Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Paul Bettencourt

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.

We may be voting on pension obligation bonds

Oh, boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state lawmaker carrying Houston’s pension reform bill says her version of the proposal will require a public referendum on a $1 billion cash infusion central to the negotiations, an idea Mayor Sylvester Turner called a “poison pill” that could derail the reforms and force “massive” layoffs.

The requirement that voters have a say on the $1 billion in pension obligation bonds is the brainchild of Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. Fellow Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, who is carrying the reforms in the higher chamber, said she understands the mayor’s frustration but said her bill – which still is being drafted – will not pass without the provision.

“It is a billion-dollar bond, and though it’s not new debt – it’s debt that the city owes to both the police pension fund and to the municipal pension fund – I can understand how the voters would want to have a voice in the issuance of the bonds,” Huffman said. “To get it out of the Senate, it’s a necessary addition to the bill.”

Turner’s reform plan, despite ongoing wariness from the firefighters’ pension fund, emerged from a year of negotiations in Houston with broad support from civic think-tanks, business leaders and pension experts, as well as a 16-1 endorsement from City Council.

[…]

“That is a poison pill, and you are saying you want this deal killed – and it will kill this deal,” Turner said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “If that’s the course that the Legislature chooses to take, then the Legislature must also say to people in this city – to businesses and property owners – ‘We are assuming responsibility because the state can do it better.'”

Turner also sought to spell out the consequences if the reforms fail: still-rising pension debts, an additional $134 million added to an already sizable deficit in the coming budget, and “massive layoffs” touching every city department.

Boy, between this and the Astrodome and the revenue cap and maybe another Metro referendum, not to mention the May recapture re-vote, this may wind up being a far busier election year than it would have with just the usual slate of city races on the ballot. I’ll be honest, I had thought from the beginning there would have to be a vote on the pension obligation bonds, but it turns out that’s not the case thanks to a law passed in 2003. The rationale is that this is not new debt, since the city in this case already owes the money. Be that as it may, I don’t necessarily object to voting on them, though I have to wonder once again why Houston is being singled out like this. What’s the rationale for having a vote, other than “it’s a lot of money”, which as a reminder the city already owes? Paul Bettencourt says “anytime you consider $1 billion of anything, the public should vote on it first”, but if that’s the threshold then why is there a bill to vote on $100 million of Astrodome spending? The thing about having a vote is there’s a winner and there’s a loser. If there is a vote on pension obligation bonds, who’s rooting for Yes to win, and who’s rooting for No? It would be nice to be clear about that before we go on.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A re-vote on recapture?

This is very interesting.

After reconsideration of an 18-year-old law, state education officials are adjusting their school finance calculations in a way that could save several dozen school districts roughly $100 million — while costing the state the same amount in revenue.

One of the apparent beneficiaries is Houston ISD, where the change means taxpayers will be sending about $60 million less to the state for public education than they had expected.

At issue is a calculation for recapture — the state’s term for the money that districts with higher property wealth send to the state for use in districts with lower property wealth.

It’s more commonly known as the Robin Hood system of school finance.

Some of those rich districts — “rich” here refers to the value of the districts’ property and not the income of its residents — have adopted homestead exemptions that are bigger than the exemptions mandated in state law. All school districts in Texas have to let homeowners deduct $25,000 from their taxable property values, but districts are allowed to raise those exemptions up to 20 percent of a home’s value.

Not all districts do that, and not all of those that do that are property rich. But some — including Houston ISD, the biggest one in the state — offer the higher homestead exemptions and are also subject to recapture, and they’re the ones subject to the new calculations from the Texas Education Agency.

In a letter sent Feb. 1 to school administrators, the agency’s associate commissioner for school finance said that starting in the current school year, TEA will include half of the money the districts have forfeited in optional homestead exemptions when calculating how much recapture money those districts should pay. That’s the agency’s new reading of a law that’s been on the books since 1999.

“The commissioner thinks he has the latitude to give them half credit for this,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

The recalculations would trim those districts’ bills considerably — by $100 million in rough numbers. In addition to Houston ISD, the unofficial list of beneficiaries of the new calculation include Spring Branch ISD, Highland Park ISD, Lake Travis ISD and Comal ISD. Officials with TEA said they have not yet calculated exact amounts for each district but said the $100 million is a reasonable estimate of the total cost this year.

[…]

Houston ISD said Friday evening that the board will consider a do-over and will vote next Thursday on whether to hold another election on May 6 to give voters an opportunity to reverse that November vote.

The effect of this new interpretation of the law would be to reduce HISD’s bill for recapture by about $60 million. HISD would still need to pay a bit more than $100 million to the state, so this is hardly a cure-all, but it’s a significant savings.

To me, this is a win for the No vote on recapture last November. As the story says, the TEA could have interpreted the law in this fashion, to allow districts that grant the higher homestead exemption more credit in the byzantize school finance system, years ago. I believe one reason – maybe not the only reason, but surely a big reason – why it didn’t happen before now is because there wasn’t a loud enough voice demanding the change. HISD’s No vote on recapture was a big deal that got people’s attention and focused some energy on just how screwy the system had become. Another boost to their argument was that HISD was being penalized for having a lower tax rate than it could have had. This particular kink in the way the finances were calculated was one of the things that “No on recapture” advocates like David Thompson pointed out, as it was a simple fix that could be easily implemented and would not only be fair but also have a big effect. Maybe this happens anyway if HISD meekly paid its recapture bill, but if anything should be clear at this point in time, it’s that kicking up a fuss tends to be a better way to get what you want.

Bettencourt’s office put out a press release lauding HISD for scheduling another vote. I haven’t seen any other reporting on this – as of Saturday there was nothing on HISD’s website or Facebook page about this – so he’s either being a bit premature or he’s gotten some verbal assurance that the Board will indeed approve a May election at its Thursday meeting. The Board can claim a victory here, and it should be able to sell the idea of writing a smaller check to the state to its constituents and allies from the last election. I’d be inclined to vote Yes this time around – the problem isn’t fully solved, and even without a big school finance overhaul there are other things that could be done for recapture districts like giving credit for pre-K students, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the Board reacts, and to see if groups like CVPE and the teachers’ union go along. Whatever else happens, this was a good thing.

This fight feels different

The more I read about the forthcoming fight between Dan Patrick and his minions and everyone else over the bathroom bill, the more I am struck by the thought that we have never seen anything quite like this before in Texas.

Standing in front of reporters Thursday, Patrick was still a man on the mission, but the political moment had shifted. In the months prior, a Texas judge had blocked the Obama guidance and the bathroom issue had largely cooled off on the national stage — even contributing to the re-election loss of North Carolina’s governor, by some accounts — and opposition to similar legislation in Texas had begun to gain momentum.

Patrick is now in for a self-admitted “tough fight” in the Texas Legislature, where he faces fierce opposition from the business community and lukewarm support from fellow Republicans, at least outside his Senate. That reality did not immediately change Thursday, when he joined state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to roll out the highly anticipated Texas Privacy Act, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.” The bill would also pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Patrick ally and a fellow Houston Republican who chairs the Texas Senate GOP caucus, acknowledged Thursday that it is “going to take some time to talk to the business community, make sure they understand what that bill is” — especially after alarm-sounding by business groups that Patrick allies have criticized as unfounded.

“The beginning of that was obviously” Thursday, Bettencourt said. “Once people can understand what the bill is, certainly the fear of [economic harm] will obviously disappear because it wasn’t real in the first place.”

Patrick was characteristically combative at Thursday’s news conference, saying he had never seen so much misinformation about a piece of legislation before it was filed. He singled out one recent report that suggested he had struggled to find a senator to carry the bill, revealing that he and Kolkhorst had been working on it since Sept. 1. Kolkhorst, for her part, said some of her staff did not even know she was taking up the cause.

The bill’s supporters are betting big that public opinion will overpower whatever resistance they encounter at the Capitol. Their reference point is polling that Patrick’s political operation commissioned last year, which it says shows there is broad support for making it “illegal for a man to enter a women’s restroom.” They also point to the 2015 demise of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance, better known as HERO, which featured much of the same message Patrick is now using with the statewide legislation.

[…]

In the House, state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, has been outspoken on the issue. On Thursday, he said he was crafting legislation that would only “prevent any local government from regulating bathrooms,” which would be similar to one component of Senate Bill 6. By solely focusing on local governments, the House bill would avoid the more incendiary debates sparked by a potential statewide mandate, Shaheen suggested.

“This bathroom issue is just sucking up a bunch of time and resources,” Shaheen said. “I think because my approach is more of a scope-of-government-type of discussion — I avoid the whole bathroom dialogue in general — I think there’ll be a receptiveness to the bill.”

In any case, the business community has spent months looking to derail any bill related to the issue, warning it could lead to the same turmoil that visited North Carolina when its lawmakers pushed similar legislation. The Texas Association of Business and its allies have been the most vocal, touting a report the group released last month that said such legislation could cost the state between $964 million and $8.5 billion and more than 100,000 jobs.

Caroline Joiner, executive director for the Texas and the Southeast for TechNet, a technology industry group opposed to the bill, said one of its challenges is convincing “individual legislators and their constituents that this is not hypothetical — we will have real, devastating economic impacts.” And while Joiner, like many others, expects the issue to be better received in the Senate than in the House, she said TechNet has an interest in educating lawmakers from both chambers about the potential economic consequences.

“I think we absolutely need to be telling that story as aggressively in the House as we are in the Senate,” Joiner said. “Yes, it’s going to be less of a priority for Speaker Straus, but we want to make sure he has the support from his members to oppose it.”

For Democrats, the debate provides an opportunity to capitalize on the growing schism between the increasingly conservative Texas GOP and the more moderate business community. On Thursday, the state Democratic Party quickly branded Kolkhorst’s legislation as an “$8.5 billion bathroom bill,” citing the Texas Association of Business study.

The report itself has been a source of controversy, with Patrick and his allies denouncing it as misinformation and fear-mongering. Bettencourt said the study “had some holes you could drive a Mack truck through,” while Shaheen said he wants it known that he and several colleagues are “highly disappointed in TAB about they’ve misrepresented the business impact of these types of bills.”

Patrick continued to rail against the report Thursday, suggesting in a radio interview after the bill unveiling that the study’s findings were not uniformly supported by the business community.

“The members of the Texas Association of Business have already said they don’t even believe their own report,” Patrick told Tony Perkins, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council. “That report was based on not any economic data, but just extracting some numbers that some people who I believe are with the TAB who are just against the bill. Period. Just want to try to make their argument, but it’s no real data. It’s ridiculous.”

See here for more on SB6. Let me start by addressing the ccomparisons to the HERO fight being made by Patrick and Bettencourt, among others. They want us to think that because there were no real consequences for repealing HERO, there will be no consequences for passing SB6. This argument fails on a number of levels. First, it is legal today for a transgender woman to use a ladies’ room today, in Houston and anywhere else. It was legal before HERO was passed, and it is legal today. HERO didn’t make it legal, because it was already legal. SB6 would make it illegal, as HB2 in North Carolina did. Repealing HERO, as bad as that was, merely reset things to the previous status quo. SB6 would actively make it worse for transgender people, as was the case in North Carolina. This is why HERO repeal didn’t cause much of a stir, while SB6 passage would.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ve already seen what those consequences are. We saw sporting events get relocated, conventions get canceled, business expansions get called off, jobs get lost. It happened, right before our eyes, in North Carolina. Sure, maybe the Texas Association of Business is presenting a worst-case scenario, pushing the biggest number possible in an attempt to ward off SB6. But even something that falls short of a worst-case scenario is still bad, and there’s nothing hypothetical about it. The warnings are there. The North Carolina experience – and the Indiana experience before that – happened. We all saw it. It’s on Dan Patrick to explain why it wouldn’t happen here. He’s not very convincing when he tries.

Which brings me to the nature of the disagreement between Patrick et al and the business community. There have been schisms between business and the Republicans before. The biggest one in recent years has been over anti-immigration policies, but the TAB has had things like improving education and infrastructure on their agenda as well. In the past, though, these disputes have been characterized as “disagreements between friends”, who are “held in high regard”. Look at the way Patrick and Bettencourt refer to the TAB study. They’re dismissive, to the point of being contemptuous. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this feels to me like it’s more personal, with each side maybe feeling disrespected by the other. And remember, the session hasn’t even started yet, which is to say that this fight hasn’t really gotten started yet, either. It could get a lot nastier.

Again, I may be overstating this. The invective has gone only one way so far, and it’s hardly anything that couldn’t be walked back later if it had to be. The TAB has no choice but to at least maintain a cordial relationship with Dan Patrick, and the “business as usual” urge is strong. I’m putting a marker down on this now because I noticed it, and if it does continue to develop this way I will point to this as the start of it. What I’m saying for now is that this looks and feels different to me. I’ve been saying for a long time now that at some point the business community needs to come to terms with the fact that Dan Patrick is not with them a significant and increasing amount of the time, and that maybe they need to think about doing something else. We should do what we can to encourage that line of thinking.

Precinct analysis: Bennett v Sullivan

Ann Harris Bennett was the only countywide Democratic candidate to be trailing on Election Day as the early voting totals were posted, but as the night went on she cut into the deficit and finally took the lead around 10 PM, going on to win by a modest margin. Here’s how that broke down:


Dist  Sullivan  Bennett  Sullivan%  Bennett%
============================================
CD02   168,936  105,778     61.50%    38.50%
CD07   147,165  106,727     57.96%    42.04%
CD09    29,855  103,511     22.39%    77.61%
CD10    83,213   34,795     70.51%    29.49%
CD18    53,558  148,586     26.49%    73.51%
CD29    41,555   88,942     31.84%    68.16%
				
SBOE6  357,083  249,953     58.82%    41.18%
				
HD126   37,003   24,186     60.47%    39.53%
HD127   50,028   23,460     68.08%    31.92%
HD128   42,659   16,238     72.43%    27.57%
HD129   44,072   24,777     64.01%    35.99%
HD130   60,429   20,277     74.88%    25.12%
HD131    8,121   37,906     17.64%    82.36%
HD132   39,094   29,321     57.14%    42.86%
HD133   50,116   25,241     66.50%    33.50%
HD134   49,352   39,410     55.60%    44.40%
HD135   33,528   26,112     56.22%    43.78%
HD137    9,664   17,099     36.11%    63.89%
HD138   28,827   22,096     56.61%    43.39%
HD139   13,707   38,266     26.37%    73.63%
HD140    7,556   19,790     27.63%    72.37%
HD141    5,934   32,109     15.60%    84.40%
HD142   11,599   33,182     25.90%    74.10%
HD143   10,372   22,294     31.75%    68.25%
HD144   11,810   15,188     43.74%    56.26%
HD145   12,669   21,519     37.06%    62.94%
HD146   11,323   36,903     23.48%    76.52%
HD147   14,119   43,254     24.61%    75.39%
HD148   20,434   26,999     43.08%    56.92%
HD149   16,639   26,389     38.67%    61.33%
HD150   50,472   25,358     66.56%    33.44%
				
CC1     82,916  231,040     26.41%    73.59%
CC2    134,067  117,084     53.38%    46.62%
CC3    202,128  149,943     57.41%    42.59%
CC4    220,415  149,294     59.62%    40.38%
Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

This was Bennett’s fourth try for office. She had run for County Clerk in 2010 and 2014 against Stan Stanart, and for Tax Assessor in 2012 against now-incumbent Mike Sullivan, losing by fewer than 2,500 votes out of over 1.1 million cast. She becomes the fifth Tax Assessor since 2009, following Paul Bettencourt (who resigned shortly after being re-elected in 2008), Leo Vasquez (appointed to replace Bettencourt), Don Sumners (defeated Vasquez in the 2010 primary and won in November to complete the term), and Sullivan (defeated Sumners in the 2012 primary and then Bennett in November).

Incumbent Tax Assessors tend to do pretty well in re-election efforts. Bettencourt was the top votegetter in 2004, leading even George W. Bush by over 20,000 votes. He trailed only Ed Emmett in 2008, finishing 16K votes ahead of John McCain. Despite his loss, Sullivan was the high scorer among Republicans, beating all the judicial candidates by at least 19K votes. Only Sullivan in 2012 and Sumners in 2010, both first-timers on the November ballot, failed to make the upper echelon. Assuming she runs for re-election in 2020, it will be interesting to see if that same pattern holds for the Democrat Bennett as it has done for her Republican predecessors.

It’s instructive again to compare these results to the judicial races, as they provide a comparison to the base level of partisan support. While Sullivan finished well ahead of the Republican judicial candidates, Bennett wasn’t below the Democratic judicials; she was near the bottom, but did better than four of them. Looking at the numbers across State Rep districts, Bennett was usually a couple hundred votes below the Democratic judicial average, while Sullivan beat the Republican norm by a thousand votes or more. In HD134, he topped it by over 3,000 votes, though interestingly he wasn’t the high scorer there – Lunceford (50,193), Mayfield (49,754), and Bond (49,407) were all ahead of him, with Guiney (49,209), Halbach (49,173), and Ellis (49,081) right behind.

My general hypothesis here is that fewer Republicans skipped this race. I observed in the Sheriff’s race overview that Democratic judicial candidates had more dropoff than Republican judicial candidates did, while the non-judicial Democrats did a good job of holding onto those votes. Bennett performed more like a judicial candidate, while Sullivan overperformed that metric. I assume that the exposure Tax Assessors get, since every year everyone who owns a car and/or a home has to make at least one payment to that person, helps boost their numbers in elections. Again, we’ll see if Bennett benefits from that in her next election.

This concludes my review of Harris County races. I have one more post relating to Harris County in my queue, and I plan to take at least a cursory look at Fort Bend and Dallas Counties. Again, if you have any particular questions you want me to examine, let me know. I hope you have found this all useful.

Council ratifies Turner’s pension plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

On a 16-1 vote, Houston City Council has endorsed Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic package of pension reforms. The vote clears the way for the City to move forward in partnership with the pension systems to seek legislative approval of the reforms.

“I am bubbling over on the inside,” said Mayor Turner. “I am thankful to everyone who has helped get us to this point. That includes City Council, the pension systems, our City employees and many others. This plan is historic, transformative and budget neutral. We are solving our pension problem permanent and we are doing it without needed a tax rate increase. There is no other plan out there offering the same benefits. The Houston solution can be the model for other cities with similar challenges.”

The police, fire and municipal pension systems all signed off on the package of reforms prior to today’s City Council vote, marking the first time that the City and all of the pension groups have been united.

The plan immediately reduces the City’s nearly $8 billion pension debt by over 30 percent and then sets a 30-year fixed payoff schedule for the remaining $5.3 billion of debt. This immediate reduction is accomplished through a combination of benefits changes that include scaling back cost-of-living adjustments, higher employee payroll contributions and phasing out of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP, which allows employees to accept retirement benefits while continuing to work for the City. In return for the concessions, the City has agreed to issue $1 billion in Pension Obligation Bonds to make up for years of prior underfunding of the pension systems.

“It is a big deal that employees have agreed to these benefit changes,” said Turner. “I know this has not been easy, and I thank each of them for their patience, understanding and service. This plan will provide stable and sustainable retirements at an affordable cost to the taxpayers who foot the bill. Retirees won’t have to worry if the check will be there.”

Moving forward, predictions about the anticipated performance of pension system investments will be based on a more conservative seven percent assumed rate of return. If there are market changes that cause costs to exceed pre-agreed limits, there is a mechanism to force additional changes in benefits to bring everything back in line. A requirement that both sides share information will ensure compliance with the required 30-year payoff schedule.

State Senator Joan Huffman and State Representative Dan Flynn are expected to carry the Houston pension legislation. Bill filing for the 2017 legislative session begins mid-November 2016.

See here and here for the background. CM Mike Knox was the lone No vote, saying he couldn’t support it without there already being a bill written. The Chron story fills in a few details.

Turner secured the political chip of a prompt and lopsided endorsement by using an impassioned speech to persuade Councilman Michael Kubosh to remove his “tag,” a parliamentary maneuver that would have delayed the vote. Kubosh had said he initially tagged the measure at the request state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who has called for a delay until more information was available on the reform plan.

“Either you all are going to represent the people of the city of Houston or – I’m going to borrow your term Councilmember Kubosh – are you going to represent political interests? I stand with the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I was voted (in) to represent their interests, not some party affiliation or some political interest or somebody who wants to be mayor.”

Turner’s comments plainly were directed at Bill King, who was runner-up in last year’s mayoral race and who joined Bettencourt at his news conference. The duo said the detailed reform proposals were public for too short a time and too vague to be properly vetted, particularly a key “corridor” provision that would force benefit cuts in the future if a market downturn led the city’s payments to increase above a specified threshold.

King and Bettencourt say the city should switch new hires to retirement savings plans similar to 401(k)s, but acknowledged a well-written “corridor” provision could offer the same benefits to the city.

[…]

Most council members, however, referenced the briefings they had received on the plan and echoed Turner’s point that no public speaker in the six weeks since the reform outline was first announced had appeared before City Council to criticize it.

“I want to make sure the public understands we have been briefed, and it wasn’t a 24-hour-ago briefing,” Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said.

Councilman Dave Martin, like Stardig, a conservative, offered even stronger comments.

“I did not vote for you. I did not support you. I’m supporting you 100 percent on this,” Martin told Turner. “I think it’s ridiculous for people to criticize this plan. It’s been transparent; it’s been thorough. We’ve been diligent. We don’t need any more information. Maybe the state does, but do your homework.”

Yeah. Just as a reminder, the Kinder Institute has analyzed the plan, so we are not operating in an information vacuum here. I’m sure if Sen. Bettencourt had called the Mayor’s office and asked for a briefing, he’d have gotten it. But it’s easier to preen than it is to prep, so here we are. My guess is we’ll see bills get pre-filed for this, probably in November, so we’ll know soon enough what that will look like. The next question is who will support it and who will try to kill it. The games have just begun.

Chron overview of Harris County Tax Assessor race

It’s deja vu all over again.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan once again faces a challenge from Democrat Ann Harris Bennett, a rematch from four years ago for an office that oversees billions of dollars in property tax collections, maintains voter rolls and registers more vehicles than any other county in the state.

Bennett lost to Sullivan in the 2012 election by about two-tenths of a percent, or less than 2,400 votes.

Now, she is back, with a mission to unseat Sullivan and end the succession of Republican tax assessor-collectors, including Don Sumners and now-state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, that she said represents the establishment.

“They have used (the office) in ways that I don’t think the taxpayers of Harris County would be pleased with,” the former court coordinator said.

[…]

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Sullivan has made “customer service” his motto. He was a former city council member before becoming the county taxman, and was on the Humble ISD school board before that.

In almost four years in office, he has launched initiatives that he said touches virtually every resident of Harris County.

Among them, he said, were workshops to help people challenge their property appraisals and training sessions for high school principals in Houston ISD on how to register students as voters.

He pointed to his work with the county budget office to upgrade the office’s computers and software, and touted his creation of a military help desk to aid soldiers and their families navigate what can be complex tax rules. He said he also instituted an employee recognition program to improve morale.

He also points to decisions to allow people to pay for registration renewals or other transactions with credit cards and put televisions in the lobbies of all of his offices.

“For me, it’s all about serving the public,” Sullivan said.

For Bennett, a big part of what separates her from Sullivan centers on how and when to use the office’s soapbox to advocate for issues beyond its immediate control.

Last year, Sullivan was part of a delegation of county officials whose lobbying in Austin helped torpedo a bill that would have allowed Texas voters to register online.

Sullivan said that the process already is fraught with irregularities, adding that his office regularly has to deal with discrepancies between Department of Public Safety records and information on the voter rolls, discrepancies he said would only grow with online voter registration.

Sullivan pointed to a record number of registered voters in the county this fall – close to 2.2 million – as evidence that current methods are working.

There’s two ways of looking at this race. One is that Sullivan has unquestionably been an upgrade over the two clowns that preceded him, Don Sumners and Leo Vasquez. He’s also been less political than Paul Bettencourt was. The big strike against him, which led to the Chron endorsing Bennett, is his opposition to online voter registration. He has his stated reasons, and it is true that registrations are at a record high for the county. It’s also true that this is contrary to his generally modern approach to technology in other aspects of his office, that he could have pledged to work with the DPS to fix the problems he says they have with their data, and that even if people have been able to overcome the existing obstacles to getting registered, they shouldn’t have had to overcome them when a much easier solution was available. Like the other countywide races, the partisan tide will be the biggest factor in who wins and who loses. I think Sullivan has the best chance of the three Republican incumbents to survive if the Democrats have the overall advantage. Whether he does or he doesn’t, the issue of online voter registration is not going to go away.

Senate whinefest about ballot propositions

Spare me.

crybaby

Members of a state Senate committee called Monday for changes in Texas law to prevent cities from thwarting or blocking citizen petition drives, a key issue for conservative and tea party groups in Houston and other cities in recent years.

At a meeting of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee, members made it clear they support changes to ensure that ballot language is not deceptive or misleading and to keep cities from using outside law firms already doing city business to drag out legal proceedings against citizen petitioners.

Representatives of Texas’ approximately 300 home-rule cities cautioned against making changes to the current process or tipping the laws too far in favor of citizen groups, saying that could dilute local control in favor of state mandates.

Tension between citizen activists and local officials who often are the targets of their ire has been bubbling across Texas in recent years, thanks to a boost of tea party activism. Much of the testimony at Monday’s hearing centered on contentious petition drives and ballot fights in Houston, including the city’s controversial drainage fee levied more than decade ago and the repeal of Houston’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, in 2015.

[…]

Austin lawyer Andy Taylor, who fought the City of Houston before the Texas Supreme Court on ballot issues such HERO and the city’s drainage fee, told the committee how citizens who have had to go to court on their petition drives have had to pay hefty legal fees even though they won the legal battles.

Taylor testified that the cost of one case alone totalled $650,000. Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman who has fought the City of Houston in another case, said he has spent well over $350,000 and the case is not over yet, because the city will not implement a charter change approved by voters.

Witnesses testified that other issues include petition signatures being invalidated in questionable ways, and cities using outside attorneys to increase the costs to citizen petitioners, a move that could discourage them from pursuing an action the city leadership opposes.

Let’s remember three things:

1. Andy Taylor’s fight over the drainage fee has been about nullifying the petition-driven referendum that was approved by the voters. The claims about “confusing language”, which were rejected by a district and appeals court before finally being bought by a credulous and activist Supreme Court, were raised after the election, by people who didn’t like the outcome.

2. That same Supreme Court put the anti-HERO referendum on the ballot without considering a lower court ruling that the petition effort had been rife with petition sheets that did not meet state law and widespread forgery. It never even held a hearing to allow an argument from the city, but ruled solely on a motion from the plaintiffs.

3. Apparently, this entire hearing occurred without anyone mentioning the Denton fracking referendum, in which yet another petition-driven referendum that was ratified by the voters was nullified, first by a judge and then by legislators like Paul Bettencourt.

The point here is that this isn’t about process, and it sure isn’t about The Will Of The People being stifled. It’s about the voters doing things that state Republicans don’t like. It’s about cities having a different vision and priorities for themselves than Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Legislature do. Abbott et al don’t accept the authority of the federal government, and they don’t accept the authority of local government. That’s what this is about.

The state is starting to feel the squeeze

Things are tough all over.

BagOfMoney

The state is facing big problems affecting vulnerable populations that will take significant money to fix at the same time that a slump in the energy industry is chipping into its revenues, House Speaker Joe Straus warned Tuesday.

“Writing a balanced and disciplined budget that appropriately funds our top priorities is going to be a significant challenge,” Straus said in a letter to House budget-writers, expressing confidence they are up to the challenge.

“This is not a theoretical exercise, but rather a task that affects children, taxpayers, and our state’s future,” he wrote.

Oil prices that stood at close to $60 a barrel when the Legislature adjourned last year are averaging “closer to $37 a barrel,” Straus wrote. And the state sales tax has marked five monthly declines.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar last year reduced his estimate of anticipated tax revenue for the current budget period by billions of dollars, while still leaving more than enough money for the state to pay its obligations.

Even before this week’s costly flooding, lawmakers were facing budget challenges such as addressing a foster care system in crisis, Straus wrote. A federal judge has ruled that the system violates the rights of children who most often “leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”

The public school funding system also is under court challenge. A state district judge already has ruled it unconstitutional, suggesting that a fix could cost up to $11 billion. The state has appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court, which could rule this year.

In addition, Straus said, the program providing health-care benefits to retired teachers is in need of a long-term solution.

Those challenges will require “significant financial resources,” wrote Straus, R-San Antonio, and they alone would pose a challenge for lawmakers who return in regular session in January 2017.

[…]

In addition to looking at state program needs, leaders including [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick are setting the stage for additional tax relief in the next legislative session. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican named by Patrick to head the Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief, said there will be room for reducing taxes and that zero-based budgeting, in which all spending items must be justified, will help accomplish that goal.

Of course there’s room for property tax reductions. There’s always room for property tax reductions. We can do those other things with whatever’s left. Wafer-thin mint, anyone?

I don’t know what the Lege will do about this next year – who knows, the price of oil may go back up and we’ll all have forgotten any of this happened by then – but I do know how I’d be planning to run a campaign in 2018. The Republicans running this state are all crooks or crook-coddlers. They busted the budget giving tax breaks to big corporations, while the rest of us get standardized tests, jam-packed highways, a foster care system that kills kids, and no solutions from state leadership. They’ve been in complete control for 15 years. It’s time for a change.

Maybe that would work and maybe it wouldn’t. I doubt it could be any worse than what we’ve done before, and who knows? Maybe the business community will finally have had enough by then, especially if the Lege goes all North Carolina on gays and all Trump on immigration. Democrats would still need good candidates running on a whole lot of faith, the money to get that message out, and some clue how to boost turnout past the pathetic 1.7 million in off years level we’ve been stuck at. I can dream, can’t I? Trail Blazers has more.

What kind of ruling might we expect in the school finance case?

KUHF explores the possibilities.

BagOfMoney

Four major scenarios to watch for:

  1. The Texas Supreme Court could not rule at all. Instead, it could send the case back to the lower court to see if the latest $2.5 billion dollars to the education budget solves the problem. “And the court could say, you know, we need more fact-finding to determine what the actual impact of those changes were, this case isn’t’ ripe,” said [Marisa] Bono, southwest regional counsel of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We think that the likelihood of that is pretty small. But it’s a possibility.”
  2. The justices could make a major sweeping decision in favor of school districts. “And that would require the Legislature to come up with some way of either putting significantly more money in the system, or requiring local taxes to go up, or state taxes to go up or to require wealthy districts to share even more of their wealth with the poorer districts,” explained Al Kauffman, a veteran school finance attorney and also a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.
  3. Or the court could rule the opposite. That would be a win for the state, if the court overturns the trial judge’s entire decision that declared the school finance system unconstitutional. “I guess that’s an option that I don’t like to think about,” said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Austin. “But they can just completely dismiss the case and say it has no standing. But I feel that this is such a strong case that it would be really surprising if they threw out everything.”
  4. In fact, it’s the largest school finance case to ever reach the Texas Supreme Court. It involves the most school districts, the most data and the most legal arguments. That brings the law scenario, which is a combination or piecemeal ruling. The justices could uphold one part of the case and overturn another. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said that’s what he expects. “We can use a good review from the Supreme Court to hit a generational reset button and take all of this into account in the next legislative session,” he said.

Depending on when it arrives, the ruling could force a special summer session or lawmakers could hash out school finance in the next regular session in 2017.

And when will the ruling come?

It could be any day. But Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said definitely by the end of June.

Obviously, scenario 2 is what I’m rooting for. District Court Judge John Dietz already took into consideration the money that was put back into the system in 2013, so I don’t know what purpose option 1 serves. Surely no further evidence is needed to show the inequity between districts. Option 3 is too gruesome to contemplate, while Option 4 is a big “it depends”. I will be disappointed with anything but #2, but the others are all possible to some extent.

Council members complain about open records requests

Oh, please.

CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin on Tuesday blasted a records request from a D.C.-based nonprofit to those council members who voted against the Houston equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, last year.

The Campaign for Accountability’s request seeks communication between prominent local anti-HERO activists as well as anti-LGBT groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, and the six council members who voted against the law. Kubosh and Martin were joined by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and councilmen Jack Christie, Dwight Boykins and Oliver Pennington in opposing the law in May 2014.

[…]

At a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday, Kubosh said council members were being “harassed and intimated” by the request. He called on the mayor to condemn the request, and said the six council members were unfairly targeted.

“I felt like when we received this open records request for over tens of thousands of emails and 51 names of individuals and organizations that we’re going to have to search through, this is a type of bullying,” Kubosh said.

The Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group that files records requests all over the country, responded in a written statement that the move was not meant to intimidate council members. The group called Kubosh’s charge an “outlandish allegation that seems contrived more to attract press attention than to express a serious concern.”

In an interview, deputy director Daniel Stevens also denied Kubosh’s allegation that Mayor Annise Parker, a proponent of the law, was behind the request. Kubosh called it a “lump of coal” from the mayor.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans responded to Kubosh’s comments in a written statement, saying his charge that the mayor is connected to the request is “totally unsubstantiated.”

“There are hundreds of people who have made political contributions to the mayor during her 18 years in office. Receiving open records requests is very common. We tend to get one or more a day here in the mayor’s office and they often come from people who disagree with something the mayor has done or a position she has taken on an issue. They can be overwhelming and time consuming to process but it is part of being an elected officeholder. If this is the first time the council member has received one, he should count himself lucky.”

Indeed. Of course some of these requests are going to be annoying, politically motivated, and/or time-consuming. That’s part of the job. You want to complain about people who don’t like you demanding to poke through your emails, go have a drink at the bar with Hillary Clinton. I’m sure she’d have a sympathetic ear to lend. Beyond that, I say suck it up.

If you think I’m being a bit harsh here, I admit that I am. But ask yourself a simple question: What would the reaction have been like from the folks at this little event if it had been Mayor Parker calling a press conference to decry the “bullying” open records requests of a political opponent? My guess is that sympathy would not have been the first order of the day. Sometimes the best course of action is to just get over yourself and show these people that you have nothing to hide and they’re the ones who are wasting their time. Assuming that’s how you feel about it, of course.

One more thing:

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also attended the event in support of Kubosh and Martin. Bettencourt is already planning to convene the Senate Intergovernmental Relations committee to look into why the city has been rebuffed by the Texas Supreme Court on ballot language issues, including one pertaining to HERO. He added Tuesday that he would seek to discuss a law that would “limit out-of-state access to this type of punitive open records request.”

Seriously? I’m going to outsource my reply to one of the commenters on the Chron story, who is not at all aligned with me politically:

Note to “Uncle Paul” — all your anti-transparency bill would do was (sic) lead the out of state organizations to get a member or supporter from Texas to file the request. It is done more frequently than you think, anyway.

So unless you’re proposing to do away with open records requests altogether, such legislation would do exactly nothing. But thanks for playing. The Press has more.

Senate committee whines about ballot language

Give me a break.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, cited the wording of recent Houston referendums to lengthen term limits and on a controversial equal-rights ordinance as two examples, both of which he said could have been more clear.

The committee is studying whether state law needs to be changed to ensure that local and state ballots more accurately describe what voters are being asked to decide.

“We should all want a common-sense law or a common-sense standard,” said Bettencourt, who like other members of the committee usually argue for less state regulation. “Ballots should be clear for voters to understand what it is they’re voting on.”

[…]

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation a conservative group that carries clout with the Republican-dominated Legislature, said “muddy ballot language” and missing information pose problems. He said the wording of ballot language has been at issue in Houston last month, on a term-limits change that was approved and the Equal Rights Ordinance that was voted down.

Let’s be clear about two things here. One is that for all the fuss, there has been exactly one ballot initiative for which an unfavorable ruling on its language has been given, that being ReNew Houston. The final HERO ballot language was approved by the Supreme Court, and the term limits lawsuit has yet to see the inside of a courtroom. Maybe someday it will provide a second such example, but if so that day is probably several years off.

And two, this is of a piece with the recent Greg Abbott-led Republican obsession with the state meddling in the affairs of Texas cities. The cities tend to have more Democratic leadership, and they tend to be pretty activist about tackling problems that affect them. Both of those things are now officially annoying to Abbott and an increasing number of legislators. I have no particular interest in the term limits bill – remember, I voted against it – but I can smell the BS from here. The state has plenty of its own issues to deal with. Get back to me when the rest of the house is in order.

Auditing HCDE

We’ll see about this.

Later this summer, state auditors are expected to release their final report on the Harris County Department of Education. They’ve been examining the agency since last December.

Superintendent James Colbert told lawmakers about it at a hearing in April.

“We should have absolutely nothing to hide as far as I’m concerned and really they provide a free service for us for things that we need to fix. And so, that’s something that I’m open to,” Colbert said.

Critics contend the Harris County Department of Education has plenty to fix, from handling records requests to duplicating services with other agencies.

Its services include early learning, special education and adult education.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he wants to have a hearing in Austin after the audit is released.

“What I want this to come out with is an idea of ‘Do we have a model that works in Harris County, or do we need to change it?’” he said.

See here for some background. HCDE has long been a political target, so an audit like this could provide ammunition for its detractors, or it could provide evidence that there’s nothing of substance for them to attack. The Chron story I linked to in that earlier post certainly suggests there are some things going on at HCDE that need scrutiny. Hopefully, this audit will show that they have been addressed.