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Paul Bettencourt

Ed Emmett is not a fan of SB2

So he opines.

Ed Emmett

At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments. For years local governments have had to make up for the state’s underfunding of public education. But the state’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, didn’t want the public to understand that those state budget decisions were the main reason property taxes were going up. So they criticized city and county policies.

In its final form, SB 2 limits revenue growth from property taxes for cities and counties to 3.5 percent annually. School districts are limited to 2.5 percent, although implementation for school districts is delayed for two years so that for now, the state won’t have to pay an even higher share.

The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost 2 million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.

To make matters worse, the state has saddled counties with unfunded mandates, particularly in criminal justice and courts. The bond rating agencies have already issued warnings that the legislation might cause Texas local governments’ credit ratings to be downgraded, which will increase the amount of interest that taxpayers pay.

So when county services or infrastructure lag behind growth, don’t blame county government. Blame the state officials who supported SB 2.

Beyond the impact on local governments, SB 2 is actually bad for homeowners because it keeps in place a complicated, convoluted property tax system. The big winners from the so-called property tax reform are property tax consultants and their clients.

It is not a coincidence that the author of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, makes his living as a property tax consultant. Bettencourt even had the audacity to advertise his services on the radio during the legislative session while SB 2 was being considered.

Sick burn, y’all. There sure is a certain freedom in not having to run for re-election. Emmett is of course correct about the main purpose of SB2, but let’s not overlook the side benefit.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Will the next SOS be any better than David Whitley?

Anything is possible, but don’t count on it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Voting rights advocates are celebrating Whitley’s forced departure, but said they have no illusions that his successor will be any more committed to upholding voting rights for all Texans.

“There is certainly every reason to believe that these types of voter suppression tactics will continue with the next nominee,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, told ThinkProgress.

Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party, told ThinkProgress that Whitley had promised Democratic and Republican officials shortly after assuming office in January that he would run a fair election system.

Within weeks, however, Whitley drew up a list of nearly 100,000 people he wrongfully identified as non-citizens, saying they had to be deleted from voter rolls. Most, as it turns out, actually were U.S. citizens, and a federal judge blocked his plan to expunge the names.

Abbott — who himself has a long history of pushing voter suppression efforts — will now get to pick someone to replace Whitley as the state’s chief election official, a critically important position looking ahead to 2020.

Gutierrez said he was not overly optimistic that a change in personnel will lead to the end of Republican voter suppression efforts.

“Texas has a long history of using systemic obstacles to limit participation,” Gutierrez said. “I have no question that we’ll keep seeing a variety of voter suppression tactics until we have a greater number of legislators and statewide elected officials who want to see more Texans voting and participating in our democracy.”

[…]

Maxey said he believes the massive voter purge attempted by Whitley was probably the brainchild of Gov. Abbott or Attorney General Ken Paxton, and suspects that Whitley simply was carrying out orders.

“He did not come up with this plan on his own. He wasn’t even in office long enough to come up with it,” he said. “Either he was boldface lying to us or it was something that happened that was cast with his signature or his name attached.”

I think that’s probably right. At the very least, I think if Whitley had done all this on his own, and screwed it up in such spectacular fashion, he wouldn’t have Abbott and all the rest of the DPS-blaming enablers backing him. Ken Paxton surely had a hand in it as well. The best case scenario here is Abbott appoints someone competent and conscientious who actually does care about the integrity of the data, which leads them to stay away from hair-brained schemes to “cleanse” the voter rolls via noisy data and weak matches. The worst case scenario is that Abbott appoints someone who is competent at carrying out such a scheme. Either way, we can’t afford to ease up on vigilance.

On a related note, the Trib has a deep dive into how things went down in the Senate in the latter days as Abbott tried to get Whitley confirmed.

The pressure on the Democrats intensified as the legislative session pressed on. Some senators had received calls from business associates, clients and donors, who had apparently been nudged by the governor’s office to encourage them to back Whitley, and they were facing veto threats, said Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who did not receive such overtures but said he heard from his colleagues about them.

But with the i’s dotted and the t’s soon to be crossed on Abbott’s top legislative priorities, his office made a final, last-minute push to sway Senate Democrats in the final days of the legislative session, multiple sources said.

And some Democrats whom Abbott hoped to turn were brought in individually. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was called to Abbott’s office on Saturday, where the governor asked her, in a one-on-one meeting, to support his nominee.

“He said he would like for me to vote for David, and I said that I couldn’t — I wished I could, but I couldn’t,” Zaffirini said in an interview this week. “I like David … and he’s a good person. But he made a terrible mistake.”

On Monday, two of her bills were vetoed — one to increase transparency at the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and one to allow for specialized courts for guardianship cases. Both had passed both chambers with near-unanimous support and were championed by Republican sponsors in the House.

“I was surprised to see them vetoed, and I was surprised to see the veto so early,” Zaffirini said, and she “disagreed” with the reasoning Abbott gave.

[…]

Miles, who said he wasn’t facing threats of vetoes, said tit-for-tat menacing would seem out of character for Abbott — a governor the Democrats say is generally professional. But he confirmed that some of his colleagues had clearly been targeted with pressure.

“Yes, there were runs at individual members, and we had to secure them and let them know this was not something we could go on without,” Miles said. “There were some threats of vetoing bills.”

On Sunday evening, the day before the Legislature had to gavel out, [Sen. Jose] Rodríguez said the Senate GOP Caucus Chair, Paul Bettencourt, came by to test the waters.

“At one point, he came over and said, ‘Would y’all be okay with the lieutenant governor calling up Whitley to take an up and down vote? He doesn’t want any questions or speeches. We know you have him blocked, but the governor wants a vote on it,’” Rodríguez recalled.

Rodríguez told Bettencourt that if a vote were called, he and other Democrats were prepared with “pages and pages” of questions, enough to delay for hours — effectively killing the bills still sitting vulnerable on the calendar on the last day the Senate could approve legislation.

Ultimately, no vote was called.

It’s worth reading. I know Abbott really likes Whitley and all, but I continue to be amazed that no one ever thought to advise him to take responsibility, admit his errors, apologize, and promise to do better. Did they not think it was necessary, did they think that some combination of sweet talk and veto threats would be enough, did they have some other strategy in mind? I wish I knew.

Daylight Saving Time lives

Oh, thank goodness.

Rep. Lyle Larson

A House-approved plan to stop Texans from having to change clocks twice a year and let them pick either daylight saving or standard time year-round is dead.

On Monday, author Rep. Lyle Larson said he was “very disappointed” that his proposal was “summarily dismissed by the Senate.”

Though Larson’s proposed constitutional amendment and an enabling bill easily cleared the House last month, the idea of letting voters weigh in on clock changes never gained traction in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t refer either Larson measure to a Senate committee. As end-of-session deadlines approached, Patrick’s inaction all but killed them.

Also, Senate State Affairs Committee chairwoman Joan Huffman, R-Houston, sat on two Senate-authored measures. One, by San Antonio Democratic Sen. Jose Menendez, would have abolished daylight saving time. The other, by Houston GOP Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would have let voters decide on keeping or ditching daylight saving time for good.

Huffman never gave either a hearing.

“She said no ‘time bills’ were going to be heard. That’s her public policy decision,” Bettencourt recounted from a conversation with Huffman.

[…]

One criticism of Larson’s measures was that he wouldn’t offer Texans the option of staying with the current system. One House member warned that Sunday churchgoers might miss the start of Dallas Cowboys games. Other critics noted that while a state can go to year-round standard time — joining Arizona, Hawaii and various U.S. territories — it would require an act of Congress for Texas to go to year-round daylight saving time.

See here and here for the background. I like Daylight Saving Time, so this is fine by me. I find the first criticism listed above to be particularly relevant. If you put this to a vote, there has to be a No option. That would complicate things, if the intent is to give people more than one option for how to change, but as a confirmed No voter that’s not my problem. And as noted, only one of the options presented is currently legal. There’s a bill in the US Senate to make that other option available, but if you think Mitch McConnell cares about doing anything legislative, well, I admire your idealism. I figure this is an issue that will never go away, and sooner or later the anti-DST forces are going to prevail, but until then I’m going to enjoy some sweet status quo.

The tax swap is dead

For this session, at least. Most likely, barring anything strange.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the top public education leader in the Texas House, postponed two items of legislation Tuesday that would pay for long-term, ongoing school district tax cuts by raising sales taxes — effectively killing any chance of passing the legislation this year.

Huberty tabled until 2021 — the next legislative session — House Joint Resolution 3 and the accompanying House Bill 4621, which would ask voters to increase the state sales tax by one penny to buy down school district property taxes. The Houston Republican’s move came the day after the Senate, headed by a lieutenant governor who had endorsed the proposal, stripped such a provision from its version of the school finance bill in what was perhaps a signal that the measure would be dead in the upper chamber anyway.

Despite Tuesday’s postponement, the idea could still be revived this session; lawmakers could use a different bill as a vehicle to fund school district tax cuts.

Huberty criticized members of the Senate on Tuesday who “have spent their whole careers calling for property tax relief” but did not vote for the school finance measure the day before. And he repeatedly affirmed questions by House colleagues that suggested state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who leads the upper chamber’s property tax committee, had failed to take responsibility for coming up with a viable mechanism for property tax cuts when he was part of a school finance commission last year and during the current legislative session.

Bettencourt has arguably been the most vocal GOP senator opposed to the tax swap proposal, a position that has caught some by surprise since he’s closely aligned — both personally and professionally — with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made clear he supports the measure. Bettencourt marked himself “present, not voting” on the school finance bill Monday, while the majority of the upper chamber approved the legislation. And on Tuesday morning, ahead of business in both chambers, Bettencourt took to Facebook to once again reiterate his opposition to the tax swap, saying there is “simply no need to raise taxes even higher.”

In response to House members’ criticisms, Bettencourt said he’s long been clear about his concern that the tax swap proposal could amount to a tax increase. When Huberty proposed that the tax swap devote 80% of the new sales tax revenue to property tax cuts and the remainder to public school funding, for example, “I immediately red-flagged that,” Bettencourt said.

“Emotions run high when bills fail,” Bettencourt said. “If you have the votes, pass your bill — don’t blame somebody in the other chamber. That’s just kind of a rule that I’ve learned.”

[…]

On Tuesday morning, before the House gaveled in for the day, Bonnen told House Republicans during a caucus meeting that there would be no point in bringing up the proposal for a vote in the lower chamber if it was considered dead in the Senate, according to multiple people who were at the gathering. Caucus members at the meeting, according to those sources, largely agreed with Bonnen, who said the Senate stripping such a provision from its version of the school finance bill Monday suggested the upper chamber couldn’t muster enough support to approve a tax swap proposal.

After Huberty postponed the tax swap legislation, a Bonnen spokesperson said in a statement that the proposal had been “an opportunity for lawmakers to further reduce property taxes” and sustain tax relief found in the lower chamber’s school finance bill.

“Speaker Bonnen believes it is in the House’s best interest to devote the limited time left in session to our Day One priorities — passing legislation to provide meaningful school finance and property tax reform for all Texans,” the statement read.

See here for some background. To an extent, I agree with Bettencourt, in that a sales tax increase is a terrible idea. Of course, Bettencourt sees no need to pay for tax cuts. He just wants to cut them, and nothing else really matters as far as he’s concerned. The tax swap is a terrible idea that deserved to die, but at least Huberty was trying to pay for what he wanted to do. What happens next, with school finance and everything else, we’ll see.

More action on the school finance/property tax front

From Tuesday:

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a priority property tax reform package Tuesday, teeing it up for negotiations with the Senate and impelling the upper chamber to act on an omnibus school finance measure.

Together, the education and tax overhaul bills have been the top policy issues of the 2019 legislative session, and they are ultimately expected to be ironed out behind the scenes — and perhaps simultaneously.

Tuesday’s vote marks a small milestone for House leadership, which has muscled its must-pass budget, public education and tax reform bills to passage, all before the last month of session begins. But the House and Senate will next need to reconcile notable differences among the three measures, and the upper chamber has yet to move the school finance bill out of committee.

“We have done our job in the House — and we have sent everything over to the Senate,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, author of the school finance bill.

Senate Bill 2 was approved on a 107-40 margin after a half-dozen hours of debate. More than 20 Democratic lawmakers broke party ranks to support the measure, which has garnered adamant opposition from city and county officials since its introduction.

See here for the previous update. The House version of SB2 makes it contingent on the House version of school finance reform passing, namely HB3. The Senate started that process yesterday.

The Senate Education Committee held a hastily arranged hearing Wednesday morning to vote out comprehensive school finance reform legislation — accelerating the bill’s journey to the Senate floor and eventual negotiations with the lower chamber.

The fast-tracked revision and vote on House Bill 3 came the day after House lawmakers voted through a property tax reform bill, making it contingent on school finance reform passing this session. State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Senate Education Committee’s chair, had originally told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday he did not anticipate a committee vote on school finance until Thursday or next week.

The full Senate is now expected to vote Friday on the legislation, which aims to increase the base funding for each Texas student, increase teacher pay, provide money for full-day preK for low-income students, and allow for long-term property tax relief.

Many details of the bill still need to be ironed out, however, and committee members voted Wednesday without an official analysis of how their districts would fare financially. Still, the vote seemed to address concerns that the Senate was moving too slowly on school finance.

[…]

Senate Education Committee members voted out a version of the school finance legislation that differs in many ways from the version the House voted out in early April. It includes a $5,000 across-the-board raise for full-time classroom teachers and librarians, funding for districts that want to pay higher-rated teachers more, money for districts with better student academic outcomes, and a few different long-term property tax relief proposals.

The House’s version of the bill requires districts to use a portion of their additional base funding per student on raises for all school employees and designates extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion. It lowers school tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation — $100 off a tax bill for the owner of a $250,000 home — and lowers rates further for districts taxing higher. But it doesn’t include a proposal for long-term, ongoing tax relief.

As we know, the Republican plan to pay for property tax “relief” is raising the sales tax. That would require a constitutional amendment, and for the House version of the joint resolution to be voted out of committee by next Tuesday at 11:59 PM. As you know, I think that’s a terrible idea and am rooting for it to fail. The clock is ticking, but at least by next Tuesday we’ll know what parameters the conference committees will have to work with.

One more thing, from the first story:

Few attempts to make major changes to the bill were successful Tuesday.

One amendment, from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, seems to bar anyone but licensed attorneys from representing taxpayers in the property tax appeal process on a contingency fee basis. The change would likely affect the author of SB 2, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and a property tax consultant.

“It affects a lot of people. We’ll talk about it in conference,” Geren said. He added, “I don’t believe in contingency fees, but if we have to have contingency fees to do this, then I want the lawyers to do that.”

Heh. Someone please give Charlie Geren a fist bump for me. The Chron has more.

No-nuke version of SB2 passes the Senate

Dan Patrick gets his bill, without having to do any nasty partisan maneuvering.

The Texas Senate broke a logjam Monday that had paralyzed a piece of priority legislation for weeks — blunting a controversial provision in its property tax reform package and then advancing the bill, without having to deploy a procedural “nuclear option” to move it.

A vote on Senate Bill 2, a top imperative for state leaders, had been expected last week. But an apparent lack of support stalled the vote in the upper chamber, where the backing of 19 senators is generally required to bring a bill up for debate. After Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to blow past decades of tradition and bring the measure to a vote with a simple majority, state Sen. Kel Seliger, a vocal dissenter, relented Monday, allowing the bill onto the floor. He did not support its passage.

Seliger’s announcement came alongside a reworked bill with a handful of technical changes and one notable concession. As updated, SB 2 will force cities, counties and other taxing entities to receive voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year — a change from the 2.5% trigger originally proposed. School districts would still face the 2.5% threshold under the version of the bill approved Monday.

Revenue generated on new construction does not count toward the threshold. And small taxing units, with sales and property tax levies under $15 million annually, will need to opt into some of SB 2’s provisions in an election.

[…]

After three hours of debate, SB 2 passed on an 18-13 vote, with Seliger joining the upper chamber’s Democrats in opposition. It was then given final approval on an 18-12 vote — with Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, voting present — and will be sent to the House for further debate.

The lower chamber, meanwhile, has postponed discussion of its property tax reform legislation until April 24. Unlike the Senate’s version, the House has exempted hospital districts, community colleges, emergency service districts and school districts from abiding by a 2.5% election trigger — a move that has enflamed far-right lawmakers and activists, who say homeowners will feel scant relief if those entities are exempted.

See here for the background. One way or another, this was going to pass. Sen. Seliger made a point about comity and tradition, for whatever those things are worth to Dan Patrick, and he voted according to his conscience, which is a good thing as long as one has a good conscience. Which Sen. Seliger has, and I appreciate his effort. Now it’s just a matter of what the conference committee bill looks like, since the House version will be different. Figure this one will more or less go down to the wire, but it will pass in some form similar to this. It’s a lousy bill and lousy policy, but (say it with me one more time), nothing will change until we change who we elect. Texas Monthly has more.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Among other things,  Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.

Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce “protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.

“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.

[…]

If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn’t require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.

SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.

“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.

SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.

“This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

Endorsement watch: Patrick and Patrick-lite

Now that the Chron has done an endorsement in every race of interest, I’m going to try to catch up on them, by group if not by individual race. We’ll start with the race for Lt. Governor, where there was another obvious choice and the Chron made it.

Mike Collier

There’s something nostalgic — some might even say naive — about the way Mike Collier talks about state government and his quest for arguably the most powerful political post in Texas.

For starters, the gray-haired, buttoned-up corporate accountant prefers facts and figures over dog whistles. A former oil company CFO and auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Collier is in his element talking about pragmatic solutions to property taxes, school finance reform and budget loopholes — things Texans actually care about.

Collier would be hopelessly out of his element talking about, say, the need to legislate adult bathroom choices.

Though running as a Democrat, Collier is a former Republican and much about him resembles one of Texas’ most respected lieutenant governors, Republican Bill Ratliff. Like the East Texas statesman, elected by his Senate colleagues in 2000, Collier is earnest almost to the point of boring, seemingly unencumbered by the partisanship and ego that often taint the process, and while we can’t say if he’d ever be knighted by his colleagues as Ratliff was with a nickname as lofty as “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” we can say Collier is a smart guy.

So smart, in fact, that his fellow Houstonian Dan Patrick wouldn’t dare debate him.

They didn’t quite call Patrick a chicken for refusing to debate Collier, but it’s there if you read between the lines.

Meanwhile, in the State Senate district Patrick used to represent, the Chron endorses the Democrat running against Patrick’s soulmate successor.

David Romero

When we endorsed state Sen. Paul Bettencourt in 2014 we described him as a “good-natured Dan Patrick” and a “happy warrior.” We just wish he were a warrior for a better cause.

Bettencourt’s top agenda item remains a state-imposed cap on property tax revenues for local governments. That plan is vociferously opposed by the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of Counties, plenty of moderate Republicans in the state House, County Judge Ed Emmett and this editorial board.

The issue is a breaking point for us, and it should be for voters as well. Bettencourt appears to be putting partisan preferences above local interests. So we can’t endorse him.

That’s a shame, because we agree with him on other issues that transcend the partisan lines. He’s skeptical of tax increment reinvestment zones and management districts, wants to find a solution to the challenge of unincorporated Harris County and is pushing to add at-large representatives to the Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees.

If those issues were the exclusive core of his platform, we’d shower Bettencourt in stars. But they aren’t.

Instead, we endorse first-time candidate David Romero. Although his political experience is limited to serving as president of his homeowners association, Romero demonstrated a nuanced knowledge of state issues that’s rare for a novice.

I mean, some of those issues the Chron cites are worthwhile, but I for one would be extremely skeptical of any “solution” Bettencourt might propose, for the basic reason that – stay with me here – he has always put partisan preferences above local interests. It’s not like his all-out assault on property tax revenues is a new obsession for Bettencourt. I have no idea what the Chron thought they were endorsing in 2014, but at least they’ve cleared up their confusion this time.

Not directly Patrick-related but sufficiently Patrick-adjacent to be worth noting, the Chron also endorsed Lisa Seger in HD03, and Michal Shawn Kelly in HD150. You can listen to my interview with Mike Collier here, with Lisa Seger here, and with Michael Shawn Kelly here.

Final EV turnout for the flood bond referendum

Lower than initial estimates, though I think the initial estimates were on the optimistic side. But really, we were all guessing.

Tuesday is the final day of early voting for Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood bond, and as residents continue to trickle to the polls, the county clerk has downgraded his turnout estimate by a third.

When early voting began Aug. 8, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart estimated 10 percent to 13 percent of the electorate would turn out, totaling between 230,000 and 300,000 voters. He lowered that estimate Monday afternoon to 170,000 to 180,000 voters, around 7.5 percent.

Put another way: that’s less than one vote per Harris County home or apartment building flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Stanart pleaded with Harris County’s 2.3 million registered voters to take the time to cast a ballot.

“There’s no lines at all. Just come in and vote, we’re waiting on you,” Stanart implored. “You get the government you vote for, so here’s your chance.”

[…]

Robert Stein, a Rice University professor who studies elections, said he expects most ballots to be cast during early voting. Though Commissioners Court members chose to hold the vote on the one-year anniversary of Harvey in the hopes of raising turnout, Stein said he is doubtful voters will rush to the polls on Saturday.

Some Republicans, including state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, have called for an end to summer elections on tax-increasing items, such as bonds, because they historically have low turnout.

Stein said poor voter participation should be cause for concern, but the date of the election was unlikely to change the public’s level of support for the bond.

“For the health and welfare and democracies, we should have more people voting,” Stein said. “But I don’t think the outcome would have been radically different if we had it in November.”

I agree with Professor Stein on all points. I will also reiterate my position that going with a November election for this would have been the safer choice, all things being equal. This one is on a road to passage because basically no one has argued against it. Having it in August was a choice made for reasons symbolic and strategic, and one can agree or disagree with those reasons. It could have mattered, but in the end I’m pretty sure it won’t have mattered.

Anyway, here are the final EV numbers. Tuesday was the last day, and like other last days of early voting it was the busiest, with 13,680 in person and absentee ballots being cast. That brings the EV total to 92,691 overall. I have no idea what anyone expected, but I’m sticking with my final turnout estimate of around 150K. We’ll see.

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.

The Ohio voter purge case

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

I refer to the Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute case that was decided by SCOTUS on Monday. Here’s a long reading list if you want to get up to speed on it:

SCOTUSBlog
Pema Levy
Mark Joseph Stern
Kira Lerner

Daniel Nichanian
Josh Douglas
Dahlia Lithwick
Rick Hasen
Ian Millhiser
Ari Berman
Kevin Drum

Go ahead and peruse. I’ll wait.

All right. The coverage and analysis of this ruling focuses on Ohio, for the obvious reason that this is where the case came from, and also because, as Dahlia Lithwick puts it, Ohio is the “purgiest of all the purgey states”. There’s some discussion about how this ruling paints a roadmap for other states that are inclined to do what Ohio has been doing to follow, though as the Rick Hasen piece notes there’s also a potential roadmap for blocking such efforts in the courts. What I want to know, of course, is how this will and may affect Texas. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of voter roll updating/purging is done at the county level. We certainly saw various underhanded tricks here in Harris County, like sending notices to update one’s voter registration information to known old addresses, back in the Paul Bettencourt/Leo Vasquez/Don Sumners days, but with Ann Harris Bennett in office now it’s less of a concern.

So my question is, what role does our Secretary of State play in all this, and what opportunities does our SOS have to “assist” the county election admins/voter registrars in “cleaning up” their voter rolls? What does the SOS do now, and what could our Lege enable or direct it to do now that Husted is law? I don’t have the expertise to say, and the election law-minded folks on Facebook that I rely on have not had anything to say about this. It sure would be nice if one of our professional news-gathering organizations put someone on to this question.

Many more school districts are feeling the pinch

Not just HISD. Not by a long shot.

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

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

They are not alone.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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.

Pension bond sales proceed

But it was close, which both boggles my mind and annoys the ever-loving crap out of me.

The City of Houston can move forward with its plan to sell $1 billion in bonds on Friday as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reform passed by the Texas Legislature earlier this year, a judge ruled.

State District Judge Mark Morefield on Thursday denied a request by former city housing department director James Noteware for a temporary restraining order to delay the issuance of the bonds.

The request for the restraining order was part of a lawsuit filed last Friday by Noteware, who alleges the city misled voters into approving the bonds so it could sidestep a voter-approved limit on how much property tax revenue Houston can collect. Noteware claims the ballot language was “materially misleading” and did not include wording to indicate the taxes levied to pay off the bonds would be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap.

City officials say the language cited by Noteware is boilerplate included to assure bondholders that the city would meet its obligations.

[…]

Morefield said there were “substantial” concerns regarding the legality of the ballot measure, but that he ultimately agreed with the city’s argument that delaying the issuance would significantly damage Houston’s standing among creditors and bondholders.

“I think we’re just too far down the road at this point in time to stop this train,” Morefield said. “The mayor and City Council are heavily invested in this. And this thing is going to go forward.

“They may have to pay a heavy consequence for it going forward,” he added.

See here for the background. The sale has been completed, so at least that’s one rabbit hole we won’t go down. Let me see if I can sum up all the reasons I am gobsmacked by this.

1. As a reminder, the city was only obligated to put the bond sale to a vote because that was a provision in the Senate bill that required it. Mayor Bill White sold pension obligation bonds for five years without anyone demanding a vote. The reason we voted is because Paul Bettencourt insisted on it. What does he have to say about this?

2. Proposition A passed with 77% of the vote. There was essentially no opposition to it – conservative groups like the C Club endorsed it, while the Harris County Republican Party declined to take a position. Nobody raised any objections to the ballot language, which was approved by Council in August, and nobody made this case about the stupid revenue cap before the election.

3. Specifically, James Noteware appears to have taken no action regarding Prop A before the election. Go ahead and do a Google News search on him – there’s nothing relevant to this before he filed his lawsuit. He couldn’t be bothered to put out a press release, or throw up a webpage, to outline his objections before the vote. Yet here he comes afterwards to overturn a valid election that no one had any problems with because he didn’t like the pension deal?

4. I mean, there are issues with the whole referendum system, but look: Mayor Turner won an election in 2015 on a promise to get the Legislature to pass a bill to reform the city’s pension system. Our elected legislators passed such a bill. Our elected Council members ratified that agreement, then voted to put the required bond measure on the ballot, which the voters then overwhelmingly approved. What the actual hell are we doing here? Why does none of this matter?

deep breath Anyway. I hope we get a future story that includes some quotes from legal experts who can analyze the merits of the lawsuit and its likelihood of success going forward. I can rant all I want but it’s in the hands of the judges now. Lord help us all. The Mayor’s press release has more.

Inevitable lawsuit over pension bond ballot language filed

Like night follows day, like flies garbage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner misled voters into approving a $1 billion pension bond referendum last month, a new lawsuit alleges, claiming that city officials plan to use the bonds’ passage to sidestep a voter-approved limit on the property tax revenue Houston can collect.

A local businessman and former Houston housing department director, James Noteware, sued the city on Friday in state district court, contesting the Nov. 7 election on the grounds that the ballot language was “materially misleading.”

The full language, rather than the summary listed for voters on the ballot, stated that the taxes levied to repay the bonds would not be “limited by any provision of the city home rule charter limiting or otherwise restricting the city’s combined ad valorem tax rates or combined revenues from all city operations.”

The suit claims that phrasing means the taxes levied to pay for the bonds will be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap, which limits the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

“Omitting the fact that the proposition created a billion-dollar exception to default limits on the city’s taxing authority renders the proposition materially misleading and void,” the suit states.

More coverage from the Chron here. This is, in a word, nonsense. I mean look, Paul Bettencourt, who insisted on the pension bond referendum and who loves the revenue cap and the spotlight more than his own children, had nothing to say about this during the campaign. Nobody complained about the ballot language. At this point, this kind of lawsuit is basically pro forma, and serves as nothing more than an attempt by the losing side to get bailed out by the Supreme Court. If you have the resources to hire a lawyer to file this kind of crap, you have the resources to mount some kind of campaign against the referendum before the election, even if it’s nothing more than sending an incendiary press release to a gaggle of reporters. If James Noteware, who by the way was a Mayoral candidate for about 15 minutes in 2013, did anything like that, he failed spectacularly to get a news story out of it. If this thing goes anywhere, it can only mean that the Supreme Court is now an official part of the referendum process, and we may as well ask their opinion before we bother wasting our time voting on anything.

(Also, too: Yet another reason to kill the awful, terrible, no good, very bad revenue cap. I’m just saying.)

Filing news: Jerry’s back

Former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson would like his office back, please.

Jerry Patterson

Patterson, who was first elected as the state’s land commissioner in 2003, wants to head the agency that manages state-owned lands and the Alamo. He gave up the job to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, but came in last in a four-way GOP primary race.

Patterson has long been critical of Bush, including the office’s response to Hurricane Harvey. Since 2011 the office has also overseen housing recovery efforts after natural disasters.

“If your headline is that Jerry Patterson wants his old job back, that would be wrong,” Patterson told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t need this job and I would prefer to be praising George P. Bush.”

He decided to run himself — after looking for someone else to make the race against Bush — because he believed he was “watching this agency crater for the past three years.” That criticism comes after watching the agency refuse to disclose details about the Alamo restoration project that the Land Office is overseeing and after seeing tens of thousands of Texas homeless after Hurricane Harvey while just two homes have been rebuilt so far.

“This morning, Harvey victims who have been sleeping in tents awakened to the snow,” Patterson said.

I’ll say this about Jerry Patterson: I disagree with him on many things, but he was without a doubt one of the more honorable people serving in government while he was there. He took the job of Land Commissioner seriously, he was a stalwart defender of the Texas Open Beaches Act, and in my view he always acted with the best interests of the state at heart. He’s not going to be my first choice, but I’d take him over Baby Bush in a heartbeat.

Land Commissioner was one of two statewide offices for which there had not been a Democratic candidate, but as the story note, that is no longer the case:

[Miguel] Suazo, an attorney from Austin, announced Friday he would run for the post as a Democrat.

No stranger to politics, Suazo worked as an aid to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, in Washington D.C. and has also worked as an energy and environment associate for Wellford Energy Advisors, a manager for regulatory affairs for the the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He has also worked as an oil and gas attorney in Houston.

“I am running for Land Commissioner because I am qualified for the office and eager to bring new leadership to Texas,” Suazo in a statement declaring his candidacy. “I represent small and large companies and also regular folks who need a job done. I know business and I know people . . . I’m self-made, nothing’s been handed to me. I intend to bring that approach to the General Land Office.”

Suazo, a proponent of block-chain technology, said he may be the first candidate in Texas to launch his campaign using proceeds from Bitcoin investments.

Here’s his campaign Facebook page. I’m so glad there will be a choice in November.

Other news:

– The other statewide office that was lacking a Democratic candidate was Comptroller. That too is no longer the case as Tim Mahoney has filed. I don’t know anything about him as yet beyond what you can see on that website.

– Someone named Edward Kimbrough has filed in the Democratic primary for Senate. Sema Hernandez had previously shown up on the SOS candidate filings page, but hasn’t been there for several days. Not sure what’s up with that, but be that as it may, it’s a reminder that Beto O’Rourke needs to keep running hard all the way through. On the Republican side, someone named Mary Miller has filed. As yet, neither Bruce Jacobson nor Stefano de Stefano has appeared on that list. It will break my heart if Stefano de Stefano backs out on this.

– Scott Milder’s campaign sent out a press release touting an endorsement he received for his primary campaign against Dan Patrick from former Education Commissioner Dr. Shirley J. (Neeley) Richardson, but as yet he has not filed. He did have a chat with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune the other day, so there’s that.

– Believe it or not, Democrats now have at least one candidate for all 36 Congressional offices. CD04 was the last holdout. Among other things, this means that every county in Texas will have the opportunity to vote in March for at least one non-statewide candidate. Very well done, y’all. Republicans are currently skipping a couple of the bluer Congressional districts. They also have nine candidates for CD21, which is the biggest pileup so far.

– Here in Harris County, in addition to the now-contested race for County Judge, there are a couple of challenges to incumbent legislators. Damien LaCroix is once again running against Sen. John Whitmire in SD15, and Richard A. Bonton has filed in HD142 against longtime State Rep. Harold Dutton. Also, there is now a Democrat running in SD07, the district formerly held by Dan Patrick and now held by his mini-me Paul Bettencourt, David Romero, and a candidate in HD129, Alexander Karjeker. Still need someone to file in HD135.

The filing deadline is Monday, and that’s when any real surprises will happen. Enjoy the weekend and be ready for something crazy to happen on the 11th, as it usually does.

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.

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

Mayor Turner lowers tax rate hike amount

I’m sure we’re all glad to see this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the temporary property tax rate hike he has proposed would be cut in half after federal officials approved his request to increase reimbursement for the city’s Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

Turner earlier this month had pitched an 8.9 percent increase for one year, but said it would not be enough to cover all of the city’s cost of recovering from the unprecedented storm and flooding. It would be the first rate hike in two decades.

On Wednesday, he said that increase could be halved – to an extra $50 next yearfor the owner of a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption – thanks to a White House decision to boost reimbursement of many of the city’s recovery costs from 75 to 90 percent.

“We’re going to do everything we can to hold our line. We’re trying to minimize our request,” Turner said. “I understand what people’s concerns are with what they’re going through in their homes, and we don’t want to add to the burden.”

[…]

No tax hike would be necessary, Turner said, if state leaders agree to tap their roughly $10 billion rainy day fund. That suggestion drew support from council members.

“We need it now. It’s raining,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who has spoken against a tax rate hike. “We’re behind you to do that to where we don’t have to raise taxes.”

Several times in recent days, Gov. Greg Abbott has said he expects funds will be tapped to pay for Harvey costs, but said damage estimates must be completed before dollars are withdrawn. The latest tally Wednesday projected $574 million in damage to public infrastructure, including $177 million in Harris County.

“I think most people understand that Texas will be tapping into the rainy day fund,” he said in San Antonio last week. “The important thing, though, is that we address the economic issues appropriately. We need to first understand what obligations we’re going to have, how much they will amount to, and decide upon the best strategies to pay for that.”

See here and here for the background. You know what could eliminate the need for any tax hike whatsoever? If the state of Texas, which has some $10 billion sitting around doing nothing, were to cover the remaining costs that insurance and the feds won’t. I wonder if anyone has briefed Paul Bettencourt about this possibility, since he seems to be so entirely bereft of constructive ideas. To be sure, even Dan Patrick has been talking about using the Rainy Day Fund to help Houston and everywhere else recover from Harvey. That’s both good and necessary. But the city of Houston has to pay for things now, and it has to make sure it has the financial wherewithal to pay for those things now since it is not allowed to carry expenses over from one accounting year to another (this is another way of saying the city must “balance” its budget), so unless there’s a firm commitment in place from the state that the city can rely on, it’s got to make its own plans to pay for any uncovered expenses. If Paul Bettencourt and the usual suspects on City Council don’t like that, they are welcome to direct their concerns to Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick. The Press has more.

Paul Bettencourt advocates doing nothing to rebuild after Harvey

He has nothing constructive to offer, that’s for sure.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt

One of the top Republicans leaders in the Texas Legislature is slamming the city of Houston and other local governments for trying to raise taxes on homeowners in the name of hurricane recovery.

And he’s certain the increase will provoke a response of some sort from the Legislature.

“I don’t understand this mindset,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston, said. “It’s callous.”

He said homes have been flooded and damaged, and local governments’ first reaction appears to be raise taxes on those same people even though local officials have emergency funds and federal aid is on the way.

“It’s beyond tone deaf,” said Bettencourt, who is the chairman of the Senate’s Republican caucus. “I don’t believe governments should be showing this type of attitude when people are down.”

But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said they are left with few other choices. The city already dipped into its emergency funds and while they are getting federal help, they city is still left with 10 percent of the debris removal costs, said Alan Bernstein, communications director for Turner.

“So how’s it going to get done?” Bernstein asked if the city doesn’t get additional revenue to pay for it all.

Happy thoughts and pixie dust, I guess. You will note that Bettencourt does not even mention the possibility of using the Rainy Day Fund to help cover these costs. At this point, I have no idea what someone like Bettencourt thinks that fund is for. It’s clearly not for its intended purpose of economic stabilization during a downtown, and now it’s equally clear that he doesn’t think it’s for the Rick Perry-stated purpose of covering disaster costs. Nor does he offer any other suggestion as to what local governments could do, probably because saying things like “not pay their employees or contractors for the work they will need to do, and not invest in any form of flood mitigation” is probably something even he realizes would be unwise. That leaves doing nothing, and maybe finding a convenient scapegoat for one’s own inaction. The word for that is “craven” – I would accept “cowardly”, too – and it’s a perfect fit for Paul Bettencourt.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Will we spend on some flood mitigation projects?

Maybe. We’ll see.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is calling for the construction of flood control infrastructure in the Houston area — things he said should have been built “decades and decades ago” — including a coastal barrier to protect the region from deadly storm surge.

“We need more levees. We need more reservoirs. We need a coastal barrier,” Patrick said late last week during an interview with Fox News Radio. “These are expensive items and we’re working with [U.S. Sens. John] Cornyn and [Ted] Cruz and our congressional delegation to … get this right. We’ve had three now major floods in three years — nothing at this level but major floods.”

The need is particularly pressing because of the state’s rapid population growth, Patrick added, noting that “a lot of that growth is around the Houston area.” And he said the billions in federal aid that Texas is poised to receive presents an opportunity for Texas “to really rebuild and do things that, quite frankly, should have been done decades and decades ago.”

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is seeking $320 million to build another reservoir that would take pressure off Addicks and Barker. That’s exciting, Bettencourt said, because the Austin Republican “can lift more than the average congressman” as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

McCaul’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But last week during a meeting with officials in Katy, he described such a project as “long-term” and said he has discussed funding with Gov. Greg Abbott, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to a Houston Chronicle report.

“We need to look at long-term solutions from an infrastructure standpoint,” he said.

None of it will be covered by the $15 billion short-term relief aid relief package Congress has approved for Texas, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will pay for any flood-control infrastructure projects in Texas.

As the man once said, show me the money. What we have here is state officials talking about getting Congress to spend some money on projects here. There’s no indication of willingness to spend any state funds, which among other things would raise ticklish questions about how to pay for them (*). Maybe this Congress is willing to do that, and maybe it’s not. Let’s just say that the track record is not encouraging.

(*) You may recall that in 2013, voters approved a constitutional amendment to fund a water infrastructure fund that among other things could be used to build reservoirs. The idea of this fund, which came on the heels of the devastating drought of 2011, was to make more water available for cities and industry, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be tapped for something like a flood-mitigation reservoir. I don’t know the specifics of the legislation, and frankly I haven’t heard much about this, the SWIFT fund, since its approval. As such, I may be mistaken in what it can and cannot be used for. But at the very least, it seems like a decent starting point for discussion.

No special session needed to address Harvey flooding

So says Greg Abbott.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday another special session of the Texas Legislature won’t be necessary to deal with the response to Hurricane Harvey.

“We won’t need a special session for this,” Abbott told reporters, noting that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

[…]

In recent days, some members of the Texas Legislature have speculated that a special session to address the recovery seemed likely. They included state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, an ally of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the chairman of the Senate GOP caucus.

“My personal assumption right now is that we will probably be back in Austin at work no later than January,” Bettencourt told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday.

Here’s that Chron story. A few details from it to help clarify:

“My personal assumption right now is that we will probably be back in Austin at work no later than January,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chair Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, echoing the sentiments of other House and Senate members.

“The governor and the Legislative Budget Board have the ability to move around quite a bit of money in current appropriations, but it probably won’t be enough when all the bills come in. This storm is going to cost more than (hurricanes) Katrina and Sandy put together, and I’m thinking we’ll be breaking the $200 billion mark before this over.”

While the state would be liable for only a fraction of that amount, after insurance and federal payments come in, but whatever that (remaining) amount is will be something the Legislature will probably have to address.”

That, say other lawmakers, will most likely involve a politically charged debate over tapping the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund — a $10 billion account officially known as the Economic Stabilization Fund — to pay for some of the storm-damage tab.

[…]

In a Thursday letter to House members, House Speaker Joe Straus said he will be issuing selective interim charges — directives for legislative recommendations — “in the near future to address these challenges” resulting from the massive destruction caused by Harvey, especially to schools.

“The House Appropriations Committee will identify state resources that can be applied toward the recovery and relief efforts being incurred today, as well as long-term investments the state can make to minimize future storms,” the San Antonio Republican said in his letter. “When the appropriate time comes, other committees will review the state’s response and delivery of services.”

The Legislative Budget Board, jointly headed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Straus, can make key decisions on reallocating state funds to meet emergency needs — up to a point, officials said. Half of its members — three senators and two House members — represent areas devastated by Harvey.

My guess is that Abbott is probably right and the LBB can cover this for now. Tapping the Rainy Day Fund, which I will point out again was created for the purpose of helping to cover budget shortfalls in times of economic downturn before being bizarrely recast as in-case-of-disaster savings by Rick Perry in 2011, may require the Lege, but that may be done in a way as to defer that action until 2019. My wonk skillz are limited in this particular area. Point being, if Congress can manage to allocate relief funding without tripping over their ideologies, there shouldn’t be that much for the state to have to pick up. We’ll see.

House committee hears largely pointless property tax bills

Something will probably come out of this, but it’s hard to understand why.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

A Texas House committee on Tuesday spent more than seven hours plowing through more than 30 bills that aim to tackle rising property tax bills — months after similar legislation died amid an intra-GOP war over how conservatively state officials should govern.

And while the Senate spent the past five days — including the weekend— tearing through the 20 issues Gov. Greg Abbott wants addressed in the special legislative session, the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday tackled property taxes from several angles that collectively go far beyond the upper chamber’s major property tax bill that’s poised to pass this week.

Among the legislation debated was House Bill 4 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the committee’s chair, which includes a provision that requires cities, counties and special purpose districts to get voter approval if they plan to increase property tax revenues on existing land and buildings by 5 percent or more.

During the regular session, such an election provision died in Bonnen’s committee. Its absence from property tax legislation led to an impasse between the two chambers that — along with the House’s refusal to pass legislation regulating bathrooms that transgender Texans can use — eventually resulted in Abbott calling lawmakers back to Austin this summer.

The dozens of bills that House members discussed Tuesday aim to slow property tax growth, overhaul the appraisal process, simplify tax notices and increase or provide exemptions to some elderly and disabled Texans and military members.

Bonnen, R-Angleton, repeatedly asked fellow lawmakers how legislation that was introduced had fared during the regular session, highlighting how some of the matters died either in the Senate or at the hands of Tea Party-aligned House members.

He vehemently defended HB 4 against criticism from city and county leaders but also admitted it would do nothing to lower individual Texans’ tax bills. Instead, it would only allow them to slow the growth in property tax increases that are often largely driven by rising property values.

“None of this reduces property taxes at all,” he said. “It’s sort of ridiculous that there’s any level of suggestion … that there is.”

There’s more, but that quote sums it all up pretty well. It’s a Potemkin bill designed to allow Republican legislators to tell the seething hordes of primary voters that they Did Something About Taxes, without really doing anything substantive or beneficial about taxes. It’s probable that one of these bills will pass, and if it does it’s not the end of the world, but it will be another brick in the wall of stupid policymaking whose main goal is to shift the burden and deflect the blame from Austin to the locals. That goal, at least, it has a chance of achieving.

Do we really have to have a pension bond vote?

So as we know, the Houston pension reform bill that passed contains a provision that requires a vote on the pension obligation bonds that Mayor Turner intends to float as a down payment. Pension obligation bonds have been floated in the past, by Mayor White, without a vote, but for whatever the reason some members of the Senate insisted on it, so here we are. Now it turns out that with interest rates likely to increase later in the year, waiting till after a vote in November to float the bonds will cost the city millions in extra payments. You would think the responsible thing to do would be to float them now while it’s less expensive, and so Mayor Turner has suggested that as a possibility.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner did not rule out Wednesday issuing the $1 billion in bonds that are central to his pension reform deal without a public referendum, a move that would sidestep a hotly debated requirement the Legislature added to ensure passage of the city-negotiated plan.

Turner said he and his staff are proceeding as though there will be a referendum, but the mayor said he may seek to issue the bonds without a vote if he can gain consensus among City Council members, state lawmakers and others that moving more quickly would benefit the city.

Specifically, he referenced the benefit of preempting an anticipated jump in interest rates. Waiting six to nine months to issue the bonds, the city finance department estimates, could cost taxpayers $135 million to $273 million more over the life of the debt.

“I find it highly unlikely that anything is going to take place other than the vote in November, and that’s how we’re proceeding,” Turner said. “If we can all agree on a certain course and it may be able to expedite things, then we’ll do that.

“I’m talking about agreement with everybody. We’ve come this far with everybody, both on the local levels as well as on the state level and my approach is to always move in collaboration with everyone. But if not, then we’ll proceed with the vote.”

[…]

Though much of the rhetoric surrounding the bill during legislative debates referenced that voters would have a chance to weigh in, the mayor’s team simply points to the text of the legislation as proof that they can proceed without a vote.

Current state law requires only that City Council enter into agreements with the pension funds that are to receive the bond proceeds – in this case, the police and municipal workers’ pension funds – in order to issue the bonds. The reform legislation adds the referendum requirement, but also states that the referendum provision applies only to those agreements signed on or after the effective date of the bill, which is July 1.

Turner plans to bring those agreements to council June 21, city officials said. Though adopting them would in no way obligate the city to issue the bonds without a vote, doing so would preserve that option.

Now you’d think the prospect of saving a couple hundred million bucks would appeal to pretty much everyone, but at the mere mention of this, several self-styled fiscal conservatives immediately contracted the vapors – seriously, CM Mike Knox walked out of the committee hearing upon being presented with this – so that would seem to scuttle the “if everyone is on the same page” possibility. And indeed, Mayor Turner has now walked back the idea and reassured everyone that we will indeed have a referendum, whatever the eventual cost may be. I get that not having a vote when everyone thought there was going to be a vote seems bait-and-switch-y, but 1) having a vote was not a requirement until people like Paul Bettencourt made it a requirement, and 2) interest rates are gonna go up, so it’s going to be more expensive to wait. But a deal’s a deal, so here we are. Hope everyone’s happy.

No Astrodome vote this fall

This is a bit of a surprise.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

[Sen. John] Whitmire filed a bill that would force the county to get voter approval before spending any money on the Dome.

“It’s a dream and you shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on a dream,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire’s bill sailed through the Senate, but hit a brick wall in the House.

After passing the Senate, the bill was sent to the House County Affairs committee.

State Representative Garnet Coleman is the chair of that committee.

“The Astrodome is a symbol of our ‘can-do’ spirit,” Coleman said. “I want it left as a symbol of what my city is and has been.”

The bill never made it out of Coleman’s committee, so it died. Coleman wouldn’t say whether he agreed or disagreed with the Commissioner’s plans.

“I don’t have to agree or disagree because I don’t want it torn down,” Coleman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I confess I’m surprised, I had expected this bill to zip through based on its easy adoption in the Senate, but like the AirBnB bill, one must never assume that a bill will make it to the finish line. I didn’t care for the Whitmire bill, so this outcome is fine by me.

With the demise this bill, what could have been a very busy November has been scaled back quite a bit. With no Astrodome vote and no Metro vote (this year), what we are left with are the pension obligation bonds and the revenue cap; it remains to be seen if there will be a vote on forcing city employees onto a defined-contribution retirement plan, as the petitions have not yet been verified and the instigator behind the drive says she’s not interested in it any more. Things can still change, and there will be some number of low-profile constitutional amendments on the ballot, but all in all expect there to be fewer campaigns this November than there could have been. Link via Swamplot.

UPDATE: In case you’re wondering what this means from the county’s perspective.

The end of the session on Monday means the county can move forward with a revitalization project that officials say could be the key to the stadium’s long-term preservation, as well as resume a broader study of the maintenance of the NRG park that was set aside as lawmakers considered Whitmire’s bill.

“I don’t see any potential road blocks,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, on the revitalization project.

Emmett said 2020 would be a rough, early estimate of when the project could be completed.

Architects and engineers are working on the first phase of the project. That first phase began in September, and was seen as one of the most concrete steps toward securing the Dome’s future. It has been vacant for years, and hosted its last Astros game in 2000.

Commissioners Court will have to give another green light for the actual construction to begin.

County Engineer John Blount said the architects and engineers are examining the stadium as part of the design process, verifying that the county’s blueprints match how the stadium actually looks. Blount said, for example, that modifications to the stadium’s drainage system made in the 1960s after it was built were not reflected in its original blueprints.

“We might find things that take some time to go investigate,” Blount said.

[…]

“There’s no reason why the House couldn’t have taken a vote on this,” said Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who supported Whitmire’s bill.

Bettencourt said the 2013 referendum and general fund money being used by the county to fund the project – estimated to be about one-third of the total cost – necessitates a referendum.

“As long as that’s in there, in my mind they’re going to have to bring this to a vote,” he said.

I take Bettencourt’s words to mean that the fight is not over yet. Don’t be surprised if someone sues to stop things once the county begins spending money on this, and don’t be surprised if another bill like SB884 is introduced in 2019.

Senate passes pension reform bill

Progress.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform package passed the Texas Senate by a 25-5 margin Monday, as a possible political blockade dissolved to provide the landmark proposal a speedy passage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s reforms now await a hearing in the state House on Saturday.

“I believe this current version is our best chance at significant pension reform and, members, be assured: This is significant pension reform,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who carried the measure in the upper chamber. “Without this reform, the city might head toward bankruptcy.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, had indicated he planned to offer an amendment to allow voters to impose 401(k)-style “defined contribution” plans on future city employees, which worker groups view as providing insufficient security in retirement.

Bettencourt stood down and praised the final version of the legislation, however, thanks to a compromise — negotiated among business groups, city leaders and pension officials over the weekend — that added a pathway to “cash balance” plans, a typically less generous type of traditional pension plan.

New hires would be forced into those plans only if the existing pensions financial health eroded to a specified point.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release. I’m sure there will be a longer Chron story this morning – I’ll link to it when it’s up – but this is sufficient for now. This “failsafe” that was grafted on as an alternative to the Bettencourt forced-401(k)-vote amendment, which bubbled up to the surface over the weekend, may or may not ever amount to anything and I’m not sure what I think of it, but it’s probably better than the Bettencourt amendment, so I’ll take it for now.

The House companion bill is on the calendar for Saturday, so this is where the rubber meets the road. This bill already differs in that it doesn’t have the provision requiring a vote on the pension obligation bonds. We’ll see what happens with this amendment as well. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: Here’s that longer Chron story.

Petitions submitted to force another pension vote

Oh, good grief.

Voters soon could decide whether to close Houston’s traditional pension plans to new employees after political activists submitted a petition to City Hall to force a referendum this November.

The petition further complicates Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to pass a pension reform bill, which already had hit a hurdle in the state Senate this week on precisely the same issue of whether new hires should be put into “defined contribution” plans similar to 401(k)s instead of one of the city’s three employee pension systems.

The petition, which began circulating at college campuses, grocery stores and elsewhere in February, calls for a public vote to require a shift to defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Under traditional pension plans, the city promises employees specific payments based on their years of service and salaries and makes up for market losses by putting in more money. Defined contribution plans are those in which the city and employee set money aside in an account that rises and falls with the market.

Windi Grimes, a public pension critic and donor to the Megaphone political action committee that sponsored the petition drive, said the group submitted 35,000 signatures to the city secretary’s office Thursday. That easily would clear the 20,000 signatures required by law to trigger a charter referendum, provided City Secretary Anna Russell verifies the names.

Grimes, who also works with Texans for Local Control, a political group that wants Houston, not the Texas Legislature, to control city pensions, had described the petition effort as an “insurance policy” in case the Legislature does not move to defined contribution plans for new city employees.

[…]

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman ended weeks of negotiations with city officials, union leaders and conservatives over whether and how to incorporate defined contributions plans by releasing a new draft of the pension bill Wednesday. It said the city and workers could agree to move to a defined contribution plan, but did not require that change.

In response, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, another Houston Republican, said he would propose an amendment to ensure the result of any city charter change to defined contribution plans would be binding. That wording is necessary, he and others said, because some lawyers say amending the city charter alone would be insufficient, since Houston’s pensions are controlled by state statute.

“I’m just trying to stay on a public policy position I’ve had for over a decade,” Bettencourt said, adding that he is not working with Megaphone or Texans for Local Control and that he already had filed a separate bill mirroring the language of his amendment.

The Houston reform bill had been expected to reach a Senate vote Thursday, but Bettencourt’s amendment created an impasse: some bill supporters, led by the chamber’s Democrats, were unwilling to let the item come to a vote, fearing they lacked the votes to torpedo Bettencourt’s proposal.

“If he brings it up, (Huffman) says she won’t accept it, but she’s going to need about five or six Republicans to go with us to block it,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “That’s a tough vote for them.”

Turner accused Bettencourt of seeking to kill the pension reform proposal for political gain.

“Quite frankly, what he wants is not a pension resolution. It seems like he’s asking for a re-vote of the mayoral race in 2015, and that’s unfortunate because he’s not putting Houston first,” Turner said. Bettencourt in 2015 supported mayoral runner-up Bill King, who has spent months publicly criticizing Turner’s pension reform plan and calling for a switch to defined contribution plans for new city workers.

I found this story so annoying that I had a hard time putting my thoughts together about it. So I’m just going to say these four things for now:

1. We have already had an election on this question, in 2015 when Sylvester Turner won the Mayor’s race. A lot of people, led by Mayor Turner, have put in a ton of work, including political work, to put forth a workable solution for the city’s pension issues. You can feel however you want about the Mayor’s proposal – the firefighters are certainly not very happy about it – but it represents a Houston solution to a Houston problem, which the voters have already had a say on. These efforts to undermine it are the opposite of that, and the people pushing it are doing so because they don’t like the solution Houston and Mayor Turner have crafted for its problem. They would rather see the whole effort fail, and that is what they are working for.

2. You have to admire the shamelessness in calling this group that has come out of nowhere and is in no way complementary to the Turner plan “Texans for Local Control”. Who wants to bet that it’s funded by a bunch of rich conservative activists who are mostly not from Houston and will go to court to keep their identities secret?

3. The story quotes HPOU President Ray Hunt as saying the petition collection effort is a “sham” and that they have evidence of people signing the petitions multiple times. You’d think that would be a big deal, but then you remember that the Supreme Court ruled in the mandamus that forced the HERO vote in 2015 that the city secretary could only check that a signature belonged to a registered voter. It’s OK if it’s forged – the city secretary is not empowered to check that – as long as the forgery in question belongs to a valid voter.

4. There sure could be a lot of referenda on the ballot this November.

Busy day in the Senate

They got stuff done, I’ll give them that. Whether it was stuff worth doing or not, I’ll leave to you.

1. Senate bill would let Houston voters weigh in on fix to pension crisis.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 21-10 to give preliminary approval of a bill that would require voters to sign off before cities issue pension obligation bonds, a kind of public debt that infuses retirement funds with lump-sum payments. Issuing $1 billion in those bonds is a linchpin of Houston officials’ proposal to decrease the city’s unfunded pension liabilities that are estimated to be at least $8 billion.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The Texas Tribune earlier this month that if the bill becomes law and voters reject the $1 billion bond proposition, a delicate and hard-fought plan to curb a growing pension crisis would be shrouded in uncertainty. He also argued that the debt already exists because the city will have to pay it at some point to make good on promises to pension members.

But lawmakers said voters should get to weigh in when cities take on such large amounts of bond debt.

“Of course the voters themselves should be the ultimate decider,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored the bill.

[…]

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at a hearing on several pension bills last week that Houston voters would likely approve the pension bonds – and that she would publicly support the measure. Nonetheless, holding an election on the issue is worthwhile, she maintained.

“The voters want to have a say when the city takes on debt in this way,” she said.

See here and here for the background. The referendum that the Senate bill would require is not a sure thing as the House bill lacks such a provision. We’ll see which chamber prevails. As you know, I’m basically agnostic about this, but let’s please skip the fiction that the pension bonds – which the city has floated in the past with no vote – represents “taking on debt”. The city already owes this money. The bonds are merely a refinancing of existing debt. Vote if we must, but anyone who opposes this referendum is someone who wants to see the pension deal fail. Speaking of voting…

2. Senate OKs measure requiring public vote on Astrodome project.

In a move that could block Harris County’s plans to redevelop the Astrodome, the Texas Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that would require a public vote on using tax funds on the project.

Senate Bill 884 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would require a public vote before Harris County can spend any taxpayer money to improve or redevelop the Astrodome. “Elections are supposed to matter … and this is an example of how a governing body is trying to ignore an election and go contrary to a popular vote,” Whitmire said.

[…]

The proposal has drawn opposition from Houston lawmakers who said that move violates the 2013 decision by voters.

Sens. Paul Bettencourt and Joan Huffman, both Houston Republicans, said voters should be given the opportunity to determine whether the new project goes forward because they earlier rejected spending tax money on the restoration.

“The taxpayers of Harris County would be on the hook for this project, and they should be allowed to have a say in whether they want to pay for it,” Huffman said.

Added Whitmire, “After the voters have said no, you don’t go back with your special interests and spend tax money on the Astrodome anyway.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You now where I stand on this. Commissioners Court has to take some of the blame for this bill’s existence, as the consequences of failure for that 2013 referendum were never specified, but this is still a dumb idea and an unprecedented requirement for a non-financed expenditure.

3. Fetal tissue disposal bill gets initial OK in Texas Senate.

Legislation that would require medical centers to bury or create the remains of aborted fetuses won initial approval in the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Because Senate Bill 258 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, did not have enough votes to be finally approved, a follow-up vote will be needed before it goes to the House.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, where anti-abortion fervor runs strong, that step is all but assured.

[…]

After lengthy debate on Wednesday, the measure passed 22-9. Final passage in the Senate could come as soon as Thursday, after which it will go to the House for consideration.

It is one of several abortion-related measures that have passed the Senate this legislative session. Republican lawmakers supported Senate Bill 8 that would ban abortion providers from donating fetal tissue from abortions for medical research, and Senate Bill 415, which targets an abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation.”

Bills also have been filed by Democrats to reverse the 24-hour period a woman must wait to get an abortion and to cover contraceptives for Texans under age 18. The likelihood of those being approved in the GOP-controlled Legislature is considered almost nil.

I have no idea what that second paragraph means; all bills are voted on three times. Whatever. That sound you hear in the background are the lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights loosening up in the bullpen.

4. Texas Senate approves ban on government collecting union dues.

A controversial bill to prohibit state and local governments from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks was tentatively approved Wednesday by the Texas Senate after a divisive, partisan debate.

The Republican author, Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, denied the measure was anti-union or was designed to target a historical source of support for Democrats, even though she acknowledged that Republican primary voters overwhelmingly support the change.

Police, firefighter and emergency medics’ organizations are exempted from the ban, after those groups had threatened to kill the bill if they were covered the same as teacher groups, labor unions and other employee associations.

Groups not exempted will have to collect dues on their own, a move that some have said will be cumbersome and expensive. Those groups include organizations representing correctional officers, CPS workers and teachers, among others.

I’m going to hand this off to Ed Sills and his daily AFL-CIO newsletter:

Huffman, knowing she had the votes, repeatedly fell back on the argument that government should not be in the business of collecting dues for labor organizations. She never offered any justification for that view beyond ideology. Nor did she provide evidence of a problem with using the same voluntary, cost-free payroll deduction system that state and local employees may steer to insurance companies, advocacy organizations and charities.

Huffman tried to make the distinction between First Responders, who are exempt from the bill, and other state and local employees by saying police and firefighter unions are not known to “harass” employers in Texas. But she had no examples in which other unions of public employees had “harassed” employers.

“One person’s harassment is another person’s political activism,” Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said while questioning Huffman about the bill.

Watson noted the main proponents of the bill are business organizations that do not represent public employees.

Huffman was also grilled by Sens. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, John Whitmire, D-Houston, Royce West, D-Dallas, and Borris Miles, D-Houston. Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, offered several strong amendments, but they were voted down by the same margin that the bill passed. The senators relayed testimony from a variety of public employees who said SB 13 would be a significant hardship to them and they could not understand why the Legislature would pursue the bill.

At one point, Huffman declared, “This is a fight against unions.” But it was beyond that, even though the measure was first conceived by the rabidly anti-union National Right to Work Foundation and even though the Texas Public Policy Foundation published a report estimating a substantial decline in public union membership if the bill becomes law. It’s a fight against teachers, against correctional officers, against child abuse investigators and against most other stripes of public employees who only want what most working people would consider a routine employer service.

Particularly galling was Huffman’s general assertion that correctional officers, teachers and other dedicated public employees fall short in some way when it comes to meriting payroll deduction, which state and local governments basically provide with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Huffman was under certain misimpressions. In questioning by Whitmire, she repeatedly declared that it would be “easy” for unions to collect dues through some automatic process outside payroll deduction. Whitmire stated, however, that many state employees make little and do not have either checking accounts or credit cards. Huffman was skeptical that some union members essentially operate on a cash-in, cash-out basis.

Despite her assertion that it would be easy to collect dues from public employees outside payroll deduction, Huffman clearly recognized that when other states approved similar bills, union membership dropped.

To use an oft-spoken phrase, it’s a solution in search of a problem. And as with the other bills, further evidence that “busy” is not the same as “productive”. See here for more.

Senate proposes to make our tax system more broken

That’s what this will surely do.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday approved a controversial bill that seeks to curb the growth in property taxes that local government agencies like cities and counties levy on landowners.

Senate Bill 2, which passed in an 18-12 vote, could require taxing entities to hold an election if the amount of operating and maintenance funds they plan to collect from property taxes is, in general, 5 percent more than what they took in the previous year.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill has split scores of Texas homeowners and the local officials that they elect. Landowners and some government officials say the bill is needed to slow the increase in property tax bills they must pay every year.

Bettencourt, R-Houston, said from the Senate floor Tuesday that many homeowners are seeing increases of 8 percent to 10 percent in what they pay in property taxes each year. He said commercial property owners are repeatedly seeing 15 percent to 20 percent hikes.

“I for one don’t want to continue to climb the ladder above states like Illinois and New York,” Bettencourt said.

But many local and state officials say the Legislature is sidestepping the real issue that leads to rising tax bills: school districts levying more in property taxes because lawmakers won’t change the state’s system for funding education. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, conceded that point on Tuesday.

“It’s a fine balance between respecting our local elected officials and having an understanding that we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

Critics of the bill say it glosses over the fact that an election could be triggered when the actual tax rate remains flat because rising property values play a major role in calculating the election trigger. Many local officials also say the bill would threaten their ability to hire police officers, build new parks and fill potholes.

Many police and fire chiefs from across the state testified against the bill last week.

“What do I tell them?,” State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said Tuesday morning.

“Vote against the people who voted for this turd” would be my advice. One of the good things that has come out of the HISD recapture saga is the increased awareness of the Legislature’s addiction to local property tax revenues as a way of not only easing their own financial responsibilities, but also providing the godsend of being able to blame the whole mess on the local officials who have been left holding the bag. It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that. At least now some people have begun to recognize the con job for what it is, though it’s a long way from becoming a rallying cry. As with many things, we’ll see what happens with this in the House.

One more thing:

Bill proponents say that the automatic election would allow for more local control because it puts more power in the hands of voters.

What’s that you say? Local control?

As local control battles rage at the Texas Capitol, Gov. Greg Abbott is voicing support for a much more sweeping approach to the issues that have captured headlines.

“As opposed to the state having to take multiple rifle-shot approaches at overriding local regulations, I think a broad-based law by the state of Texas that says across the board, the state is going to preempt local regulations, is a superior approach,” Abbott said Tuesday during a Q-and-A session hosted by the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.

Such an approach, Abbott added, “makes it more simple, more elegant, but more importantly, provides greater advance notice to businesses and to individuals that you’re going to have the certainty to run your lives.”

Abbott made the remarks in response to a moderator’s question about legislation this session that would “prohibit any local ordinance from exceeding the standard set by the state.”

In other words, local control when we let you have it, or make you have it, but not when we don’t. The Observer has more.

Pension reform bill passes Senate committee

A major step forward.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan cleared a state Senate committee in its initial hearing at the Capitol on Monday, despite the fact that all those who testified – including Mayor Sylvester Turner – opposed at least some portion of the omnibus package.

Retirees were concerned about benefit cuts. Some conservatives said the only path to true reform wold be to move new hires into defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, which the bill does not do. Firefighters, who never agreed to final language with the city, are opposed in part because the legislation would cut their benefits by what the state Pension Review Board estimates to be $970 million, up from about $800 million the firefighters agreed to in approving initial reform terms last fall.

Turner says those deeper cuts are to ensure the city gets the savings it needs in spite of the fire pension not providing comprehensive data to predict future costs; fire leaders say an ongoing lawsuit prevents them from complying. For his part, Turner – along with the city’s police and municipal worker groups – opposes the bill as written because Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, added a requirement that the public vote on pension bonds that are a key piece of the proposal; the mayor has called the clause a “poison pill.” Ultimately, city officials hope the provision could be excised at some point in the legislative process. Turner also listed seven technical changes he wants that he said appear to be drafting errors in the bill; Huffman took no issue with those, but defended her decision to call for a public vote on the pension bonds.

The provision is a pet project of another Houston Republican, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose standalone bill to require a vote on any Texas municipality’s pension bonds also passed the committee on Monday.

“It’s important that voters have input,” Huffman said, adding that she believes voters would approve, that she would campaign for the bonds’ passage, and that the underlying math of the proposal would work without the bonds.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The Huffman bill is SB2190; the House companion bill, which will have its hearing next Monday, is HB43. You know I’m not philosophically opposed to voting on the pension bonds, but as I said before, elections have winners and losers. I’ll be very interested to see who joins Mayor Turner and Sen. Huffman in campaigning for that bond issue to win, and who will join with the sore losers in campaigning for it to fail.

It’s HCDE hunting season again

Every two years, like clockwork.

A Houston-area legislator has filed two bills targeting the Harris County Department of Education, renewing his assault on the agency that provides special education therapy services to hundreds of students.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican whose district covers much of northwest Harris County, said he was upset that the HCDE board last week rejected a proposed “sunset review” to evaluate the need for the continued existence of the department.

Bettencourt has introduced three separate bills that would study closure, or alternatively prevent it from collecting property taxes or eliminate it outright.

“I’m going to keep filing bills until we get what I think is an adult response from trustees,” said Bettencourt, who has concerns about the agency’s financal accountability. “It’s very disappointing that the board wouldn’t vote for a sunset review.”

James Colbert Sr., the superintendent of the HCDE, said that although bills that would hamper or close the department have been proposed before, he’s perplexed by the multiple bills filed by Bettencourt.

“One calls for a sunset review, one calls for abolishment. It seems odd to ask for two different things, especially as you’re asking for it to be abolished,” Colbert said. “It makes you wonder what is going on.”

Bettencourt said he would prefer to see the department undergo a sunset review to study its closure than close it outright.

One pretext is as good as another, I suppose. HCDE does good work and helps the many smaller school districts in Harris County save money. You would think that would make it uncontroversial, but these are the times we live in.

Some dude opposes pension reform

Presenting this in a slightly redacted form.

[Some dude] has joined friend and ally Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, in rallying opposition to [Mayor Sylvester] Turner’s [pension reform] proposal among conservatives. He has attended at least three dozen forums on the topic, by his count, and has been running social media ads touting his views on Facebook, has traveled to Austin to lobby legislators and has formed a pension-focused political action committee with Bettencourt.

The recent mayoral runner-up’s central role in his rival’s most important initiative is unprecedented, political observers say.

“It does somewhat seem like sour grapes for a defeated mayoral candidate to continue to campaign against his victorious opponent,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “It perhaps would have been more productive to allow Sylvester Turner to handle this himself for the first legislative session of his tenure and only get more actively involved if that session had not resulted in a significant improvement.”

[…]

[Some dude] insists the aim of his critiques is to improve Turner’s proposal, not kill it, and says he is not using the issue to position himself for another mayoral run.

His critics aren’t buying that. They accuse [some dude] of acting out of self-interest in seeking to torpedo the reforms, or of at least failing to grasp that his actions will make that result far more likely.

In particular, [some dude] and Bettencourt want to move all new city workers to defined contribution, or “DC,” pensions similar to 401(k)s – which the employee groups despise because it leaves their retirement pay vulnerable to market fluctuation – and to force a referendum on the $1 billion in pension bonds that are a key piece of the reform package.

“I would concede that it’s unusual, but I don’t understand why there’s anything wrong with it,” [some dude] said of his role. “Just because one candidate advocates some things and loses an election doesn’t mean that all those things are wrong and are off the table forever.”

[Some dude] acknowledges his dozen email blasts attacking the proposal as a “secret” attempt to pass “a bad deal” that is “not real reform” and would “make the city a financial cripple” have sometimes been “harsh” or indulged in “hyperbole.”

[…]

“My role here is to fire up the Republican base to support the two reforms that I want added to the bill,” [some dude] said. “It is a Republican-controlled Legislature. The Republican base is not a little bit in favor of DC plans, they are way in favor of it.”

Not accounting for the union’s certain negative response to these controversial provisions, lawmakers and legislative observers said, means [some dude] might as well say he wants the deal dead.

“[Some dude] feels strongly that there should be defined contribution plans. He ran on that. We had a vote, and he lost,” said Robert Miller, a former Metro chairman and a longtime lobbyist for the city’s three pensions, among dozens of other clients. “That was not something the employee groups were willing to agree to. If you stick that in, there’s a high likelihood that the agreement falls apart. He is seeking to kill the deal.”

I’m sure you can tell who this story is about, but I have no desire to give him any more attention for it. I neither know nor care what this guy’s motivations are, but I do know this: He’s seeking to use the Legislature to overrule the voters who rejected him in 2015. I have no respect for that, and as such I no longer have any respect for him. Hope you’re happy, dude.