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pension obligation bonds

Pension bond lawsuit dismissed

This hit my inbox late in the day on July 3.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The City of Houston is pleased that a court challenge to the 2017 election on the City’s pension bonds has been decided in its favor.

Today, State District Judge Mark Morefield dismissed the case styled James Noteware, Contestant vs. Sylvester Turner, Mayor of the City of Houston, Texas, and City of Houston, Texas, Contestees, Cause no 2017-83,251.

In December 2017, a voter sued the City to set aside the results of the Nov. 7, 2017 election after Houstonians overwhelmingly approved the pension bonds.

Tuesday’s ruling is important to the City’s pension reform plan.

“These pension bonds are a critical part of our pension reform statute and plan, and I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

See here for the background. So far the only news coverage I’ve seen is this Chron story, which is not on the main houstonchronicle.com site and which mostly recapitulates the press release. It does indicate that the plaintiff plans to appeal, because of course he does. I’m hoping there will be more information once the Chron has had the chance to do some reporting on this, but for now this is what we have. Given that the bonds have been sold I’m honestly not sure what there is to adjudicate, but then I Am Not A Lawyer, so there you have it.

Council approves Mayor’s budget

The annual ritual is observed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Precinct analysis: Two facts about 2017 turnout

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

My thoughts following the 2017 election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election Day 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

2017 EV daily report: Day 8, and one more look at a way to guess turnout

Here are the numbers through Monday. Now that we are in the second week of early voting, when the hours each day are 7 to 7, these reports arrive in my inbox later in the evening. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   24,442   8,201   32,643   21,320
2015   73,905  23,650   97,555   43,279
2011   23,621   4,958   28,579   14,609
2007   19,250   4,353   23,603   13,589

The first Monday of Week 2 was busier than all preceding days, by a lot in 2015 and by a little in 2011 and 2007. Each day after that was busier still. This year, the second Monday was less busy than Thursday and Friday last week. I suspect an Astros hangover from Sunday night may have had something to do with that – Lord knows, traffic on I-45 in the morning and in the downtown tunnels at lunchtime were both eerily mild – in which case we ought to see more of an uptick going forward.

As for the other way of guessing turnout, which would be my third model for thinking about it, we have the May 2004 special city charter election, called by Mayor White to make adjustments to the pension funds, in the immediate aftermath of reports that recent changes had greatly increased the city’s financial obligations. A total of 86,748 people showed up for that election. I seriously doubt we’ll approach that, but my initial guesses on turnout for this year before I started looking at any data were 50,000 to 75,000, so it’s not ridiculously out of the question. Let’s file this one away for next May, when we may have to vote on the firefighter’s pay parity proposal.

Early voting for November 2017 begins today

From the inbox:

“The best option to vote in the upcoming Nov. 7 election is during the early voting period,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart. Early Voting for the November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections begins Monday, October 23 and will run through Friday, November 3. There will be 45 Early Voting locations across Harris County.

“Voters should be informed before heading to the polls as several of the usual Early Voting locations have changed”, said Stanart. “Locations hit hardest by flooding such as those running along Cypress Creek and those located near the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs have seen changes to several of their Early Voting locations”.

In addition to the 7 proposed State Constitutional Amendments, there are 5 cities, 14 ISD’s, and 10 utility districts with contests on the ballot. Voters can find their individual sample ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“The impact of Hurricane Harvey to South Texas has been huge, and while we are recovering, please realize that government needs your participation in this election,” concluded Stanart. The pulling together of neighbors helping neighbors has been truly inspiring. Please join your neighbors as we meet at your neighborhood early voting location.”

To find polling locations for Early Voting and Election Day, view a personal sample ballot, or review the list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965. Stan Stanart is the Chief Elections Administrator and recorder for the third largest county in the United States.

Below is a list of early voting locations, some of which are new and one of which is a previously-used location that is not available due to Harvey. For a map and the EV schedule, see here. I’ll keep track of the daily totals as usual, and we’ll try to make our guesses as we go along about turnout. Feel free to place your guesses about how things go in the comments. When do you plan to vote?

Harris County, Texas – Early Voting Locations
November 7, 2017 General and Special Elections

Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street, 4th Floor Houston 77002
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Young Neighborhood Library 5107 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
Harris County Public Health 2223 West Loop South Freeway, 1st floor Houston 77027
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
John Phelps Courthouse 101 South Richey Street Pasadena 77506
Sunnyside Multi Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77051
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kingwood Community Center 4102 Rustic Woods Drive Kingwood 77345
Rosewood Funeral Home 17404 W. Lake Houston Pkwy Atascocita 77346
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
North Channel Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Katy Branch Library 5414 Franz Road Katy 77493
Bear Creek Park Community Center UNAVAILABLE    
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Klein Multipurpose Center 7500 FM 2920 Klein 77379
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Lone Star College Creekside 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
Spring First Church 1851 Spring Cypress Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – North Harris 2700 W W Thorne Drive Houston 77073

 

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the city bonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement watch: The bonds

Endorsement season has officially begun.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Lift Up Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

More on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal

Here’s that full Chron story I mentioned yesterday:

Houston firefighters delivered over 32,000 signatures to City Hall on Monday in support of asking voters in November to mandate parity in pay between firefighter and police officer ranks, a maneuver that could threaten the city’s plans to sell $1 billion in bonds as part of its pension reform plan.

While the two measures are unrelated, both are tied to firefighters’ displeasure with the Turner administration.

As such, a unified voting bloc of firefighters during what is expected to be a low-turnout election in November could spell trouble for Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature pension reform plan, and potentially thrust the city back into the fiscal quagmire Turner spent his first year in office trying to escape.

“If one issue is a five-alarm fire, both together are a 10-alarm fire,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

[…]

The union originally sought a 21 percent pay raise over three years, according to Turner, but lowered that request to 17 percent. The city, meanwhile, offered 9.5 percent over three years, which Turner said would stretch the city’s financial capabilities.

Houston firefighters have been without a contract for three years. The “evergreen” terms that had governed their employment during that time lapsed last month, reverting to state law and local ordinance. City Council made the terms in that local ordinance less favorable in a unanimous vote on the same morning the union filed its lawsuit.

“This petition drive was necessary because Houston firefighters are at a breaking point,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association at a press conference Monday. “We now are asking the voters to help Houston firefighters because the city refuses to do so.”

The petition seeks to amend the city’s charter to mandate equal pay and benefits between firefighters and police-officers of similar status, but not necessarily title, accounting for varied rank structures between the two departments.

See here for the background. I have a basic question to ask here: Who is going to support the firefighters in this effort? Who will their allies be in this fight? Because I’m having a hard time seeing who is on their side right now.

As noted, Council voted unanimously to impose those less favorable “evergreen” terms under which they now grudgingly labor, and Council approved the pension reform plan on a 16-1 vote, with the only No coming from CM Knox, who wanted to see a bill get filed first. Who on Council is going to endorse the pay parity effort?

If the thinking is that the firefighters might try to tank the pension obligation bonds as payback or leverage as part of this, then please note that the House passed the pension reform bill 103-43, and the Senate passed it 25-5. Of the Harris County contingent, Sen. Sylvia Garcia was a “present, not voting”, while Reps. Jessican Farrar and Briscoe Cain (a pairing I’d never expected to see) were No votes. Everyone else voted Yes. I don’t see Sen. Garcia and Rep. Farrar crossing swords with Mayor Turner on this, and Rep. Cain represents Baytown. Who in the Lege will stand with the firefighters? Maybe Sen. Paul Bettencourt, because he’s a little weasel who likes to stick it to Houston, but he was the one who put the provision in to require a vote on the bonds.

Of the establishment groups that tend to get involved in city politics, the Greater Houston Partnership is all in on pension reform and spending restraint. I can’t see the Realtors opposing the Mayor on this, nor the GLBT Political Caucus, nor any Democratic-aligned groups. The one possible exception is labor, but this proposal would be bad for the police and the city workers. It’s not about a rising tide, it’s just shifting money to the firefighters from the rest of the city employees. Maybe labor backs this, maybe they don’t. The Chronicle will surely endorse a No vote. Who among the big endorsers will be with the firefighters?

I’m sure the firefighters will have some allies. My point is that as I see it, the Mayor already has a lot more. Which brings me to the next point, which is where will the firefighters get the money to run their pro-pay parity campaign? It helps to have allies, who can not only make donations themselves but also hold fundraisers, solicit contributions from their networks, and eventually participate in campaign activities. I think we all agree that Mayor Turner is a good fundraiser, and he can assemble a pretty good get out the vote campaign. While this is certainly likely to be a low turnout election, at least compared to a normal city election, turnout is in part determined by how many people are aware there is something or someone for them to vote on. Who do you think is going to have more resources and a bigger microphone for getting out a message about the need to vote? And bear in mind, even if the firefighters are good at raising money, that in itself can be used against them. I mean, here they are claiming poverty, holding up signs saying they can’t afford to live in the city, but they can spend a bunch of money on a campaign? Yes, I know, the one doesn’t really have anything to do with the other, but do you want to have to explain that to people?

What I think it comes down to is this: Sure, people like firefighters, and they think they should be adequately compensated. In the abstract, their proposal sounds reasonable, and there are probably a lot of people who would feel good about paying our firefighters more. But this isn’t an abstract choice, and there are lots of consequences to making it. The firefighters are asking for something for themselves, something that doesn’t benefit anyone else and which potentially has a large cost attached to it that everyone will pay. They’re doing all this while at the same time spitting on an offer from the city to give them a ten percent raise. Now how positively will people feel about their proposal? That’s what we’ll find out. Campos has more.

Mayor will take revenue cap referendum off the 2017 ballot

Not gonna lie, I’m disappointed by this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner abruptly reversed course Wednesday on his plan to ask voters to repeal Houston’s revenue cap this fall, saying it now is “unlikely” he will ask for its removal.

The politically cautious move would leave the city fiscally shackled in the hope that a lighter November ballot improves the chances voters sign off on hundreds of millions in general improvement bonds and $1 billion in pension obligation bonds, a crucial piece of the mayor’s landmark pension reform package.

“Do I believe that the needs are as much there to remove it as they were when I came into office? Absolutely,” Turner said. “Do I want to run the risk of losing the reforms that we’ve made to our pension system…? No.”

Lifting Houston’s voter-imposed cap on property tax collections had been a pillar of the mayor’s agenda, and he regularly discusses how the restriction constrains Houston’s budget, preventing the city from hiring more police officers, replacing its aging fleet and maintaining other city services, such as street repair.

Turner’s about-face came during a City Council discussion of how the cap, which has cost the city an estimated $220 million in revenue since 2014, likely will force the city to scale back the street and drainage projects budgeted in its five-year Capital Improvement Plan, or CIP.

The CIP slated for council approval later this month accounts for the revenue cap this fiscal year but was written assuming voters would remove the restriction by the start of fiscal 2019.

The finance department estimated the cap will reduce revenue for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair fund, by roughly $201 million in fiscal years 2019-2022, delaying roughly 16 of 90 ReBuild projects planned for the next five years.

[…]

The mayor’s new plan was met with understanding around the council table.

“It’s a strategic decision,” Councilman Larry Green said. “It probably doesn’t make sense to put (the revenue cap) on the ballot, especially when we’re trying to get pension bonds passed and we’re also putting out general revenue bonds.”

I’m not disappointed because I think Mayor Turner did anything wrong, I’m disappointed because I was chomping at the bit to get rid of the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and now I have to wait again. I understand the logic, even if the unmentioned implication of all this is that pro-revenue cap forces would be willing to sabotage both the pension reform plan and the city’s capitol improvement plan in order to keep their travesty in place, I just don’t like it. But it is what it is, and if the revenue cap has to take a back seat to these other needs, that’s politics. Nobody said I had to like it.

So, again modulo any Supreme Court interference, adjust your turnout expectations for this November downward. There will be people who will vote against the various bonds, but I doubt there will be much if any of a campaign to turn out anyone who wasn’t already going to vote. There will be a pro-bond campaign, but again I doubt it will push the numbers up by much. I’m putting the over/under for November in Houston right now at about 75,000, and I could be persuaded to go lower. What I hope is that Mayor Turner has November of 2018 in mind for the revenue cap referendum, as there will be no worries at all about turnout in that environment. Remember, over 330,000 votes were cast in the Renew Houston referendum of 2010, with over 340,000 votes for the red light camera question. He’ll need to sell the idea, which is far from a given, but at least the voters he’d like to see will be there for him in that scenario.

Bonds on the ballot

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

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On to the revenue cap

With one major accomplishment (basically) finished, Mayor Turner moves on to the next major challenge facing him.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“This is the most consequential campaign of the mayor’s career,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “These things are more complicated and more politically fraught than either his mayoral campaign or the lobbying to get the pension bill passed to begin with, and those were both complicated.”

Turner has made his own climb steeper by pledging to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

[…]

Turner thanked city employees for shouldering $2.8 billion in cuts to their retirement benefits, and said it is now time for all Houstonians to join in sacrificing for the good of the city. The revenue cap, Turner said, hurts the city’s credit rating and hamstrings its ability to provide sufficient services and compete on a global scale.

Many conservatives don’t see it that way, arguing that the cap protects taxpayers and gives the city an incentive to operate more efficiently.

The Harris County Republican Party plans to campaign against Turner’s repeal effort, and is expected to have company.

Voters approved the revenue cap in 2004, limiting the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Voters tweaked the rule in 2006, allowing the city to raise an additional $90 million for public safety spending.

Houston exhausted that breathing room in 2014, and, with property values still on the rise, has had to trim back its tax rate each fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than allowed.

Despite the cap’s complexity, conservative political strategist Denis Calabrese said he doubts there will be a shortage of voter education on the issue.

“Voters will come into that election very well informed and knowledgeable and they’ll be able to express their opinion,” he said. “The predisposition going into this is that voters don’t support the repeal of the cap, and we’ll see if that changes as a result of the education efforts on both sides.”

You know that I support repealing the cap. The question is how to sell that idea. I agree that the predisposition is likely to be to keep it, though I’d argue that most people know very little about the cap. I’d approach this primarily as a plea from Mayor Turner, as part of his overall plan to get the city’s finances in order. Have him say something like “I promised you I’d get a bill passed in the Legislature to rein in pension costs, and I did that. But the work isn’t done just yet, and I need your help to finish the job. The revenue cap limits Houston’s economic growth and lowers our city’s credit rating. To really get our finances in order, we need to repeal it.” You get the idea. Basically, the Mayor has as much credibility with the voters right now as he’ll likely ever have. That’s a huge asset, and he should leverage it.

Alternately, if the local GOP is going to oppose repealing the cap, then one might keep in mind that the city is much more Democratic than it is Republican, so if this becomes a partisan fight then the Mayor has a larger pool of voters available to him. There are also a lot of potential villains to demonize in such a campaign, from the President on down. This would almost certainly be the kind of low-information, high-heat campaign that makes newspaper columnists wring their hands about civility and discourse, but it would get people to the polls. I’d take my chances with it.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the City Secretary is reviewing a petition that calls for a vote on giving 401(k)-style retirement plans to all city workers hired after the start of next year, which employees view as insufficient.

Conservative activist Windi Grimes, an organizer of the effort, however, said her group thinks sufficient fiscal safeguards were added to the pension bill passed in Austin, and will not mount a campaign behind the petition.

See here for the background. Is there a provision to allow for submitted petitions to be withdrawn? That would be the better option if the proponents of that idea are no longer interested in advocating for it.

Houston pension reform bill passes

It’s done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas House on Wednesday approved the controversial Senate version of a bill that aims to overhaul Houston’s failing pension funds — over the passionate objections of current and former firefighters.

Senate Bill 2190, which passed in a 103-43 vote, now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. But the months of rancor between firefighters and Houston officials promise to linger long after the legislative session ends Monday.

[…]

The Houston bill passed Wednesday without two amendments the House had previously added in an apparent attempt to appease firefighters. One amendment would have prevented the bill from impacting current firefighter retirees. The other could have allowed the firefighter pension system to bear a smaller burden in paying down unfunded liabilities shoring up billions in shortfalls in three city employee retirement funds.

That drew the anger of firefighter pension members, dozens of whom sat in the House gallery Wednesday. Some shouted down to representatives as they walked out after the vote. One woman could be heard yelling, “Shameful!”

After the vote, Houston firefighter pension board chairman David Keller said he was disappointed in the vote. During the session, pension officials had suggested such legislation could be unconstitutional because it determines the financial boundaries the fund should stay within. Keller said the Constitution says that power is left solely to the pension board.

Keller said it was too soon to determine if the pension board will file a lawsuit.

“We will explore every option available to us,” he said.

But state Rep. Dan Flynn, who carried the bill in the House, said that killing the bill because firefighters remained unhappy would have exasperated the dire financial situation the city and the retirement funds are experiencing. The bill addresses pensions for firefighters, police and municipal employees.

“If we don’t pass it, there won’t be any pensions,” the Canton Republican told The Texas Tribune earlier this year.

Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, authored the amendment that could have helped the firefighter pension fund bear less of the burden shoring up the city’s shortfalls. The amendment would have given pension officials more time to provide data showing that financial forecasts estimate the fund will be in better shape than Houston officials estimated.

But on Wednesday, he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill without the amendment.

“We’ve done everything we can to work hard in good faith,” Huberty said.

Keller, the pension chairman, said the pension board offered to provide the data under licensing agreements that included confidentiality provisions. He said the city never responded.

When asked if firefighters would campaign against any Houston-area state officials who backed the bill, Keller said “it’s hard to say.”

“But I know the firefighters are having a lot of emotions right now: loss, anger,” he said. “And they’ve been shown to be politically active.”

See here for the background. The firefighters are gonna do what the firefighters are gonna do. I get they’re unhappy and to an extent I don’t blame them, but this is where we are, and it took a lot of effort to get here. At this point, the main thing I’ll be looking for is who will be campaigning against the pension obligation bonds. It’s one thing to say we need to vote on those things (even if we hadn’t voted on them before), it’s another to say we should vote against them. Until then, kudos to all for getting this done, and congratulations to Mayor Turner for doing what once seemed to be impossible. The Mayor’s press release is here, and the Chron has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story.

Mayor Turner’s second budget

It’s about what you’d expect.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

With pension reform in sight, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed a combination of departmental cuts, one-time fixes, deferred payments and a dip into city reserves to close next year’s $123 million budget gap.

Turner aims to erase the deficit with $51 million in spending cuts – largely from police and fire overtime – $35 million in one-time revenues or deferred payments, and $38 million drawn from city reserves. The mayor said he anticipates eliminating vacant positions across departments and making fewer than 10 layoffs.

The proposed $2.38 billion general fund budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is about $35 million more than this year’s spending plan, due in part to a $51 million spike in debt costs.

“Like anything, there are limited dollars, and I think what the public expects for us to do is to operate in a very prudent fashion,” Turner said. “I think we have submitted a budget that can at least maintain our core city services.”

The city’s budget projection is predicated on the state Legislature’s passage of Houston’s pension reform deal with a two-thirds majority and Gov. Greg Abbott’s subsequent approval, which would put the changes into effect at the start of the fiscal year.

The mayor has said the budget gap would increase to roughly $234 million without pension reform, potentially requiring hundreds of employee layoffs.

The deficit also would grow if the Legislature passes the pension bill with some of the House’s amendments attached or with less than a two-thirds majority, which would delay implementation until September.

This year’s budget is similar in nature to last year’s, and I expect that the Mayor will have little tolerance for amendments that include any new spending. I assume he has a Plan B budget in his back pocket in case the Lege doesn’t fully cooperate, and I’ll be fine with never seeing it. From here, it’s on to getting the pension obligation bonds ratified and lifting the revenue cap, which if nothing else ought to make next year’s budget a little less painful. Here’s hoping.

Revenue cap will be on the November ballot

Here it comes, assuming the pension reform bill doesn’t get mugged in a dark alley.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask voters to lift Houston’s cap on property tax collections in November, a move that could loosen one of the city’s primary fiscal constraints as it confronts still-hefty pension and debt costs that leave little breathing room to maintain city services.

The referendum would fulfill the mayor’s pledge to try to overturn the revenue cap if he succeeded in reforming Houston’s pension systems.

“Repealing the revenue cap means a better credit rating for Houston and lower costs for taxpayers when we finance improvements to the city buildings, parks and libraries that serve our neighborhoods, aging fleet, bad streets, illegal dumping and deferred maintenance,” Turner told an audience of 1,400 Thursday at his annual State of the City address. “We must achieve sustainable structural budget balance by making sure that our recurring income is equal to or more than our recurring expenses, and in fact, we must always seek ways to reduce our expenses.”

[…]

Houston’s pension reform deal as passed by the Senate includes a requirement that voters approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. The bonds would not require a tax hike, but the bill would reverse the groups’ benefit cuts if voters reject the bonds.

Meanwhile, a petition submitted two weeks ago that is being reviewed by the City Secretary calls for a public vote to require a shift to 401(k)-style defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Lifting the revenue cap, on the other hand, would increase homeowners’ property taxes. The owner of a $200,000 Houston home saved about $84 in taxes over the last three years, costing the city an estimated $220 million in revenue.

“You’re risking a lot by putting two potentially inflammatory items on the ballot that could stimulate an anti-Turner vote,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, noting that he thinks the pension obligation bonds alone would pass. “But if you put in bond plus revenue cap, that’s a bitter pill that conservatives would have to swallow all at once.”

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said the party has not decided whether to back the issuance of pension obligation bonds, but it already has committed to campaigning against lifting the revenue cap.

“Without that cap there, there will be the inevitable pressure to solve every fiscal problem by raising taxes,” Simpson said. “It’s the best tool we have to actually impose fiscal discipline on the city.”

Turner appeared undaunted by the prospect of a financially weighty ballot.

“Protection – it’s not free. Police officers are not free. … Firefighters are not free. People who are fixing our streets – they are not free,” he told reporters after his speech at the downtown Marriott Marquis hotel. “When people have a need, they want the city to respond. Well, we want to respond.”

I’m all in on this, as you know. My preference would be to go for full repeal, though what the Mayor has generally talked about is building in an exception for public safety. Which I can live with, given that revenues tend to be fungible, but the honest and future-lawsuit-proof path is to ditch the stupid revenue cap altogether.

The likely presence of a pension obligation bond referendum on the ballot doesn’t strike me as a problem, as both items can be sold together as a package deal to get Houston’s finances on firmer ground. And if the people who are now insisting that we vote on the pension obligation bonds then show their true colors by opposing those bonds, well, now we’ve got a villain to run against. The Mayor can campaign for them by sending Greater Houston Partnership types out to the wealthy neighborhoods to talk fiscal responsibility, and he can send Democratic partisans to the clubs and other receptive audiences to tell them to send a message to the out of touch Republicans in Austin that they can’t meddle in our city. I’d feel pretty good about our chances with that kind of campaign.

It’s a different question whether Metro will want to join in and put its own referendum on the ballot as well or wait till 2018. There’s a case for waiting and a case for action, and I’m glad it’s not my decision to make.

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.

Pension reform bill passes House committee

Two for two.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform bill will now move to the floor of each legislative chamber after a Texas House committee joined its Senate counterparts in passing the measure 6-1 Wednesday.

With Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, opposed, the pensions committee adopted House Bill 43, which will now head to a scheduling committee to be set for its next hearing.

“I am thankful to the committee members and Chairman Dan Flynn,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a prepared statement, referencing the Dallas-area Republican who oversees pension discussions. “Our solution continues to make historic progress in Austin. I am happy to see that our state lawmakers understand how important this is to Houston’s future. We are going to keep up the pressure until our plan becomes law.”

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman’s committee passed the bill last month by a similar margin of 7-1. The main difference between the bills is that Huffman’s version seeks a referendum on pension bonds such as the $1 billion in bonds that are a key part of the reform package; the House version does not include that language.

See here and here for the background. The easy passage in the House committee, coupled with the passage of the Huffman bill in the full Senate, bodes well for the reform effort despite the opposition from the firefighters. Assuming HB43 does pass the full House, either it will need to go through the Senate or Sen. Huffman’s SB2190 will have to pass the House. The matter of whether or not to require a vote on the pension obligation bonds will be worked out one way or the other, and then we’ll go from there.

Firefighters will oppose pension reform bill

So it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Hopes that Houston’s firefighter pension board might agree to a compromise set of benefit reforms and end their opposition to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package proved too optimistic, after the two sides passed a Thursday deadline without a deal.

It remains unclear what effect counting the firefighters as confirmed foes will have on the bills now working their way through both chambers of the Legislature.

The Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund had joined police and municipal worker groups in backing preliminary terms last fall, but did not join their counterparts in agreeing to final legislative language.

Fire pension board chairman David Keller reopened the door to an agreement in testimony before a state House committee on Monday, saying recent talks with Sen. Joan Huffman – the Houston Republican whose committee approved the reform proposal last week – had been productive and that he was “hopeful” his board could agree.

Keller acknowledged he verbally agreed to a compromise Turner offered that included more than the estimated $800 million in benefit reductions the board had approved last October but less than the nearly $1 billion in cuts currently reflected in the legislation.

After the final numbers were crunched, however, Keller said the proposal cut too deep.

Things had looked more positive for consensus earlier in the week, but these things happen. I feel like we have come along far enough that success is more likely than failure, but failure is always an option. The question I have at this point is if the Senate version of the bill makes it through, will the firefighters oppose the pension obligation bond issue, in hopes of scuttling the deal by whatever means they can? This is the part of requiring a vote that makes me nervous, precisely because it’s another opportunity for people who don’t like this plan for whatever the reason to kill it. But first we need a bill to pass in the House. Look for the arguments made by opponents there as a preview of what we may get in 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.

House hearing for pension bill

Another step in the process.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s pension reform plan got its first hearing Monday in the state House, where rows and rows of current and retired firefighters appeared to voice opposition to the plan.

Municipal and police leaders testified in support, however, as did representatives of the Greater Houston Partnership and, of course, Mayor Sylvester Turner, who spent most of his first year in office negotiating the package.

“It is not the perfect pension bill, because, quite frankly, I don’t know if you can get the perfect pension bill, but it is a very good bill for all parties concerned,” Turner said at the hearing.

Even the opposition of the firefighters was tempered somewhat by the testimony of their pension fund chairman, David Keller.

He said a series of talks since the bill cleared a Senate committee by a 7-1 vote last week have produced “great movement” in better aligning the current proposal to the general terms Keller’s board approved last October, before negotiations lagged and his group failed to reach agreement with the city on final legislative language. Disputes over sharing information led the city to propose deeper cuts than initially had been agreed to; Keller said those issues have been resolved in the last week.

Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he had even heard Monday morning from some firefighters who seemed to be in support of the bill. Keller said that was not quite right, but he was “hopeful” his board might ultimately wind up in agreement.

“Firefighters are not immovable,” Keller said. “We heard loud and clear that we should not expect status quo, and we did not expect status quo.”

That’s decidedly less contentious than the firefighters’ previous statement, so that’s good. No one has to love this bill, but everyone has to be able to live with it. The House bill (HB43 by Rep. Dan Flynn, who is the Chair of the Pensions Committee) differs from the Senate bill in that it does not require a vote on the pension obligation bonds. Hard to say at this point which version will prevail, but I’d expect both will have some changes made before all is said and done. HB43 was left pending in committee, so it’s not ready to advance to the House floor just yet.

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.

No one ever said pension reform was going to be easy

The firefighters’ pension fund isn’t happy with the way things are going.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The plan to reform the City of Houston’s pension system is running into opposition from the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF).

In a recent letter sent to its members, the HFRRF criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for ending the negotiations on the final version of the pension reform bill, which is being drafted in the Texas Legislature.

Turner has told the staff working on the bill’s final version to roughly match the terms for the firefighters to those that the Police pension fund has agreed to.

The HFRRF says it will oppose that option.

David Keller, the HFRRF’s chairman, notes that some of the adjustments firefighters wanted to see in the bill included “changes to the cost of living adjustments.”

“It would include changes to the deferred retirement option funding, it would change age of retirement for new hires,” Keller adds.

The Mayor said last week the unwillingness of the firefighters to fully abide by the terms he is proposing, for instance, increasing employee payroll contributions, would result in bigger benefit cuts than they tentatively agreed to last fall.

The Chron adds on.

Turner had said at last Wednesday’s City Council meeting that he was making good on earlier hints that the fire pension trustees’ failure to agree to reform terms would see the fund receive deeper benefit cuts than it had tentatively agreed to last fall. Turner said he had instructed legislative attorneys drafting the bill to roughly match the firefighters’ terms to those agreed to by the police pension.

“Our mayor, the former state legislator, has decided to use the insider’s game of the legislative process to pursue his own one-sided plan,” Houston Firefighters Relief and Retirement Fund chairman David Keller wrote in a letter to members released late Friday. “If the mayor’s plan for us is the version we last saw or worse, we will absolutely oppose it.”

In explaining his reason for breaking off negotiations this week, Turner had said that Keller’s board had not provided comprehensive data on plan participants to enable the city to accurately predict future costs under the reform plan. As a result, Turner said, the city was forced to propose deeper cuts to ensure the originally projected cost savings are achieved.

“Even in this message, there is no indication they are going to provide the data we have asked for repeatedly,” Turner said Friday evening, responding to Keller’s letter. “Without those numbers, we are unable to verify the cost of the reforms they have offered. I have been very patient throughout this entire process, but the time has come to move forward, and I am doing so in the best interest of the city.”

The do-nothing option has always been fine for the HFRRF, because the city has no control over how much it pays in, which includes cost of living adjustments. That’s always been the main sticking point, and was the focus of reform efforts by Mayors Parker and White, as well as the reason why their relationship with the firefighters was rocky. I don’t blame the firefighters for defending their position, but from the city’s perspective there’s no path to reining in costs that doesn’t include some control over COLAs. This has always been the fight, and it will continue to be the fight, probably even after a reform bill is passed, whenever that may be.

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.

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.

Pension deal approved by firefighters

It’s a big deal, though it’s hardly a done deal yet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

For the first time ever, the Houston firefighters’ pension board agreed Monday to accept benefit cuts for current workers and retirees, potentially paving the way for a solution to a 15-year-old crisis that has threatened to bust budgets and weaken the city’s financial stability.

By a 7-2 vote, the firefighters panel joined the police and municipal pension boards in agreeing to give up some benefits in exchange for certainty in a complex deal that would eliminate underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years.

The reform package, which Mayor Sylvester Turner heralded as a “historic turning point,” heads to City Council for approval on Wednesday, then to the Legislature, which controls city workers’ retirement benefits.

Although passage of the reform in Austin is far from a foregone conclusion, Turner was optimistic the deal would survive any legislative turbulence.

“For the first time ever, all three pension systems have been willing to work with the city in a very productive manner. We’re all on the same page and moving forward as a united front,” Turner said at a press conference. “We are closer than ever to solving what no one else has been able to solve over the last 15-plus years. The finish line is certainly within reach.”

The mayor’s declarations were firmer than those of fire pension chairman David Keller.

“I think it substantially moves it forward, but there’s still a lot of road to go,” Keller said. “It’s certainly no end. It’s kind of a beginning.”

A statement released by the fire fund after the vote called the agreement a “non-binding framework,” and no trustees elected by active or retired firefighters appeared at Turner’s press conference.

See here for the background. There’s a lot of talk later in the story about maybe filing a lawsuit over this – by Andy Taylor, of course, who has never turned down a possible payday – but the more immediate concern is about ensuring a bill passes through the Lege to ratify this. I have been of the opinion that if the city made a deal with the pension funds, the Lege will be willing to ratify it. That was under the assumption that none of the stakeholders would lobby against it, which may not be the case here. For now, though, I’ll stick with what I said up front – this is a big deal. Now it’s on Mayor Turner and the city’s lobbyists to finish it. The Mayor’s press release is here, and an easy-to-read executive summary of the changes to all three plans is here. The Urban Edge has more.

Pension deal takes a step forward

Not quite there yet, but getting close.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s police and municipal pension boards have agreed to a landmark reform package produced over months of intensive negotiations at City Hall, and Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes the firefighters fund will follow suit with a vote Monday.

The pending proposal, which puts Houston the closest it has come to solving a 15-year crisis that has contributed to recent credit downgrades and threatens to bust the city budget, would eliminate Houston’s pension underfunding in 30 years and avoid more than $2.5 billion in future costs by reducing benefits.

It would also limit the city’s exposure to future market downturns by assuming more realistic investment returns, and calls for issuing $1 billion in bonds to help close the funding gap.

The deal also includes a hotly debated provision that would require future benefit reductions or higher worker contributions if a market downturn or other factors drive the city’s contributions above a specified cap.

The next step is to take the agreement to Austin in the form of legislation, as city workers’ pension benefits are enshrined in state statute.

“We all recognize that the course we were on was going to be destructive for everyone,” Turner said, making a rare appearance at a City Council committee discussing the reforms Thursday morning. “We all had to recognize there were going to be some changes. We tried to strike a balance. Under this plan there is certainty for all employees that there’s a retirement system they can count on that is reliable and sustainable, and we do not have to have this system be a political football year after year. I wish at the end of the day we didn’t have to make any changes at all, but that would be naive and unrealistic.”

Police and municipal pension officials declined comment.

Fire pension chairman David Keller said he can see his board’s vote Monday being decided by one member, or by a wide margin.

“I wish I had a crystal ball on this, but I really don’t know. It’s just hard to gauge what the outcome would be,” he said. “We’re proceeding with a great deal of caution.”

If Keller’s board rejects the deal, city officials say it’s not clear precisely what would happen, but sources close to the talks said the mayor has made clear to the firefighters fund that intransigence on a mutually agreed deal could result in the city writing less generous terms into the legislation on the fire trustees’ behalf.

[…]

Houston Retired Firefighters Association president Nick Salem said his group accepts changes must occur, but is troubled by one of the several dozen benefit tweaks: A change that would reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments for firefighters who retired before 1997, prior to the generous benefit increases that first caused pension costs to skyrocket after 2001.

About 600 of Salem’s 3,100 members fall into that category, and he said many are near the poverty line. Retired Houston firefighters do not received Social Security benefits.

“We don’t want to get in a big fight and kill this whole deal with the city because we want a deal with the city, but we’re having severe issues with this,” Salem said. “Some retirees are living on $1,000 a month. We’re not against the deal, but we’re against this one particular part. We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The firefighters have always been the main challenge here, as they have the most to give up and the strongest starting position. Let’s just say there will be a lot less turbulence, here and in Austin, over the next six to eight months if they ratify the deal on Monday.