul Bettencourt forced them to as a way to impose a low-tax low-revenue orthodoxy on them, and I can understand the rationale for the August flood bond election date even if I disagree with it. It’s especially rich to hear Bettencourt sing the praises of higher turnout, given his long career in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office of purging the voter rolls as a tool of voter suppression, not to mention his party’s enthusiastic embrace of voter ID. Tell you what, Paul I’ll support your push for May and November-only elections if you’ll support online and same-day voter registration. You want to encourage higher turnout in elections, put your money where your mouth is.

CD07 candidates endorse the August flood bond referendum

What I would expect.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson and his challenger, Lizzie Fletcher, found rare common ground on Wednesday as both endorsed Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal.

Culberson said he can match every local dollar Harris County puts toward flood recovery with up to three federal dollars, ensuring the county would have access to additional flood mitigation funds it would not have to repay.

“I support that bond proposal, because that will increase the amount of money Harris County can put on the table, which allows me, as the appropriator, to put more federal dollars into the projects,” Culberson said.

Fletcher, his Democratic opponent, said the bond is critical to addressing the county’s chronic flooding problem.

“We saw as recently as last week how essential these investments in projects are to our community as Independence Day became another flood day in Houston,” she said in a statement.

It’s hard to imagine either candidate not endorsing any remotely sound flood bond measure. It would have been highly iconoclastic, and very much a campaign issue, if one of them did not do so. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine this bond passing if it doesn’t get robust support from within CD07. Go back to the 2013 referendum to build a joint processing center for the jail and combine the city jail into the county. It barely passed despite there being no organized opposition but very little in the way of a campaign for it, and it owed its passage to the voters in Council districts C and G, for which there is significant overlap with CD07. (This was an odd year election, and while the County Clerk has made some changes to its election canvass data since then, the only district information I had for this was Council districts.) Having both Culberson and Fletcher on board helps, but it’s not sufficient by itself, especially for a weirdly timed election. It’s a start, but more will be needed for this thing to pass.

More on the latest Harvey funds

Here’s the full Chron story regarding that allocation of federal Harvey recovery money from Thursday. It wasn’t clear from the Trib story I quoted from, but that levee system is, at least in part, the Ike Dike.

Jim Blackburn of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center said he looked forward to seeing how the $3.9 billion would be appropriated. He said the amount was not nearly enough to fund the “Ike Dike” project, the estimated cost of which runs upwards of $12 billion, but he said the money could be used to build levees on Galveston and Bolivar islands. The corps has not yet approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in the coming months.

“It is irregular to appropriate funds before the internal Corps review is completed,” Blackburn said. “With the amount of money at about $4 billion, that is not enough to build the gates across Bolivar Roads, but you could build the levees with that amount of money. However, no one knows where the levee is to be placed — on the beach? Raising the roads? Behind the roads on Galveston and Bolivar? Usually there is not such uncertainty.”

There remained a lot of uncertainty about the Houston area’s preparedness for the next big storm after 7 inches of rain fell on parts of Harris County on Wednesday before tapering off in the early afternoon. The 6 inches recorded at Hobby airport set a record for the July 4th holiday, putting nerves on edge in a region still recovering from Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Those totals fell short of the rainfall during the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016, which each dumped more than a dozen inches on the area, and well short of Harvey’s 30 to 50 inches. Still, the rain fell hard and quickly Wednesday morning, flooding streets, stranding motorists, spurring Harris County to open its emergency operations center and forcing Houston to cancel its Freedom Over Texas celebration for the first time ever. Skies did clear in time for an evening fireworks show near downtown Houston.

“This was a relatively minor storm that almost reached catastrophic proportions,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in that these types of storms will occur more and more often.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the July 4th flooding, from a mere 4 to 6 hours of rain, highlighted the need for a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that will go before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey making landfall. Some of the bond proceeds would go toward reducing street flooding in extreme rain events, according to the Harris County Flood Control District’s website.

Officials from Houston and Harris County said Wednesday that the preparedness level of first responders is the same or better than when Harvey hit, thanks to the addition of rescue boats and high-water vehicles to several agencies. But most of the flood infrastructure damaged by that historic storm has yet to be repaired, and it weakens each time a new system batters the region.

“I would expect to see that where there were previous damages, they probably start to get incrementally worse,” said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. “Anytime you’ve got exposed slopes, the erosion just keeps on going.”

Blackburn said just 5 percent of the $150 million in needed infrastructure repairs has been completed. He estimated that crews will need until the end of 2019 to complete the rest. The projects that the flood control district has completed so far, at a cost of $6 million, have focused on damaged infrastructure that posed the greatest risk to public safety.

See here for the background. I think of the Ike Dike as mostly protection for Galveston and the Port of Houston, but it is intended to extend down the coast. As Jim Blackburn notes, there are still many questions about the Ike Dike, which is why there are still bills to study it rattling around in Congress. We’ll see what happens with this. As for how the rest stacks up with the county bond referendum, I imagine they’re complementary, which is how it should be.

More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll get a chance to say it.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Harris County poll: Hidalgo 53, Emmett 47

From the inbox last week:

Lina Hidalgo

The Lina Hidalgo campaign for Harris County Judge today released the results of its first county-wide poll, showing the Democratic challenger leading the Republican incumbent by a stunning six percentage points; among Harris County voters who plan to vote in the County Judge race, 53% plan to vote for Lina Hidalgo and 47% say they will vote for Ed Emmett.

The poll, conducted by Texas Democratic Party-authorized polling firm, Change Research, surveyed more than 1700 registered voters in Harris County on May 11, 12, 13, 19, and 20, and has a margin of error of +/- 3%.

“This poll supports what I am hearing as I travel to every corner of Harris County – that people are ready for new, authentic leadership for the future,” said Hidalgo. “In spite of the poll’s heartening results, I plan to campaign every day as if we are six points down, not six points up. I will work my heart out to make sure that every voter in Harris County feels heard and included.”

Other poll findings of note include:

94% of Harris County voters report feeling more interested (56%) in or equally as interested (38%) in the 2018 election as they have felt about prior elections.

President Trump is viewed unfavorably by 60% of Harris County voters

Voters report that the three issues that will drive their voting behavior most in November are:

1. Government transparency
2. Education
3. Jobs

Like me, you probably had a lot of questions when you saw this. I went ahead and emailed the Hidalgo campaign to get more information about the poll, and they graciously provided me this executive summary and this spreadsheet with the questions and answers broken down by race/age/gender/etc. I think the best way to present the fuller data set and discuss the points I want to raise are to go through the questions and responses in the spreadsheet. So with that said, here we go.

Question: Which of the following best desribes you? “I live in Harris County, am registered to vote, and identify as a”:


               All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
===========================================
Democrat     41.6%   1.2%    74.9%    23.2%
Republican   33.5%  78.9%     2.0%    14.2%
Independent  24.9%  19.9%    23.1%    52.6%

Question: Do you plan to vote in the November 6, 2018 elections?


               All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
===========================================
Yes          81.4%  89.9%    87.9%    56.8%
Maybe        16.5%   8.8%    11.4%    30.0%
No            2.2%   1.2%     0.7%    13.2%

Question: How interested are you in the election in 2018 compared to previous elections?


               All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
===========================================
More         56.3%   46.5%   69.1%    39.8%
Same         38.0%   50.4%   26.2%    37.4%
Less          1.9%    2.2%    0.8%     9.5%
Unsure        3.7%    0.9%    3.8%    13.3%

First things first, all responses are given as percentages rather than number of respondents. You can reverse engineer that, of course, but I think it’s more illustrative to provide both. That will especially be the case with some later questions. I sent a separate email to the contact for the polling firm about that; I’ll update if I get a response.

In the questions above, “Trump” and “Clinton” refer to the subset of people who said they voted for Trump or Clinton in 2016, while “No vote” are the people who said they didn’t vote in 2016. There isn’t a question asking why someone did not vote in 2016, so it could be the case that they were not eligible – too young, or not yet a citizen – or not registered. Basically, this says there are more people who identify as Democrats in Harris County – I don’t think that is a surprise to anyone – and a larger share of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump than Dems voted for Clinton. As for questions 2 and 3, it sure seems like everyone is excited to vote this fall, with Democrats perhaps more so. Needless to say, that remains to be seen. How true these sentiments are will be the million dollar question for candidates, pollsters, and loud-mouthed pundits.

Question: In the 2016 election, did you vote for:


Trump      36.8%
Clinton    48.7%
Johnson     2.8%
Stein       2.4%
No vote     9.4%

As a reminder, 53.95% of voters in Harris County actually voted for Hillary Clinton, while 41.61% voted for Trump. Gary Johnson took 3.03%, while Jill Stein had 0.90%, which means this poll oversamples Jill Stein voters. Make note of the date, you may never see that again. Another 0.43% wrote in Evan McMullin, and a further 0.09% wrote in someone else. If you go back to question 1, that’s why the Trump/Clinton/No vote subsets didn’t add up to 100%.

(Yes, I’m jumping around a little. This is how I want to present the data.)

Question: On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about President Donald Trump today? 1 = strongly oppose, 10 = strongly support


               All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
===========================================
1            39.7%   0.3%    71.8%    35.5%
2            10.0%   0.0%    18.3%     3.5%
3-8          20.3%  15.2%     9.5%    47.9%
9             5.6%  14.2%     0.0%     4.3%
10           24.4%  64.1%     0.4%     8.8%

Allow me to point to this tweet by Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report to explain what this means.

90.1% of Clinton voters have the strongest negative feelings about Trump, while 78.3% of Trump voters have the strongest positive feelings about him. ‘Nuff said. Oh, and the non-voters mostly don’t like him, too.

Question: For whom do you plan to vote in the 2018 election for US Senate?


                 All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
=============================================
Ted Cruz       42.0%  93.4%     3.6%    31.2%
Beto O'Rourke  49.3%   2.1%    90.5%    52.2%
Neal Dikeman    1.9%   1.1%     0.7%     4.1%
Bob McNeil      6.9%   3.4%     5.2%    12.5%

Neal Dikeman is the Libertarian candidate. Bob McNeil is an independent who could be fairly classified as farther to the right than Cruz. He’s also not yet officially on the ballot yet, as he has to turn in some 47K petition signatures to the Secretary of State by June 21. Good luck with that. His presence in the question is basically noise, so don’t be too distracted by it. There won’t be a Green Party candidate. The 3.6% of Clinton supporters for Cruz is a reminder that there were a non-trivial number of Republicans who crossed over to vote for Clinton in 2016. Note here that all the numbers add up to 100, which is something that never happens in polls. You will see a possible mechanism for this in the next section.

Oh, and as for that Quinnipiac poll, don’t try to reconcile these two results. I think it is unlikely that O’Rourke could win Harris County by seven points while losing the state by double digits, but that doesn’t imply in any way that one poll is more “valid” or “correct” than the other. They are their own separate data points.

Question: For whom do you plan to vote in the 2018 election for Harris County Judge?


                 All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
=============================================
Ed Emmett      34.3%  74.9%    13.9%    14.0%
Lina Hidalgo   33.5%   2.8%    63.5%    30.4%
Won't vote     32.2%  22.4%    22.7%    55.6%

Question for undecided voters: If you had to choose for whom to vote for Harris County Judge in the 2018 election, who would you select?


                 All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
=============================================
Ed Emmett      24.7%  67.9%     9.8%    14.6%
Lina Hidalgo   44.7%  14.8%    74.7%    45.1%
Won't vote     30.7%  17.3%    15.5%    40.4%

Totals excluding undecided voters:


                 All  Trump  Clinton  No vote
=============================================
Ed Emmett      47.2%  93.7%    16.7%    28.5%
Lina Hidalgo   52.8%   6.3%    83.3%    71.5%

And here is how we get to the headline number. I don’t care for this construction. Having “won’t vote” as a choice rather than the more standard “don’t know” is a weird decision, one that casts some doubt on the “enthusiasm for voting” question. Regardless, any way you look at it, one may reasonably conclude that these voters as a group may be less likely than those who picked a name. As such, you can’t add them together. It’s my presumption that the pollster went through a similar exercise in the US Senate question (this might help explain the bizarrely high percentage for the candidate who probably won’t be on the ballot, who I’d bet none of the respondents had ever heard of – basically, he’s the “none of the above” choice), though they didn’t show the individual steps for how they got there.

I mean look, Ed Emmett has to be the best-known politician in the county, while Lina Hidalgo – who was unopposed in March and didn’t have much money as of January – surely has low name recognition. The fact that she was within a point of him in the first question, assuming the sample is reasonable, is pretty encouraging on its own. It’s a reflection of the partisan split in Harris County – remember, Emmett gets a significant number of crossovers – and demonstrates that Hidalgo has a lot of room to grow, as surely a decent number of those “won’t vote” respondents are actually likely Dems who just don’t know who she is yet. I don’t understand the need to push it further than that. And in thinking about it, I’m a little concerned that the O’Rourke/Cruz first-question numbers were a few points closer, with the “but if you had to choose” question being the reason for the larger gap.

So what do I make of this? As I say, it’s a data point. Maybe it will be in line with others – I’m sure we’ll see other polls – and maybe it won’t. I expect we’ll see plenty of conflicting results – again, so much of this depends on who shows up in November, and right now no one knows how that will look. We’re guessing. Some will guess better than others, and will base their guesses on better data. I think this particular result is optimistic, but reasonably so. Plausibly so. I’ll feel better if and when I see more results like it, or results from other races that correlate with it. But it’s one result, and the Quinnipiac experience reminds us again to not put too much stock in any one result.

That’s the Texas State Historical Astrodome to you, pal

It’s got a marker and everything.

All this and history too

More than 56 years after ground was broken on what would become the world’s first domed stadium, the Astrodome is now a bonafide recorded Texas historic landmark.

Installed on the stadium’s southwest end, a Texas State Historical Marker it will be visible for years to come just yards from neighboring NRG Stadium. The $2,000 price tag for the marker was picked up by the Houston Astros, who called the Dome home for decades before moving to Minute Maid Park across town.

[…]

The Dome has already been declared a state Antiquities Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The marker further solidifies its place in history and its permanence. The text mentions the part that the Dome played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it housed 16,000 refugees from the violent storm that hit New Orleans.

The 2017 state antiquities landmark designation provides special safeguards against demolition and requires Texas Historical Commission approval for any future changes.

See here for some background. I know some people don’t like the Astrodome redevelopment plan. Like it or not, your choices are the plan that’s been approved, some other plan that has not been vetted or approved, and going back to doing nothing and letting it rot. Which, now that I think of it, may be expressly forbidden by this latest designation. Point is, the Dome ain’t being demolished. Get used to it.

Abbott versus Houston on Harvey funds

I have three things to say about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott blasted the city of Houston for its response to Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, critiquing what he described as a lack of sound financial planning and sluggish progress repairing flooded homes.

The governor’s assessment, which he delivered in two terse letters Wednesday, was prompted by a request Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and 55 other Gulf Coast mayors and county judges sent Abbott on Tuesday, requesting state help meeting the local match for a key federal disaster mitigation program.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is a standard aid process triggered after every federally declared disaster. In the case of Harvey, Texas will receive about $1.1 billion in mitigation funds, $500 million of which is available to local governments now. Local leaders must compete for the dollars and provide a 25 percent match to fund selected projects; FEMA covers the other 75 percent.

“The states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Colorado have provided for local matches in situations utilizing HMGP,” the 57 Gulf Coast leaders wrote to Abbott. “We ask that the state of Texas make a similar effort in joining local jurisdictions as a partner in flood mitigation.”

Abbott, in his response to Turner, said he had worked to ensure local governments could use federal block grants to provide that match.

“Texas Department of Emergency Management has received zero applications from the city of Houston to access this funding, meaning there is hundreds of millions of dollars sitting on the table for your use,” Abbott added. “It is perplexing that you are seeking more funding when you have shown no ability to spend what you already have access to.”

This response confused and angered some local officials. Not only are the mitigation funds subject to a competitive application process, they said, but the hundreds of millions of dollars Abbott referenced are the exact funds they are seeking the governor’s help in matching to be able to use.

[…]

Emmett added that using federal block grants for the mitigation program — something Abbott mentioned in another recent letter to county officials — would cannibalize dollars needed for home repairs and additional infrastructure projects.

“It defies logic as to why you’d take federal dollars and, instead of using them for the purpose of relief and prevention, you’d use them as your local match for other federal dollars,” Emmett said.

Emmett said he was taken aback by Abbott’s letter to Turner.

“The tone of the governor’s letter is troublesome, and I don’t think it recognizes reality. All of us are merely seeking to speed up recovery and to take the burden off local taxpayers,” Emmett said. “Why that deserves a lecture I don’t know.”

In addition, Emmett and Turner said, the governor only selectively referenced the federal notice that authorizes the use of block grants as matching funds. The same filing also stresses the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to “promote policies that require state and local financial participation to ensure their shared commitment and responsibility for long-term recovery and future disaster risk reduction” and states “HUD expects grantees to financially contribute to their recovery through the use of reserve or ‘rainy day’ funds, borrowing authority, or retargeting of existing financial resources.”

“’Rainy day fund.’ That was an interesting choice of words that HUD used,” Emmett said.

1. As we know, the state’s “rainy day fund” is more properly known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, and it was originally intended as a way to stretch revenues during lean economic times, so that the budget didn’t have to be cut in drastic or harmful ways. That purpose more or less went out the window in 2011 when Rick Perry unilaterally declared that the fund could not be used to help with budge shortfalls because we needed to make sure it was sufficiently flush in the event that emergency funds were needed to recover from a natural disaster. You know, like Hurricane Harvey. As much as I decry the Perry decree about the rainy day fund and grind my teeth when I hear people on my side buy into that framing, I have to say that it does make for a very easy to grasp criticism of Greg Abbott. We have a rainy day fund, and it doesn’t get any rainier than Harvey, so why aren’t we using it?

2. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Abbott is completely right in his criticism of Mayor Turner and all the other local officials who reached out to him for help. Which do you think makes for better politics, writing a bitchy, scolding letter that airs a bunch of grievances about how these local officials failed to follow bureaucratic processes correctly, or swooping in like a rich uncle and making a show of cutting red tape, providing cash, getting things done, and aiming your criticism at the feds for dragging their feet? I think you can guess which option I’d choose. Maybe that’s only something a guy like Abbott (or Perry) does when there’s a Democrat in the White House to serve as the bad guy, I don’t know.

3. Like Campos, I’d like to know more about what not only Judge Emmett thinks about all this, but also the Republican officeholders on the ballot here whose electoral fortunes will be at least somewhat connected to Abbott’s in Harris County. As you know, I already think Dems here are poised to do well this fall. If I’m right, then the main hope for survival may be to put a little distance between oneself and the less-helpful-than-he-could-be Republican Governor.

Abbott approves August flood bond referendum

One more step forward.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood tunnels

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is exploring the possibility of building several massive, deep tunnels aimed at keeping storm water out of flood-prone neighborhoods and carry it underground for miles to the Houston Ship Channel during major storms.

Never before tried around Houston, the project likely would cost several billion dollars and it is not clear where the money would come from, officials said. Specialized machines methodically digging 100 to 200 feet underground would take several years to complete the tunnels, which would seek to drain floodwaters from bayous across the county.

Officials with the flood control district said the idea could be a bold answer to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, and dramatically improve Houston’s defenses against deadly floods where other strategies have fallen short.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” said Matthew Zeve, director of operations at the flood control district. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

[…]

A feasibility study is expected to cost around $400,000 and be completed by October.

News of the proposal fueled optimism and skepticism Friday — optimism that Harvey finally could force radical changes to Houston’s flood control strategy, and skepticism that such a monumental project could be accomplished when much less ambitious ideas have languished for decades.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said in a statement he is “encouraged” the flood control district “is thinking outside the box and plans to conduct a feasibility study on this proposal. It certainly seems like this type of project could be partially funded by FEMA hazard mitigation grants and, perhaps, through other federal sources, as well.”

Houston’s flood czar, drainage engineer and former city councilman Steve Costello, said the project could be a potential paradigm shift for the region’s flood risk.

“We’re trying to lower the risk; we’re never going to be able to totally eliminate the risk,” Costello said, referencing efforts to improve drainage through local projects. “Well, a tunnel system, quite possibly, could eliminate the risk.”

As expensive and complex as it would be – Costello said he was told it could cost perhaps $100 million per mile, in Houston’s soils – he said tunnels may be the most cost-effective way to achieve the gold standard of 100-year storm protection in every major channel.

Jim Thompson, regional CEO for engineering Giant AECOM, said the tunnels are “worthy projects” that warrant further study, but said officials ought to prioritize long-identified projects along bayous and city streets first.

“Would it provide the cure-all relief that everybody is seeking? No,” Thompson said. “Would it provide a noticeable decrease in flood levels and risk of flooding? The answer is possibly yes.”

There’s a connection to Elon Musk in all this, because of course there is. Other cities, like Tokyo, have similar tunnels, so the idea is neither crazy nor unprecedented. But like all things, until and unless there’s a budget and an appropriation, it’s just an idea. Commissioners Court has approved the feasibility study, so we’ll see what they come up with.

Another designation for the Astrodome

It’s quite the historic place.

All this and history too

The famed Astrodome will be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark — the highest honor the state can bestow on a historic structure.

The marker will finally and officially tell the story of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and, hopefully, create a snapshot destination.

“The dome has never had an actual historical marker,” said Mike Vance, a member of the Harris County Historical Commission which is the local arm of the Texas Historical Commission.

The Texas commission approved the stadium in January among 172 new historical markers statewide for 2018.

[…]

The Astrodome received its strongest protection in a 2017 state antiquities landmark designation, which requires clearance from the Texas Historical Commission for any alterations. Becoming a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark adds another measure of protection.

“It’s a higher standard you have to reach to qualify for that kind of marker,” said Vance. “That means that it’s a building and it has to be intact in the judgment of the Texas Historical Commission — and the dome, thankfully, is.”

In addition, the sign’s unveiling will be “something tangible and visible,” unlike the antiquities designation, Vance said.

So let’s get a couple of things straight at this point.

1. There’s no way the Astrodome gets demolished. You can argue that it was wrong to pursue these historic designations, and you can argue (incorrectly) that the Dome should have been demolished after the 2012 bond referendum was voted down, but those ships have sailed. The Astrodome is basically in the same class as the Alamo now. It’s not getting demolished.

2. Given #1, that means the choices before us are Do Something, and Keep Doing Nothing. It should be clear to all that nobody wants to Keep Doing Nothing. Ed Emmett certainly doesn’t want to do nothing, and the people who are most vocally opposed to the plan that Emmett has put forward are the ones who are most vocally upset about the state of the Dome now after years of nothing being done. Nobody wants to do nothing.

3. So, one way or another, we are going to do something about the Dome, and that means that one way or another we are going to spend some money on doing something about the Dome. The something that is on the table and currently in progress is the Emmett plan. One argument being made by those who don’t like the Emmett plan is that we should have a public vote to approve spending money on the Dome before we do so. I oppose this for two reasons. One is that we don’t as a matter of course have public votes to approve the spending of money by government entities. We vote to approve the borrowing of money, but not the spending of money. I have zero interest in setting that precedent, and I can’t think of a single reason why anyone of a progressive bent would want to set that precedent, either. And two, public votes like this have become little more than preludes to litigation over the result of those votes, often on ridiculous pretexts and often taking years to resolve. You want to ensure that nothing continues to get done on the Dome for another five or ten years, maybe more? Insist on a vote before authorizing any money to be spent on it. It’s more effective than any filibuster.

ACLU goes after Judge McSpadden

As well they should.

The ACLU of Texas is asking Harris County’s longest serving felony court judge to resign after making a statement to the Houston Chronicle on his views about black men’s attitudes toward the criminal justice system.

The civil rights group also is asking that the judge be automatically recused from cases involving African-American defendants until an investigation into potential racial bias occurs, according to a news release Tuesday.

[…]

“If there remained any doubt that the deck is stacked against people of color in our criminal justice system, Michael McSpadden just dispelled it,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “When a sitting judge feels comfortable enough to admit openly and on the record that he uses bail orders to jail black defendants on the assumption they can’t be trusted, it’s time to take action. This kind of flagrant racism has no place in our justice system.”

She said, “The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct needs to take the first step toward rooting it out, and Judge McSpadden should voluntarily step down.”

McSpadden could not be immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. His court staff said he was on the bench hearing cases.

The civil rights organization said McSpadden’s comments violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct and could merit removal from office.

“Judge McSpadden’s remarks are inexcusable, but not at all surprising for those of us who know the justice system well,” said former death row inmate Anthony Graves, who runs a criminal justice initiative for the ACLU of Texas.

See here for the background. Perhaps there’s some context Judge McSpadden can add to his comments, or perhaps he could just admit that was a dumb and offensive thing to say and offer an apology for it. People may or may not accept either action, but at least it would be something. In the absence of any such followup, one is left to conclude that he has nothing further to say on the matter. Whatever one may have thought of Judge McSpadden before now, that’s not a good look. And as a reminder, Judge McSpadden is up for election this fall. For all the griping some people do about partisan judicial elections, they do at least give the voters the chance to correct errors on the bench.

On a side note, two of Judge McSpadden’s colleagues on the misdemeanor courts are again urging the county to settle the bail lawsuit.

“The most conservative appellate court in this country, strict constitutional conservatives, have said that this practice that we are doing is unconstitutional,” said Judge Darrell Jordan, one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Jordan told County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners that fighting the suit had already cost Harris County $6 million in legal fees. “I’m asking that you all cut this last check, fire these $6 million lawyers, let the County Attorney’s office come, and we all sit down and work out a settlement.”

Jordan’s co-defendant, Judge Mike Fields, urged Emmett and the commissioners to “use every tool in your arsenal to help us settle this lawsuit.” Fields added, “Our county needs to settle this for financial reasons, and our public needs it settled for reasons of good governance and confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Judge Emmett said he’s willing to settle on the basis of the 5th Circuit’s ruling, but said plaintiffs haven’t responded to offers to talk.

Judge Jordan, the lone Democrat on these benches, and Judge Fields have been the lone voices from those courts for sanity. Unfortunately, their colleagues remain uninterested in such matters as the cost of the litigation and the fact that they’ve lost at every step and looked bad in doing so. And they’re all up for election this November. See my comments above on that.

January 2018 finance reports: Harris County candidates

You know the drill. Links to reports where I could find them, plus a summary table at the end. Let’s do this.

County Judge

Ed Emmett
Lina Hidalgo

Commissioner, Precinct 2

Jack Morman

Adrian Garcia
Roger Garcia
Daniel Box

Commissioner, Precinct 4

Jack Cagle

Jeff Stauber
Penny Shaw

District Clerk

Chris Daniel – through December 14
Chris Daniel – Dec 15 through Dec 31

Marilyn Burgess
Rozzy Shorter
Kevin Howard
Michael Jordan

County Clerk

Stan Stanart
Abel Chirino-Gomez

Diane Trautman
Gayle Mitchell
Nat West

County Treasurer

Orlando Sanchez
Dylan Osborne
Cosme Garcia
Nile Copeland

HCDE, Position 3 At Large

Marcus Cowart
Richard Cantu
Josh Wallenstein

HCDE, Position 4, Precinct 3

Josh Flynn
Andrea Duhon

HCDE, Position 6, Precinct 1

Danyahel Norris


Candidate       Office    Raised      Spent     Loan    On Hand
===============================================================
Emmett    County Judge    91,222    188,409        0    450,230
Hidalgo   County Judge    54,949     47,828    1,400      7,443

Morman      Comm Pct 2    11,000     31,941   39,382  2,247,067
A Garcia    Comm Pct 2       650          0        0          0
Box         Comm Pct 2         0      1,250    1,250          0
Melancon    Comm Pct 2
R Garcia    Comm Pct 2       352      4,509    5,250        998

Cagle       Comm Pct 4    81,350    238,199        0    896,279
Shaw        Comm Pct 4       500      1,215        0        800
Stauber     Comm Pct 4       600      1,250        0        600

Daniel  District Clerk    26,025     30,038   55,000     34,857
Burgess District Clerk    10,980      8,273        0      6,518
Shorter District Clerk    11,738      3,091        0      8,647
Howard  District Clerk       700      3,622        0        700
Jordan  District Clerk         0          0        0          0

Stanart   County Clerk    18,625     11,773   20,000     71,002
Gomez     County Clerk         0          0        0          0
Trautman  County Clerk     8,230      8,208        0     18,287
Mitchell  County Clerk     1,613      1,465        0        300
West      County Clerk         0          0        0          0

Sanchez      Treasurer         0      6,420  200,000    199,621
Osborne      Treasurer     4,305      1,855        0      2,449
Garcia       Treasurer         0      1,453        0          0
Copeland     Treasurer         0        270        0          0

Cowart          HCDE 3       750        750        0          0
Wallenstein     HCDE 3     5,422      1,751    5,416      9,086
Cantu           HCDE 3       200          0        0        200
Patton          HCDE 3

Tashenberg      HCDE 4
Flynn           HCDE 4         0        110        0          0
Duhon           HCDE 4     1,475        750        0        725

Miller          HCDE 6
Norris          HCDE 6     8,468      4,198        0      4,680
Bryant          HCDE 6

Not everyone has filed a report, but most people have. It’s possible that some people hadn’t yet designated a treasurer, which is required to raise money, before the deadline. This would be more likely for the later entrants in some races.

Ed Emmett has a decent amount of money, but not a crushing amount. He doesn’t really need much – he’s been in office over ten years, this is his fourth time on the ballot, people know who he is. If he’s raising money, it’s to support the ticket as a whole. Given the ideological purge going on at the state level and the fact that he had originally been planning to retire, it wouldn’t shock me if he lets that aspect of his job slide a bit.

No such slacking for Jack Morman, who is armed and ready for a tough election. I’m not sure it’s possible to spend two million bucks in a race like this in a way that couldn’t be described as “extravagant”, if not “excessive”, but we’ll see. I would have thought that between his Mayoral and Congressional campaigns Adrian Garcia would have had a few bucks left over, but apparently not. He’s always been a strong fundraiser, so I’m sure he’ll have a healthy sum to report in July.

There isn’t much of interest below the Judge/Commissioners level, as there usually isn’t that much money in these races. I don’t know why Chris Daniel filed two separate reports, but together they cover the full filing period, so whatever. Orlando Sanchez still has that $200K loan on his books. I don’t know what the source of it is, nor do I know its purpose – he clearly isn’t spending it down. Maybe he just knew that this day would finally come, I don’t know.

That’s about all there is to say here. I will look at city of Houston reports soon, and I may do the same with some state reports from other races of interest. As always, I hope you find this useful.

The case for the Astrodome

Lisa Falkenberg lays it out.

We have a plan!

But here’s the thing: leaders have to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it’s been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble – from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region’s vulnerability during storms and rain events.

It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike.

So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston’s future needs.

And critics of the decision either don’t understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.

[…]

So let’s address the naysayers, point by point, with a little help from Emmett, the county judge.

*CLAIM: Harris County voters already voted to demolish the dome.

No, they didn’t. They voted down a proposed bond for a much bigger $217 million renovation project. They said loud and clear that they didn’t want county commissioners borrowing money to fund a dome project, and Emmett says the county listened. He says the stripped-down plan to raise the dome for parking and open it for special events makes financial and logistical sense, as it will produce revenue, and also provide space for first responders during a storm, and potential storage for the medical supplies during those events. “Would you really want us spending $35 million to tear down a perfectly usable building?” Emmett says he asks people who bring up the vote. And he points out that demolition is no longer an option anyway, since the Texas Historical Commission has designated the Astrodome a state antiquities landmark, giving the stadium special protections against demolition.

See here for some background. As you know, I think this is a decent and workable plan. I expect people will disagree with that – Emmett’s Democratic opponent Lina Hidalgo has made the “voters rejected the bond proposal” and “we have other priorities” arguments on Facebook. I believe the case for it is sound, and I appreciate Falkenberg laying it out as she did. If you don’t see it that way, take what she wrote as your starting point and take your best shot from there.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

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

Answer unclear, try again later.

Judge Ed Emmett

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Harris County could use a bit of cybersecurity training

Oopsie.

On Sept. 21, not three weeks after Houston was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County auditor’s office received an email from someone named Fiona Chambers who presented herself as an accountant with D&W Contractors, Inc.

The contractor was repairing a Harvey-damaged parking lot, cleaning up debris and building a road for the county, and wanted to be paid. Chambers asked if the county could deposit $888,000 into the contractor’s new bank account.

“If we can get the form and voided check back to you today would it be updated in time for our payment?” read a Sept. 25 email from Chambers.

On Oct. 12, Harris County sent the money out. The next day, the county quietly was scrambling to get it back, after being alerted that the account did not belong to D&W, that Chambers did not exist and that county employees had been duped by a fraudster.

The county recouped the payment, but the ongoing investigation into who tried to take the county’s money and nearly got away with it has ignited a debate over the financial security and cyber security of the third-largest county in America. That debate comes as experts point to a growing number of increasingly sophisticated attackers from around the world, homing in on untrained employees or system vulnerabilities.

The incident now has become wrapped into an FBI investigation into a group that has attempted to extort local governments around the world, law enforcement officials said.

Meanwhile, some officials are moving to revamp their practices as others say further scrutiny of county defenses is necessary.

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of room for process improvement. The county can provide training to employees to better recognize phishing attempts, and send out test emails to ensure that the training took hold. Extra checks and verifications, like pre-screening vendors an maintaining a list of approved vendors, can be put into place before any payments are made. Keeping on top of threat intelligence, to know what the new scams are that are going around, and ensuring that the email system and the proxy servers recognize junk mail and malicious websites. Cybersecurity is a process, and it contains multiple layers. The fact that the county almost got scammed is in itself not a great shame – it does happen, to many organization – but only if the opportunity to learn and improve from it is fully embraced.

County will try to repair criminal court building

Good luck with that.

After twice closing the 20-story downtown criminal courthouse due to flood damage since it was completed in 2000, Harris County leaders are planning to repair the shuttered building so the next time it floods it can be reopened within days – not months – of the water receding.

The retrofitting is a bitter disappointment to some of the building’s most frequent users, mostly defense lawyers and prosecutors, who hoped the year-long closing – the second in the building’s 17 years of operation – would convince county leaders to build a new courthouse on higher ground nearby.

The towering building, a block from Buffalo Bayou and home to county offices and more than 40 courtrooms, is completely unusable after Hurricane Harvey. It will remain closed for at least the next six to seven months, with some courts and offices not being able to return to operation until as late as July 2019, officials confirmed.

The delay means criminal court judges will likely spend a year presiding over dockets in the concrete basement of the county jail and almost all Harris County judges, civil and criminal, will stay doubled up in packed courtrooms in three other courthouses. Grand jurors meet in the historic 1910 courthouse, a blocks away.

Four months after the Hurricane Harvey flooded the lower floors, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he does not know yet what is in store for the iconic downtown criminal courts facility. Emmett said he waiting for a recommendation from the county engineer, and the county engineer noted that a squad consultants hired by the county are just beginning their analysis.

The decision to spend what could be another $20 million to fix a $100 million building has critics asking whether the county is throwing good money after bad at the long-troubled skyscraper at 1201 Franklin.

“It’s time to scrap it and start over,” attorney Chris Tritico said in a widely circulated proposal in October. “There were errors in planning, design and execution. Our Commissioners Court should stop spending money on a building that will never work for the purpose it was intended and spend our money on a permanent fix.”

[…]

County officials say they want to fix up the courthouse then dive deep into what criminal justice, and county population, might look like in 20 to 50 years.

“With the population growing so fast, if we build a building today, are they going to see the same inefficiencies in 20 years,” asked County Budget Officer Bill Jackson. “When you build these buildings, you don’t build for what you need today, you build for what you’re going to need in 20 years.”

He noted that the internet has fundamentally changed the way we do business in the past 20 years, and the internet will undoubtedly change criminal justice in ways that should be studied before proposing any major construction. He cited Amazon.com as an example of an innovation that fundamentally changed the way Americans shop.

Jackson estimated that a new courthouse would cost at least $140 to $210 million. In 2016, Los Angeles built a 25 courtroom facility for $340 million. A 22-story courthouse in San Diego opened earlier this year with 70 courts and a jury assembly room at a cost of $555 million.

“Half a billion dollar courthouse and I bet they look at in 20 years and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ simply because of all the electronics and the way the younger people will do business,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seems to me that we’re still going to have arraignments and jury trials twenty years from now, so I’m not sure what lessons from Amazon Bill Jackson thinks we can learn. We’re probably going to have a Harris County bond issue on the ballot this year. Why not at least consider the possibility of starting over with the courthouse? It’s a big commitment and would mean a longer time frame for getting things back to normal, but the track record of the current building is not encouraging. How many times will it have to flood out before we think about other options?

Thinking big about fighting flooding

Christof Spieler, on behalf of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, comments on a proposal to move forward post-Harvey.

On Oct. 25, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett released 15 recommendations for mitigating damages from future flood events. The researchers collaborating through the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium appreciate his willingness to release his priorities for public review and discussion.

The consortium was established by the Houston Endowment, Kinder Foundation and Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation to provide the public and decision-makers with important information so that Harris County and related watersheds can be rebuilt as a stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more livable region.

We found Judge Emmett’s list to have many merits. The consortium is thoroughly assessing the implications of the 15 recommendations and plans to share our conclusions soon. In advance of detailed conclusions, we have organized the issues into six broad themes.

See here for the background. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll give you those six broad themes: Structural projects, green infrastructure, risk education, development and buildings, planning, and governance. There’s a lot to do, but there’s a lot to talk about first, and the conversation is just beginning. Read and see what you think.

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s speech Tuesday may have included jabs at state lawmakers, but it was a hit with transit advocates for a single line.

“We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions,” Emmett said in his prepared remarks, alluding to freeway projects that have exacerbated flooding woes. “One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail.”

[…]

Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.

Still, the regret voiced by Emmett – whom many consider a proponent of road building as a champion of the Grand Parkway – demonstrates a shift, if only in tone, regarding regional transportation.

“I totally think what the Judge said is important,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which has pressed for commuter rail development. “Judge Emmett has always been a supporter of the rail district, but it is important when you hear him say there was an opportunity for commuter rail.”

Yes, we could have had a rail component to the I-10 expansion. It was a choice not to do that. It wasn’t hard to see that at some point after the initial expansion, the new capacity would be exhausted. Having a means to move people that didn’t rely on that capacity would have been helpful. The powers that be – read: Harris County and John Culberson – were not interested in that. We won’t have as many options going forward – it’s not like there’s a bunch of available space to build more lanes, after all.

To be sure, Metro express buses make heavy use of the HOV lanes, which move a lot of people and didn’t require a big capital investment on Metro’s part. One commenter on Swamplot thinks that’s a perfectly fine outcome.

The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can). The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.”

I agree that the park and ride experience is a good one, and a lot of people use it. But even with a rail corridor built in, there would still have been HOV lanes, so we could have had both rail and express buses. Build it as light rail and you can have local service, too. Lots of people are using I-10 for shorter trips that neither begin nor end in downtown. We didn’t know it at the time, but the subsequent local bus system redesign would have provided a lot of connections to and from this could-have-been light rail line, thus reducing the need for parking around the stations. It’s not a question of whether rail would have provided superior service to express buses, it’s that rail plus express buses would have been better. But we’ll probably never get to see that for ourselves, thanks to short-sighted decision making more than a decade ago.

Cricket in Houston

If cricket ever becomes a big deal in the US, the Houston region will play a key role in that.

Houston has had adult [cricket] leagues since the 1970s. Most players, then and now, are from Commonwealth countries – nations once ruled by the British Empire where cricket remains incredibly popular – including India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Caribbean nations. In that way, American cricket remains insular. The sport continues to grow in popularity as more immigrants from Asia, Africa and Oceania settle in Houston, but native-born Americans rarely encounter a cricket pitch.

Yet the same could be said for the relationship between Americans and soccer before the 1970s and ’80s. Since then, soccer has thrived at the high school and college levels, and the sport’s popularity supports men’s and women’s professional leagues. Millions of Americans watch European soccer leagues, whose games are now broadcast by U.S. networks. Cricketers see a similar path for growth.

Cricket is the second-most popular sport in the world, behind soccer. More than 1.5 billion fans watched the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Created in England in the 16th century, cricket is a parent, or at least an estranged uncle, of baseball. The sports are similar in that a batsman (batter) hits a ball to score runs while a bowler (pitcher) and fielders try to get him out. The similarities dwindle after that, but both could be summed up as being played at a sometimes leisurely pace punctuated by moments of excitement.

But to have any hopes of following in the footsteps of soccer, American cricketers have to surmount two glaring obstacles: how to convince local governments to build more pitches and how to nudge Americans without a Commonwealth heritage to give it a try.

The Houston Cricket League plays on 10 grounds in the Houston area, stretching from Wallis to Pearland to Humble. Several coaches were quick to praise Harris County Judge Ed Emmett for favoring public support for cricket, but conceded that lobbying politicians is often a challenge.

“The city officials, probably when we go talk to them, you first have to explain what cricket is. They have no clue,” Sushil Nadkarni said with a chuckle. “It could be as simple as some other game they’ve never heard of, or it could be like croquet, as far as they’re concerned.”

Nadkarni, a former captain of the U.S. national team who is regarded as one of the best Americans to ever play the game, lives in Katy and runs a cricket academy for youth players. An Indian immigrant, he moved to Texas to get his master’s degree in engineering.

He envisions a cricket farm system similar to baseball that develops young players and feeds the best to the national team. A tinge of envy in his voice, he described how Ireland and Afghanistan, despite their small size, recently were promoted to test status, the highest level of international cricket.

Surely, the U.S. should follow. With more kids joining leagues, talk of cricket becoming an Olympic sport and the ability to watch international cricket through streaming services, Nadkarni believes cricket is on the verge of exploding in popularity here. He brought many of his academy players to watch last Sunday’s match.

They play cricket in San Antonio, which also has a decent-sized South Asian population, as well. As the story notes, the first cricket stadium in America, a 2000-seat facility financed by a local businessman, was built in Pearland in 2013. International professional cricket players have settled here and are working to build the sport. I can see this happening, but crossing over from the population that already loves it to the much larger population that knows nothing about it will be the big challenge.

There is an obvious, if unstated, flaw in the let’s-do-what-soccer-did argument. Soccer is easy to understand for players and fans. Cricket, to a novice, is incomprehensible – a major barrier to attracting newcomers. Even for baseball fans who embrace their sport’s complexity, like those who delight in debating what is or is not a balk, keeping track of the silly point, fly slip, gully, square leg and deep forward mid-wicket positions on a cricket pitch may be a bridge too far.

The length of a cricket match is also an obstacle, though there is a version of the game that takes about two and a half hours, which is perfectly fan friendly. Picking up the basics of the game is another matter. I’ve encountered enough cricket to kind of get the idea, but I don’t understand it well enough to explain it to anyone else. Teaching people the hows and whys of cricket will be very necessary. I wish them all good luck.

Filing news: Two for County Judge

Yet another contested primary. At this point it’s easier to identify the uncontested races than the contested ones.

Mike Nichols

There will be a contested March Democratic primary election for Harris County’s top administrative position as the race for county judge now features two Democratic hopefuls.

Mike Nichols, a former Sysco executive who served as interim CEO of the Houston Parks Board from 2015 to 2016, announced his candidacy Friday, in a statement that focused heavily on flood control. Nichols called for at least five public hearings “on flood prevention and management.”

Nichols served for two terms as a state representative in the Georgia General Assembly from 1977 to 1981.

Lina Hidalgo, a Spanish-English medical interpreter at the Texas Medical Center announced her candidacy earlier this year. Hidalgo is running a campaign focused on criminal justice reform, public safety and home ownership as target issues, in addition to flood control.

Both are seeking to unseat Republican Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Nichols released a response to Judge Emmett’s State of the County address; see a text version of that here. I look forward to the two of them debating the issues. In the meantime, there’s lots of other filing news but I’ve put that in another entry, so keep reading.

Organizing the guys with boats

Remember all those volunteer rescuers who got in their boats to get flood victims during Harvey? Harris County remembers, and they would like to formalize that a bit for the next time.

With emergency responders across the Houston area overwhelmed by the scope of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, the 911 system overburdened and outside help stymied by high water, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett went on television on Aug. 27 to make a public plea.

Wherever you are, if you have a boat, Emmett said, get out in the neighborhood and help evacuate people trapped by floodwaters.

Now, local officials are working up a plan that would better coordinate response – ahead of time – among volunteers during disasters such as Harvey.

Emmett and other county officials want to create a database of residents across the county who own boats, vehicles that can travel in high water, and other rescue equipment to efficiently target volunteer response, which studies show are critical lifelines during disasters.

“We have to get all that coordinated,” he said.

[…]

While volunteer response was “successful through the county,” a more organized force could help alleviate at least two problems, Emmett said.

In one case, volunteers with flat-bottom boats showed up to help flooded Kingwood residents, but more powerful boats with motors were needed to handle the currents.

In another case, volunteers from the Cajun Navy – a similar volunteer disaster response team based in Louisiana – had difficulties in finding specific addresses of homes that had residents who needed to be rescued during the storm.

“Clearly there were some issues,” Emmett said.

A database would allow emergency responders to summon volunteers with the proper equipment to areas most in need faster, even if the storm isn’t as severe or widespread as Harvey.

This makes sense. The county is never going to have the resources to handle all the rescue needs in another Harvey-like situation. There will be people who are willing and able to help. It’s in everyone’s interests for the county to have some idea who these people are, so they can let them know where their help is most needed and can be most effective. It’s a low-cost investment with a high upside. There’s no reason not to do this.

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”

[…]

Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.