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Renew Houston

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

More post-Harvey ideas

From the Chron, which likens this moment to what Galveston faced after the great hurricane of 1900:

1. Establish a regional flood control authority

Floodwaters ignore city-limit signs and county-line markers. We can’t adequately address drainage issues with a mélange of municipal efforts and flood control districts split between local jurisdictions. Instead of dividing these disaster-prevention efforts into provincial fiefdoms, we need a single authority with the power to levy taxes that will take charge of all of our area’s drainage issues. Gov. Abbott should call a special session of the Legislature and set up such an authority.

Although we are skeptical about whether lawmakers obsessed with divisive social issues can turn their attention to urgent needs, establishing this authority requires action from Austin. Our governor and our Legislature need to get this done immediately.

2. Build a third reservoir

Addicks and Barker dams, reservoirs and spillways, constructed more than 60 years ago, are dangerously inadequate. The U.S. Corps of Engineers rated both as “extremely high-risk” infrastructure years before Harvey. Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn maintains that at least one new reservoir should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. He urges the construction of additional upstream locations on virtually every stream in our region.

Harvey shoved us uncomfortably close to catastrophe. We need a third reservoir, and probably more, to avoid unimaginable consequences the next time. Some experts estimate this could be a half-billion-dollar infrastructure project. It is a small price to pay to avoid catastrophe and should be part of any federal relief plan.

[…]

5. Approve new funding streams

We need money. A lot of it. Current local budgets are inadequate to cover the costs of the massive infrastructure investment we’ll need to keep this region safe from floods. The Harris County Flood Control District has a capital improvement budget of $60 million per year. Mike Talbott, the district’s former executive director, estimated that we need about $26 billion for necessary infrastructure updates.

That third one is the key, of course. A lot of what the Chron suggests requires at least some input from the Legislature. Given everything we know about this Lege and this Governor and the recent anti-local control obsession, what do you think are the odds of that?

By the way, the Chron also mentions ReBuild Houston and its associated drainage fee. It sure would make some sense to have a dedicated fund like that for all of Harris County, and perhaps for Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston too. I’m going to ask again – what exactly is the argument for continuing the lawsuit over the 2010 referendum, and what would be the argument against re-approving this fund if it has to be voted on again?

From The Conversation:

Proactive maintenance first. In 2017, U.S. infrastructure was given a D+ by the American Society for Civil Engineering Infrastructure Report Card. The bill to repair all those deteriorating roads, bridges and dams would tally $210 billion by 2020, and $520 billion in 2040. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are 15,460 dams in the U.S. with “high” hazard ratings.

Yet, when our cities and states spend on infrastructure, it is too often on new infrastructure projects. And new infrastructure tend to emulate the models, designs and standards that we’ve used for decades – for instance, more highway capacity or new pipelines.

Meanwhile, resources for long-term maintenance are often lacking, resulting in a race to scrape together funding to keep systems running. If we want to get serious about avoiding disasters in a rapidly changing world, we must get serious about the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure. When analyzing breakdowns in infrastructure, it is tempting to blame the technical design. Yet design parameters are set by institutions and shaped by politics, financing and policy goals.

So failures in infrastructure are not just technical failures; they are institutional ones as well. They are failures in “knowledge systems,” or the ability to generate, communicate and utilize knowledge within and across institutions.

For example, the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina are often interpreted as technical failures. They were, but we also knew the levees would fail in a storm as powerful as Katrina. And so the levee failureswere also failures in institutional design – the information about the weakness of the levees was not utilized in part because the Hurricane Protection System was poorly funded and lacked the necessary institutional and political power to force action.

In the wake of Harvey, basic design and floodplain development parameters, like the 100-year flood, are being acknowledged as fundamentally flawed. Our ability to design more resilient infrastructure will depend on our ability to design more effective institutions to manage these complex problems, learn from failures and adapt.

On that first point, the Addicks and Barker dams both need some fixing up. Let’s not forget that sort of thing.

Finally, from Mimi Swartz, in Texas Monthly:

Yet if dirty air and dirty water and flooded, congested streets all sound a little familiar, there’s a reason. As Ginny Goldman, a longtime organizer who is currently chairing the Harvey Community Relief Fund, said to me, “There are often these problems in a city of any size, but here, where we haven’t done enough to deal with affordable housing and transportation access and income inequality, and where the state has blocked public disclosure of hazardous chemicals in neighborhoods, then a natural disaster hits and we pull the curtain back and it’s all on full display.”

Just after Harvey started pounding Houston with what looked to be never-ending rainfall, I got an email from an old friend who was lucky enough to be out of town for the main event. Sanford Criner is an inordinately successful member of Houston’s developer class, a vice chairman of CBRE Group, the largest commercial real estate and investment firm in the world. He is also a native Houstonian, and like so many of us here, he was already thinking about what was coming next. (Yes, it’s a Houston thing.) “Either we are committed to a future in which we collectively work for the good of the whole,” Criner wrote, “or we decide we’re all committed only to our individual success (even perhaps assuming that that will somehow lead to the common good). I think our story now is either: (i) Houston is the new Netherlands, using our technological genius to develop sophisticated answers to the most challenging global problems of the twenty-first century, or (ii) we are the little Dutch boy, who pokes his finger in the dike, solving the problems of the twenty-five people in his neighborhood. How we respond to this will determine into which of those categories we fit and will define Houston’s future.”

“I’m hopeful. But scared,” he added, neatly summing up the stakes moving forward.

In the past few decades, even as Houston was making its mark on the global economy, building gleaming towers designed by world-class architects and mansions the size of Middle Eastern embassies, as we were hosting world premieres of radically new operas and ballets and coming up with those crazy Asian-Cajun fusion dishes to die for—even as we really were and are optimistic, innovative, entrepreneurial, pretty tolerant, and all that other good stuff—we were doing so selectively. That instinct for the quick fix, or no fix at all, has been with us since the city started expanding in the sixties and seventies and is still a part of the Houston way. In reality, we keep dragging our dark side forward, a shadow sewn to our heels with the strongest surgical wire.

So now the question we face is this: Will Houston become a model for flood relief and disaster recovery, or just another once grand city sinking into mediocrity? In other words, can we be true to our reputation for innovation and aim for something higher than the status quo? The answer depends on which aspects of our culture wind up dominating the search for solutions.

That’s more of a high-level view than a specific suggestion, but it sums up the issue concisely. It’s important to realize that none of the things that many people have been saying we should do are impossible. They are all within our capabilities, if we want to do them. The choice is ours, and if the politicians we elect aren’t on board with it, then we need to elect new leaders. It’s as simple as that.

Harvey and the elections

Labor Day weekend of odd-numbered years is considered to be the opening weekend of Houston election season. The filing deadline has passed, so the fields are set and people (supposedly, at least) begin to pay attention. Candidate forums are held, endorsements are made, Chronicle candidate profiles are written, that sort of thing. Sure, some candidates have been at it for weeks if not months, but by tradition this is when things are officially underway.

This was always going to be a weird year in Houston, as we were either going to have no city elections or a mad dash for candidates and campaigns to get up and running, thanks to the 2015 term limits referendum and subsequent litigation. As someone who follows these things closely, I was partly enjoying the lull and partly beginning to fret about getting candidate interviews done for the HISD and HCC races we will have.

And then Harvey came to call. In addition to the devastation and misery, as well as triumph of the spirit, it has knocked the usual campaign schedule for a huge loop. I know of at least one candidate whose house flooded, but every candidate has suspended their campaign activities, out of respect for the victims and to pitch in for the recovery. I have no idea at this point when enough of us will feel normal enough to get back to the usual business of running for office and picking candidates to vote for. Election Day is November 7, so early voting will begin October 23. I think it’s safe to say we’re going to get that mad dash to the finish line, though likely with a lot of hearts not really in it. Though I totally understand this, it is a bit of a concern. HISD has even more challenges ahead of it, and two-thirds of its Trustee seats are up for a vote. Three Trustees are stepping down. One Trustee was appointed earlier this year to fill out the term of a Trustee who resigned. Another Trustee won a special election last December for the same reason. Only one Trustee who had previously been elected to a full term is on the ballot, current Board President Wanda Adams, and she has several opponents. The HISD Board will be somewhere between “very different” and “completely remade” net year. It’s a pretty big deal. The HCC Board has three contested elections, two for Trustees who won special elections to fill out terms, and one to succeed the disgraced Chris Oliver. Again, the potential for change is big.

The good news, I suppose, is that while basically no one is paying attention to any of these races, there are at least fewer races for them to not pay attention to. Imagine if we had a full slate of city elections going on now, too. Campaigns attract money and volunteer energy, two things that are desperately needed for Harvey relief right now. I have to say, I’m not unhappy with the way events in the term limits lawsuit played out.

Two more things. Harvey’s destruction was not limited to houses. It flooded out churches, schools, community centers, government offices, and many other places. Some roads are still under water, and Metro has not yet fully restored bus service – you can’t have buses on roads that are under water, after all. Some of these places are places where voting happens. Some of them may be ready by October 22/November 7, some may not be. Some may not be ready by next March, when the 2018 primaries are currently scheduled. It would be nice to know what kind of shape our polling locations are in, and what the contingency plans are for the sites that may not be ready in time. One possible solution, as put forth by Nonsequiteuse, is to allow people to vote wherever they can/wherever they want to. For a low-turnout odd-year election like this, a bunch of precinct polling places were always going to be combined anyway. It’s a small step from there to say that all polling locations will be open to all voters, as they are during early voting.

Also, too: Remember how I said that there will not be a Rebuild Houston re-vote on the ballot this November, but we should expect one maybe next year? This leads me to wonder, what exactly is the argument at this point to put this up for another vote? More to the point, what is the argument against having a dedicated fund, paid for by a fee charged to property owners based on their impermeable cover, these days? After reading enough hot takes on how a lack of zoning and unchecked development are to blame for Harvey to make me gag, I can only imagine what kind of punditry would be getting committed if we also had a ReBuild re-vote in two months. The principle at the heart of this litigation was that the people (supposedly) didn’t know what they were voting on because the ballot language was unclear. Does anyone think we’re still unclear on this now? Just a thought.

The ReBuild Houston footnote to the November ballot

The following paragraph is buried deep in the full story about what will and will not be on the November ballot in Houston.

Voters also will not face a reconsideration of the 2010 vote that established ReBuild Houston, the program that funds streets and drainage repairs without debt by drawing on a monthly fee. Courts have ruled that the city used unclear ballot language in that election, but a last-minute flurry of filings by the plaintiffs in that case did not convince a court to order the city to hold another vote this fall.

There’s been a frustrating lack of news around ReBuild Houston and the ongoing litigation surrounding. The Supreme Court stuck its nose in back in June of 2015, and the district court judge voided the 2010 referendum in October of 2015. The last update I have is from this February, in which plaintiffs were trying to force a re-vote this year. I’ve heard scuttlebutt that suggested there would indeed be a re-vote in November, but I guess that was premature. The city’s position is that while the charter referendum was thrown out, City Council subsequently voted to approve the ReBuild program, including the fees that were levied, so all that was affected was the fact that the funds were to be dedicated to drainage and road construction. I have no inside information, but it seems to me there’s a pretty big question to be settled about just what it is we’d be re-voting on. Maybe that will happen next May, maybe it will happen next November, maybe it will happen sometime after the planned 30-year lifespan of the ReBuild project. Who knows? Not this November, that much we do know.

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.

Bike plan finally gets approved

Long time coming.

Houston has a bike plan.

Though there’s no clear plan to pay for it and ongoing concerns with exactly where the planned trails and lanes will be located, City Council approved the bike plan on Wednesday morning.

Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis voted against the plan, citing various concerns with the force with which the city will require bike lanes in some neighborhoods and the cost, estimated at up to $550 million.

Travis said he fears the costs will be much greater, and thus far Houston lacks any way to pay for it.

“You start looking at the cost and it becomes exorbitant,” Travis said.

Even those who approved the plan acknowledged the city must respect neighborhoods that don’t want bike lanes along their streets, be willing to amend the plan and find ways to pay for it that do not reduce road spending.

“The last thing we want to do is develop a plan that pits bicyclists against the motorists,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster.

You can see the bike plan here, and the Mayor’s press release is here. The plan was approved last summer, and was tagged by Council two weeks ago. Here’s a preview story with more about what the plan means.

Developed and modified over nearly 18 months, the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others.

To improve Houston’s lot, supporters and city planners said the area needs high-comfort bike lanes where people feel safe riding.

The city has an extensive trail system popular with riders but it does not cover large portions of where people live and work in Houston.

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements. On Tuesday, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials announced construction would start soon on a long-awaited bridge spanning Bray’s Bayou.

“This is a big step in building complete communities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the crossing helps connect neighborhoods north and south of the bayou on the east side that were often cut off from the city’s trail improvements over the last decade.

The bridge, when completed in about a year, will connect more communities to the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg, too, officials said.

Those connections are key. Without them, advocates said the only people riding – especially in non-ideal conditions – are committed, confident cyclists. Leisure riders and others are left out.

Core riders, meanwhile, said the current network of 495 miles relies heavily on 165 miles of shared space with cars along Houston streets to connect good places to ride. Those shared lanes – such as along Fairview – offer little buffer between cyclists and automobiles.

“It’s like taking your life in your hands,” said Steven Mulligan, 29, who lives in Midtown and rides daily to his job near Loop 610 and Richmond.

Just a reminder, the plan prioritizes different routes, some of which will require little more than paint to designate, and there are various funding sources available for other routes. As far as using Rebuild monies goes, if the roads in question are being redone anyway, I don’t see the problem. Reducing the number of short trips people take during the day alleviates traffic and frees up parking. Making it safer to bike, and making people feel safer while biking, is the key to getting more people to choose that option. I look forward to seeing this work.

ReBuild re-vote?

It could come to that, but it’s not clear to me that it has to.

The funding scheme for ReBuild Houston, the city’s street and drainage repair initiative, remains in limbo after a state appeals court agreed Thursday that the 2010 charter referendum creating the program is void.

The Texas 14th Court of Appeals ruling affirms an October 2015 trial court decision ordering the city to call a new election on creating a dedicated pay-as-you-go fund for street and drainage projects.

The case does not appear to affect the city’s ability to continue charging a drainage fee, however, since City Council authorized collection of the monthly fee in a separate ordinance in April 2011.

Instead, voiding the 2010 charter election, essentially, removes the restrictions placed on how the city uses the drainage money it takes in, such as the ban on using those dollars to issue new road bonds or other debt. The court rulings have not led the city to alter how it uses the fee.

Andy Taylor, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he believes Thursday’s ruling could lead to another vote on what he and many conservatives call the “rain tax” as early as November.

“The request to amend the city charter and seeking voter approval to impose a rain tax,” he said, “is going back on the ballot.”

Houston is considering whether to ask the appellate court to reconsider, or appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, among other options, mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said in a statement.

See here and here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s statement. I say there will not be another vote this November, for the simple reason that there’s nothing to compel Mayor Turner to put another referendum on the ballot, and the city can continue with the legal proceedings for now. I’d also agree with Prof. Richard Murray, quoted in this KUHF story on the ruling, in that if there were another vote, a reworded Renew Houston proposition would almost certainly win again, because who at this point is going to vote against money for drainage and flood mitigation? (Also, as Prof. Murray noted, black voters were modestly against Renew Houston in 2010. I strongly suspect they’d be much more in favor of a similar proposal put forward by Mayor Turner.) But as the story notes, City Council voted to implement Renew Houston in 2011, and this lawsuit has nothing to do with that. There’s nothing to stop Mayor Turner from having Council affirm the program, or to just state that the matter was decided by Council and we’re all just arguing over semantics at this point. Honestly, what we’re really fighting about at this point is whether Andy Taylor gets to decide the wording on all our city referenda or not. That’s a fight I’m happy to keep having, but let’s be clear on what the stakes are. Campos has more.

City loses appeal of procedural argument in term limits lawsuit

Stay with me, because this is going to take a bit of explaining.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected the city’s procedural challenge to a lawsuit that could force Houston’s mayor and city council members to revert to three two-year terms, from the two four-year terms voters approved in November 2015.

The Texas First Court of Appeals ruling did not address the merits of the underlying case, which centers on whether the city’s ballot language was misleading.

Rather, the court’s decision marks an incremental step in what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process that plaintiffs hope could trigger municipal elections as early as this fall.

Austin election lawyer Buck Wood, however, said he considers November mayoral and city council elections improbable, given the speed with which courts typically move.

[…]

The appellate court’s ruling affirms state District Judge Randy Clapp’s decision last year to reject Houston’s procedural challenge, which sought to get the case thrown out.

Clapp was not considering the substance of the case at the time, though he tipped his hand by calling the city’s ballot language “inartful” but not “invalid.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said Thursday the city attorney’s office is considering whether to appeal the procedural decision to the state Supreme Court.

If the trial court’s 2016 procedural decision holds, the case likely would return to Clapp for a hearing on the substance of whether Houston’s term limits ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms.”

See here for the background. Where this gets confusing is that the original story didn’t explain all of what was happening in that first hearing. There was a motion by the plaintiffs for summary judgment, which was denied. That was the win for the city, as now a trial is required to settle the question of whether the ballot language was misleading or not. The rest of it was about procedural matters: Whether plaintiff’s attorney Eric Dick properly served the city notice of his lawsuit, whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case, and whether attorney Andy Taylor could intervene to assist Dick. District Court Judge Clapp ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss on these matters. The city appealed that ruling, and the First Court of Appeals upheld Judge Clapp.

The city can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do and they win, the lawsuit will be dismissed. If they lose, or if they choose not to appeal, the matter will be returned to Judge Clapp’s court for a trial on the merits of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are hoping to get a ruling in time for there to be city elections this November; they claim August is the deadline for that, though I’d argue that more time would be needed for real campaigns to occur. However, as the story notes, even if the plaintiffs win, there’s no guarantee that city elections would follow as a result. What might happen instead is that the city would have to put a differently-worded term limits referendum on the ballot. That maybe could happen this November, or it might happen in 2018. Or even later than that, depending on how long it takes to get a ruling and how long the appeals of that ruling take. Remember how long it took to get a Supreme Court decision in the Renew Houston lawsuit? The 2010 referendum was subsequently voided more than a year ago, and yet here we are, with no new election for it in sight. Mayor Turner has joked that it will be up to his successor to get the term limits issue straightened out because it won’t be settled till after his eight years in office. I’m not sure he’s joking about that.

Senate whinefest about ballot propositions

Spare me.

crybaby

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Let’s remember three things:

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

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

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

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

Potholing

The city’s pothole repair program seems to be going well.

Faster response by city crews to resident-reported potholes has saved thousands of drivers a bumpier ride around Houston the past six months, though officials warn there’s a long way to go before local streets are smooth driving.

Since Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Jan. 4 that resident-reported potholes would be assessed within 24 hours and filled the next business day, more than 3,400 potholes in the city have been patched because of calls to 311 or online reports from residents. That’s at least 600 more filled potholes than all of 2015, based on city records, though some accountings of the number filled differ.

“The voters demanded pothole repair and I think that was a core area in the election and they got it,” said Mark Klein, president of Super Neighborhood 12, bounded by where Loop 610 and U.S. 290 converge and extending north to Pinemont-area neighborhoods.

[…]

The number of potholes filled by the city because of calls from residents, however, is a fraction of the number of potholes actually filled in Houston. By some measures, overall pothole repairs are down from a peak in mid-2015. According to the key performance indicators report prepared by Houston Public Works each month, from February to May the city filled fewer potholes this year than in 2015.

The figures used and verified by the city’s “Pothole Tracker” website, meanwhile, show the total number of potholes increasing. Eric Dargan, deputy public works director over the streets and drainage division, said the calculations are different because the internal performance measures all potholes, while the pothole tracker tracks work orders. Multiple potholes could be filled on a single work order, Dargan said.

Despite differing figures, Dargan said he’s confident Houston’s 16,000 lane miles of street are in better shape, while he cautions there is much more work to do to fill potholes.

“The formula is right, the question is how much funding we have for maintenance,” Dargan said, explaining street repairs vary from simple potholes to complete street rebuilds with sewer pipes, such as the recent work on Shepherd south of Buffalo Bayou. “I would love to get my assets on a 10-year cycle. We are nowhere close to that.”

Here’s the city’s pothole page, if you’re into that sort of thing. Fixing potholes is good, and increasing people’s faith that calling 311 will make something happen is better, but completing the Rebuild Houston project is critical, as it addresses the long-term issues that attention. In the meantime, though, go ahead and call 311 or use the app and report that pothole that’s been bugging you. You’ll feel better once you do.

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

Lower Westheimer is one of Houston’s most well-known streets, but on some fronts its reputation isn’t a positive one. Narrow and bumpy, the street is both a hub of retail and recreation activity and also a harrowing bike or automobile trip from time to time.

Everyone has a story or a suggestion of how to make it better – and next week the city is going to carve out time to listen to them in hopes of improving one of Houston’s premier streets.

“That is one of the most economically vibrant, critical corridors in the city,” said Geoff Carleton, principal at Traffic Engineers Inc., a local transportation planning and consulting firm. “The priority there should be the place-making and developing walkability where it helps keep that tax base in place.”

As part of ReBuild Houston, officials are considering design changes for the street, a months-long process started by an advisory committee, moving to public comment on Monday evening. Officials guiding the process said while no final designs will be shown for what Westheimer should look like from Shepherd to Main. Westheimer turns into Elgin at Bagby.

“We will be presenting background material and existing conditions information and asking the public for their preferences and priorities,” said Matthew Seubert, a senior planner with the Houston Planning and Development Department.

Swamplot has a map of the area in question. One of the things hampering transit in the area is the curve in the street between Mandell and Commonwealth, combined with the narrow lanes that make it impossible for one of the articulated (i.e., longer and higher-capacity) buses to run on Westheimer. That’s a problem, given how busy that bus line is. Seems to me the obvious solution is to reduce Westheimer to one lane each way for that stretch. It’s functionally one lane each way between Hazard and Mandell anyway, thanks to there being on-street parking. I’m sure the subject will come up, and you can make your own voice heard at that public meeting. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.

Mayor Turner releases transition team report

From the inbox, a glimpse of what to expect in the near to medium future from Mayor Turner.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has released a 17-page report that details the work of his transition team chaired by businessman and long-time civic advisor David Mincberg. More than 250 Houstonians from all walks of life participated. They have submitted policy recommendations on 13 different areas:

  • Comprehensive Financial Reform
  • Criminal Justice
  • Economic Opportunity
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Houston Airport System
  • Public Health
  • Public Safety
  • Public Works
  • Quality of Life
  • Rebuild Houston
  • TIRZs
  • Traffic and Transportation

“I want to thank this group for their hard work,” said Mayor Turner. “They dedicated countless hours of their personal time to this process. Some of these recommendations can be implemented sooner than others. They are constructive suggestions that will be helpful as I continue to put together my plans for Houston.”

The Chron story on this is here, and the full report is here. It’s worth your time to look at. It’s mostly a checklist, with the current status (“done”, “in progress”, or “under consideration”) for each item. Some of these items, like the Public Health category, have gotten very little attention before now. Those of you that want to see the TIRZ system overhauled will find much in there to contemplate. I don’t know what the time frame is for these things – obviously, for stuff like financial reform, the horizon is much shorter than for some others – and it’s not clear just how much “consideration” some of these things will get, but keep this handy for when you hear of a new initiative or proposed ordinance. Most likely, it’s on here somewhere, so we can’t say we haven’t been advised.

Mayor Turner names new City Attorney

From the inbox:

Ronald Lewis

Mayor Sylvester Turner has announced his selection of Ronald C. Lewis as the new city attorney. Like the mayor, Lewis is Harvard educated and has run his own law firm.

“I wanted a lawyer’s lawyer, someone highly respected who can relate well to me as well as City Council and the general public,” said Mayor Turner. “Ronald certainly fits this description. He is an outstanding lawyer with excellent credentials and the experience necessary to run the law firm that is part of City government.”

Before co-founding Marshall & Lewis LLP in 2006, Lewis was a partner at Baker Botts LLP, which he joined right after graduating from Harvard with honors in 1983. He is a trial lawyer with more than 30 years of experience handling complex cases for businesses and individuals in the energy, real estate, construction, financial and manufacturing industries. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas and the Houston Bar Association as well as a Life Fellow at the Houston Bar Foundation, where he was chairman of the board in 2000. His undergraduate degree is from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

“I look forward to serving the people of Houston, their elected officials and city employees,” said Lewis.

Lewis’ professional affiliations include the Best Lawyers in America, the American Law Institute, and The International Association of Defense Lawyers. In addition, he has served as a member of the Houston Bar Association Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession Committee, as a steering committee member for the State Bar of Texas Minority Counsel Program and on the Commission for Lawyer Discipline. He volunteers for the Center for Public Policy Priorities and has previously served as a member of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, the South Texas College of Law Board of Trustees, Texas Appleseed, Neighborhood Centers Inc., and Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas.

Lewis was selected after a competitive search coordinated by a panel comprised of local lawyers. There were about 30 applicants who went through the selection process. Houston City Council is expected to be asked to confirm Lewis’ appointment in two weeks. He will start work May 2, 2016 and is replacing retiring City Attorney Donna Edmundson, who has agreed to stay through the end of May to help with the transition.

As the Chron story notes, Lewis has maintained a fairly low news profile, with “his selection by Harris County officials to represent disgraced former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal in a 2008 contempt of court case related to Rosenthal’s deletion of emails that were under subpoena in a federal court case” being the only cited exception. Lewis inherits the ReBuild Houston re-litigation and the ongoing term limits ballot language lawsuit as his main action items. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what his priorities are. Welcome aboard, Ronald Lewis.

UPDATE: Here’s the full Chron story.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

Houston Tomorrow presents its Vision Zero plan

Here you go.

Following other “vision zero” programs nationally, Houston Tomorrow encouraged officials – especially Houston lawmakers – to crack down on speeding and distracted driving while investing more in rebuilding streets so that vehicles can share them safely with pedestrians, cyclists and other users.

“Vision Zero does not discriminate based on how you choose to get around,” the report’s authors said. “We want people riding in cars to be safe. We want everyone to be able to ride their bike to work safely. We want people walking around town without risk of losing their life or someone they love.”

Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, Houston and other southern cities where car travel is more common have a far higher incidence of traffic fatalities – a figure that includes drivers, vehicle passengers, pedestrians and cyclists. In 2014, 227 people were killed in Houston in traffic-related incidents. New York, despite having 6.2 million more residents, reported 269 fatalities.

“Almost as many people die on the streets of the City of Houston as are murdered each year,” the report read. “Our response to this shocking statistic should be simple: We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as seriously as we treat homicide, as a major public health and security crisis.”

Here’s the full plan, here’s the executive summary, and here’s Houston Tomorrow’s announcement. I’ve written about Vision Zero, for here and elsewhere, several times. The figure Houston Tomorrow cites for the 13-county greater Houston area is 667 deaths for 2014; there were also 135,170 total crashes and 3,468 incapacitating injuries. For Houston, those 2014 numbers are 60,472 crashes, 1,222 injuries, and 227 deaths. They didn’t include a figure for all of Harris County, which I think would be useful, but at a guess I’d say 400 to 450 deaths. I’d bet that the total number of Harris County traffic fatalities exceeded the total number of Harris County homicide victims.

Some parts of what Houston Tomorrow is calling for is already in the works. Complete Streets, coupled with the ongoing work of ReBuild Houston, will accomplish a lot to improve road safety. Some of what they want will require changes to city ordinances and/or state laws, and some of those things, like texting-while-driving bans and reduced speed limits, will cause a fight. And some of what they want will involve more enforcement of existing laws – speeding, running red lights, the 3 foot rule for bikes, etc. Mostly, they emphasize the need for better metrics. You have to be able to measure something accurately to know how it is trending and whether any of the things you are trying to do about it are having an effect. Read the report and see what you think.

Senate committee whines about ballot language

Give me a break.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Will someone sue over the term limits referendum?

Maybe.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Pre-election polling showed voters slightly favored the change, but not if they were told that it benefits sitting council members.

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein conducted the News 88.7/KHOU 11 News election poll.

“When we informed voters that the adoption of the two four-year (terms) would take place immediately in 2016 and advantage incumbent council members, support swung the other way and it was a deficit of 17 points against,” Stein said.

But that information was not in the ballot language.

In fact, it didn’t even mention that it would actually extend term limits.

Even Houston Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged that this week.

“I don’t know that they realized that they were giving council members more time in office,” she said.

Considering that a judge only a week ago ruled that Houston has to hold a new election on its drainage fund because of misleading ballot language, Stein said theoretically, the same could happen with this vote.

“I wouldn’t be shocked to see somebody complain about it and say, let’s go back and petition and have another referendum, which clearly explains what’s happening,” he said.

We’ve been over this a couple of times already. I honestly don’t remember the exact wording of the proposition, but I knew it meant two four year terms (even if I’d forgotten that it would be enacted immediately), and I knew I was voting against it. I think people likely didn’t fully understand what they were voting on, but that’s almost certainly because they had paid no attention to it. No one ran a campaign for it or against it, and Lord knows only a few of us read the news about what happens at City Hall. For better or worse, people need to do a little homework before they enter the polling place, and if they come out of there not knowing what they did, is that a litigation-worthy offense? If someone could convince the Supreme Court that the voters were too dumb to understand the Renew Houston referendum, who am I to say that they couldn’t do the same with this?

Endorsement watch: Costello for Turner

I’m glad to see this.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

Houston City Councilman Steve Costello endorsed Sylvester Turner for mayor Wednesday, dealing a potential financial blow to fellow conservative Bill King as he looks to expand his donor base in the runoff.

An engineer who finished sixth on Election Day with 7 percent of the vote, Costello is not likely to sway a large share of the electorate, but his endorsement could bolster Turner’s fundraising efforts, particularly among local engineers and contractors, who are consistent donors in municipal races.

Last week, former mayoral candidate Adrian Garcia also endorsed Turner.

“The real blow here is for fundraising,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “I think one of the goals for Turner in this runoff is to create an aura of inevitability behind his candidacy, and this, along with the Garcia endorsement, certainly aids that effort.”

[…]

In a statement announcing his endorsement, Costello cited ReBuild, public safety and transportation as reasons for backing Turner, a Democrat.

He said Turner agrees that ReBuild is a good baseline program from which to improve and that the Houston Police Department should be expanded with a focus on community policing.

Costello, who is term-limited, added that he will focus on improving Houston’s mass transit after leaving office.

“Sylvester Turner is the best candidate to connect all of Houston through multi-modal transportation, and I look forward to working with him on critical transportation issues like commuter rail,” Costello said.

A copy of the statement is beneath the fold. All due respect to Prof. Jones, but I’d put fundraising lower on the list of reasons why this is good for Turner. For one thing, while Costello didn’t get a large number of votes, I get the impression that his voters are the kind of people who are likely to show up for a runoff. As such, his endorsement ought to move some actual voters to Turner, since this endorsement could have gone either way. It also obviously makes Turner’s coalition a little broader, and it narrows the pool of voters that King will be fishing in. And while endorsements are often about supporting the person you want to win, they are also often about supporting the person you think actually will win. It’s not unreasonable to see Costello’s endorsement as a signal of which way the wind is perceived to be blowing.

Or maybe it’s much ado about nothing. Nobody really knows what any single endorsement is worth – we’re all just guessing. Maybe no one who wasn’t already voting for Turner cares. Maybe as many Costello voters think he’s nuts to endorse Turner as those who applaud it. We just don’t know. Be that as it may, campaigns love endorsements, and everybody reacts to them as if they mean something. Turner also received endorsements from multiple Latino elected officials, while King touted a few of his own, from former electeds and business leaders. I’m sure when more endorsements are made, we will all hear about them.

(more…)

Back to square one for ReBuild Houston

Here we go again.

A state district judge on Thursday voided the 2010 charter referendum that enabled the city to create the ReBuild Houston program, muddying the fate of the multi-billion-dollar funding scheme to dramatically improve Houston’s streets and drainage.

Visiting Judge Buddie Hahn ordered the city to hold a new election on the drainage fee, though that is unlikely to happen any time soon if the city appeals the decision. Hahn sided with a ruling issued by the Texas Supreme Court in June that said the city had obscured the ballot language surrounding the drainage fee, a major funding source for ReBuild Houston.

By omitting the drainage fee, the Supreme Court said, the city failed to adequately inform voters about the intent of the ballot measure.

In a brief court hearing Thursday, Hahn said he had little discretion because the “Supreme Court has just about said as a matter of law” that the election should be voided.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker said the city has no plans to stop collecting the fee. She echoed City Attorney Donna Edmundson, who said during the summer that the lawsuit targets the charter amendment, not the ordinance City Council later passed to begin collecting the fee.

In a written statement, Parker said the city is “disappointed with the court’s ruling and are considering our legal options,” but “the ordinance remains valid and in effect.”

Voters approved a ballot measure in 2010 that did not make specific mention of the monthly fee, asking instead if the city charter should “be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay-As-You-Go Fund for Drainage and Streets?”

Then, in spring 2011, City Council approved an ordinance that set the fee and authorized its collection.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. This is going to be tied up in court for awhile, and the question of whether or not the fee is in fact still in effect will be front and center in that fight. You know my opinion on this, but it’s not like that counts for much. As Bob Stein says later in the story, this ought to be a focal point of the Mayoral runoff, since the next Mayor will have to decide how to handle this – fight to the bitter end, seek to settle, surrender unconditionally, etc. I asked all the Mayoral candidates about ReBuild Houston – heck, I asked all of the At Large Council and Controller candidates about it as well – so go back and listen to some interviews on my 2015 Election page if you want to review their answers. Texas Leftist has more.

KHOU poll: Turner 19, King and Garcia 9

Our third poll result in the past week.

Sylvester Turner remains the front-runner, but Adrian Garcia has lost his once firm grip on second place and Bill King rises into the top tier of contenders in the race for Houston mayor.

That’s the headline from the latest poll conducted for KHOU 11 News and Houston Public Media, TV-8 and News 88.7, a survey indicating Garcia and King are now fighting it out for a chance to face Turner in a runoff.

Turner heads the pack of mayoral candidates at 19%, maintaining the lead he commanded in the same poll last May. No other candidate in this poll stands in double-digits.

Garcia and King tie for second-place, both supported by 9% of surveyed voters. Chris Bell comes in fourth at 6%, followed by Steve Costello at 5% and Ben Hall at 4%.

Still, a large number of voters haven’t made up their minds. The survey of 567 likely voters conducted between September 25 and October 6 showed 42% undecided.

[…]

“I would say that Bill King is a slight — if not strong — favorite to get into the runoff,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst who conducted the poll. “And I think Garcia is fighting now to stay in the runoff.”

Throughout the campaign to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker, other candidates have generally presumed Turner – a well-financed, longtime state representative who’s run for mayor twice before — will win the most votes in November. So other candidates, most notably Bell, have gone on the offensive against Garcia in hopes of knocking him out of second place.

This poll indicates the attacks criticizing Garcia’s performance as Harris County sheriff have done their damage.

A day-by-day analysis of the phone survey results also indicates the former sheriff’s candidacy has been hurt by a series of negative news reports, like a front-page Houston Chronicle story about jail inmate abuse and a KHOU 11 News I-Team expose on a $1-million jail ministry contract awarded to one of Garcia’s friends.

“We saw his support drop in half,” Stein said. “He is now in a competitive race for the runoff slot. And it’s not obvious to us that he is a guaranteed or even a likely runoff candidate.”

King has been the chief beneficiary of Garcia’s decline, mainly because of growing support from Republican voters. King and Costello have been fighting it out for GOP hearts and minds, emphasizing financial issues like the city’s growing pension obligations.

But Costello’s backing of the drainage fee to bankroll flood control infrastructure has hurt him with many Republican voters, who consider it a poorly implemented new tax.

“Bill King has gained tremendously,” Stein said. “He was barely measurable in our May poll. He’s now at 9 percentage points. Most importantly from our May poll, his gain appears to be from Republican voters.”

Republicans polled for this survey are breaking for King over Costello by a 4-to-1 ratio, Stein said.

“And here’s the good news for Bill King, if this trend continues: 45% of Republicans still don’t know who they’re voting for,” Stein said, indicating King will gain more votes as more GOP voters make up their minds.

“Keep in mind close to half of those Republican voters who are likely to vote still haven’t picked a candidate,” he said. “If the trend continues, Bill King will get that advantage, not only with Republicans over Costello, but maybe enough to get him into the runoff.”

I’d be hesitant to say that Garcia’s decline and King’s rise are related. If I had to guess, I’d say that Garcia’s former supporters are most likely to be in the “Undecided” column now, while King’s new supporters came from those who had previously been undecided. Garcia may be able to win back some of his lost supporters – I still haven’t seen any TV ads from him, so there’s plenty of room for him to go on offense, and if one of the other candidates don’t win them over, they may fall back to him. I’m sure the bad news and the attacks have taken a toll, I just wouldn’t count him out yet.

Poll data can be found here. Compared to the previous polls, the racial/ethnic mix and age distribution are about the same, with the KHOU sample having a similar partisan mix as the HAR poll, which is considerably more Democratic than the HRBC poll. That makes it better for King and more ominous for Garcia, though again there’s still room for Garcia to move back up. Note also that the HAR poll was from September 21-24, the HRBC poll from October 5-6, and the KHOU/KUHF poll from September 25-October 6, so that also suggests there is a trend away from Garcia. I don’t know if there are other polls in the pipeline, but if there are any from after October 6, I’d love to see them.

Two other matters. First, from the Chron:

In 2009, Houston’s last open-seat mayor’s race, fewer than 180,000 people cast a ballot – about 19 percent of registered voters. Stein said he expects between 200,000 and 220,000 voters to turn out this year.

That’s the first “official” guess on turnout that I’ve seen. If that’s accurate, it suggests the HERO referendum isn’t that big a driver of turnout, certainly not compared to other years with similarly high-profile referenda. I honestly don’t know what I think about that. I truly have no idea what effect HERO will have on the number of voters.

Speaking of HERO, item #2 is that this poll also asked about that issue, though for whatever the reason neither story mentioned that. HERO leads 43-37 in this poll – click the poll data link to see. Note that the pollsters also tested the efficacy of various campaign themes on the question. The “men in women’s bathrooms” attack shifts 15% of supporters, while the “we could lose the Super Bowl” attack shifts 24% of opponents. Make of that what you will. The poll also asked about the term limits referendum (44% support, 40% oppose) and the Harris County bond issue (53% support, 22% oppose), though that was from city of Houston voters only. With no campaign in support of either of those items, and given recent performance of Harris County referenda, I feel pessimistic about their chances despite their leads in this poll. There were also questions about the revenue cap and Rebuild Houston, but I’d consider them for entertainment purposes only at this point. There’s likely to be a lot of fluidity in those issues, and once they are taken up by a Mayor (if that happens at all for the revenue cap), opinions on the Mayor will come to affect the polling on them.

Circling back to city finances

I have three things to say about this.

BagOfMoney

This time, [City Finance Director Kelly] Dowe insists, the $126 million deficit he projects for the budget year that starts next summer is not going to disappear, as past projected shortfalls have. There are no more payments to defer, he says, no more valuable city-owned land to sell.

As a result, the city could be facing layoffs and cuts to services within a year – perhaps pool closures, restricted library hours and parks going to seed, and perhaps worse.

“We have an unsustainable financial model,” Councilman Dave Martin said. “We cannot continue to do this. If we continue down this path, we’ll be belly up.”

Dowe and his boss, Mayor Annise Parker, know Houstonians are confused as to why their government would face layoffs and service cuts while the region’s economy booms.

There are several reasons for this, all a decade or more in the making.

The city has been spending more than it brings in for years, a structural gap driven chiefly by soaring pension costs and, in recent years, a spike in debt payments. Houston typically bridges this gap by budgeting conservatively, being happily surprised when tax revenues exceed projections during the year, then using those “extra” dollars to balance the next year’s budget.

To balance the current budget for the fiscal year that started last week, council approved taking $86 million from last year’s leftover savings, the largest such transfer in a decade.

“Obviously we carry the reserves over from year to year. That’s money that’s not generated or not expected to be generated in the next budget cycle,” said Controller Ronald Green, the city’s elected financial watchdog. “Clearly, if you want to be technical, it is not a structurally balanced budget.”

This history of disappearing deficits has made some council members skeptical of just how dire current projections are. Dowe acknowledged that he originally projected an enormous shortfall for the current budget, which wound up being balanced without layoffs or service cuts.

But he also ticked off a litany of reasons that he says will make another easy fix harder in the future.

First, the city has run into a cap on property tax revenues that voters imposed a decade ago. Houston can collect more property taxes each year than the year prior, but is limited to the combined rates of inflation and population growth.

The city now knows exactly what it will collect each year from its largest source of revenue, and no number of new skyscrapers or townhomes will change that. The typical way the city has wound up with “extra” money at the end of each year is thus gone. Without the cap, the city would have had another $53 million to spend this year.

[…]

Each of the next two years also will bring a $50 million payment to the police pension, triggered under the pension board’s contract with the city because sluggish investment returns have eroded its funding level.

Without an increase in revenue, Dowe said, the only option is to cut services.

“Debt is what it is, pensions are what they are,” he said. “We will continue to get more efficient, we will continue to cut costs where we can, but in the long term it would be hard to say you wouldn’t affect services with the outlook we have.”

Debt payments for past public projects have risen by more than half over the last five years, to $346 million this year, and are projected to reach $411 million by 2020. Pensions are devouring $308 million of the city’s main operating fund this year, nearly three times what is spent on parks and libraries combined.

1. There’s no serious solution to this problem that doesn’t include repealing the revenue cap. Every candidate running for office runs on a promise of promoting economic growth and prosperity. Houston has had that these past few years, but thanks to the cap we’re being penalized for it. Fifty-three million dollars is a lot of money and would do a lot to reduce the scope of the problem we’re facing, and that’s just for this year. You want to argue that we don’t have a revenue problem in Houston I’ll be sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean that throwing away extra revenue like this makes any sense. There is no good reason not to use all available resources.

You may argue that the people won’t go for it, and you may be right. What evidence we have from limited polling certainly suggests that’s a strong possibility. To that I say, how about a little leadership from those who want to be Mayor? Politicians love to talk about “making the tough choices”, yet somehow choices like this never seem to be on the table. To be fair, at least some Mayoral candidates have mentioned this – I know Chris Bell has, I’ll have to check on some others – and Mayor Parker has brought it up as well. Any candidate who says they want to make “tough choices” but doesn’t consider this is to my mind not to be taken seriously.

2. Similarly, I don’t know how anyone can look at the debt figures and not support ReBuild Houston. One of the defining purposes of ReBuild Houston was to pay down existing debt and reduce the amount of future debt needed to pay for infrastructure. Put aside the extra revenue stream that ReBuild Houston represents, why would you want to add to the debt burden at this time? I’m not against using debt to invest in the city’s infrastructure, but now is not a very good time for it. What exactly is the case for going back to a bond-based system of paying for street and drainage improvements?

3. Finally, the pension issue. The choices are the same as they’ve always been – try to convince the Legislature to grant the city the authority to make changes to the pension plan; try to negotiate a different agreement with the firefighters; suck it up and figure out how to pay what we owe. I’m not sure why anyone thinks they’d be more successful at #1 than Mayor Parker has been, and I can’t imagine anyone advocating for #3. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know. I don’t know what else there is to say on this.

What now for road projects?

What do we do with road projects that were going to use ReBuild Houston funds now that the Supreme Court has ruled the 2010 referendum to have been illegal?

A necklace of neighborhood streets encircling Hudnell’s home is among the ReBuild projects, deemed beyond “economical repair” and originally scheduled for work late next fiscal year, which starts July 1, but recently pushed back several months.

Now, that delay could last much longer, and residents who have waited for their crumbling roads or poor drainage to be improved could simply be out of luck; a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago found the ReBuild ballot measure voters narrowly approved in 2010 obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee. The case is headed back to trial court where legal experts say a judge is likely to honor the unanimous Supreme Court decision.

If the city no longer can collect the drainage fee, ReBuild projects slated for mid- to late next year, like the one near South Acres, could be shelved. Next year alone, the city has budgeted more than $100 million in drainage fee spending, and the fee is projected to bring in $500 million over five years.

At a budget meeting last week, Mayor Annise Parker acknowledged the city’s Capital Improvement Plan could take a hit. Council members have pushed the administration for more clarity on the impact of the lawsuit as they consider the five-year plan, up for a vote Wednesday.

“The Supreme Court ruling, first of all, it’s ongoing litigation, it has no operational impact today,” Parker said. “But it would be the CIP. Probably a third to a half of the CIP would go away if we didn’t use the drainage fee. But there’s still other money in there.”

[…]

City Attorney Donna Edmundson disputed the notion that the city could not collect the drainage fee if the trial court finds the ballot language was misleading, pointing out that the lawsuit targets the charter amendment, not the ordinance City Council later passed to begin collecting the fee.

“The ruling by the Texas Supreme Court regarding the language for the Proposition 1 charter amendment has no bearing on whether the drainage ordinance continues,” Edmundson said. “The enabling ordinance adopted by City Council created the drainage utility and accompanying monthly fee that finances the streets and drainage program. For this reason, the ongoing legal dispute has no impact on the city budget for the coming fiscal year or the five-year Capital Improvement Program City Council will consider on Wednesday.”

South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa said that the charter amendment is struck down and the city continues to collect the drainage fee, it begs the question why they sent it to voters in the first place.

“It might be a technically correct legal argument,” Festa said. “But it might not be prudent to continue implementing a law where the basis on which the law is enacted is in grave doubt.”

See here and here for the background. As I said with the calls for doing over the election, I’d like to hear what the district court has to say before we do anything rash. Proceeding as if nothing has changed strikes me as unwise. I hate the idea of putting off needed maintenance, and I still think the Supreme Court ruling was politically motivated, but we are in uncharted waters here, and any further activity involving ReBuild funds risks putting the city in legal jeopardy. If there are projects that can be done without tapping into that funding source for now, then go ahead with it. Anything else, let’s get some clarity about what the Supreme Court ruling means in practical terms.

Bell wants Meyerland flooding investigated

It’s a story about flooding and the Mayor’s race, but not the story about flooding and the Mayor’s race you might have been expecting.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Mayoral candidate Chris Bell on Sunday called for an independent investigation into why so many Meyerland homes flooded during the heavy Memorial Day weekend rains.

Surrounded by about two dozen residents at a press conference by Brays Bayou, Bell said it was important to figure out why infrastructure projects in the area didn’t prevent major flooding and why others were not completed on schedule. Bell challenged the assertion, backed by experts, that flooding was inevitable considering some areas were hit with more than 10 inches overnight.

“The least we are owed is an explanation of what happened,” said Bell, a former congressman and city councilman who lives in Meyerland.

Bell called for an outside investigation, saying that a report by the Harris County Flood Control District would be “biased” because the agency helped design projects in the area as part of the city’s drainage and streets program, ReBuild Houston. A spokesperson for the agency could not be reached Sunday.

Bell is not the first of the seven mayoral candidates to criticize the city’s ReBuild Houston initiative, the pay-as-you-go program that voters approved in 2010, in the wake of the Memorial Day flooding. Many of the candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker have seized on the flooding to criticize the city’s infrastructure or talk about speeding up flood mitigation efforts.

Well, except that Bell never mentions ReBuild Houston in this story, and that the next three paragraphs have to do with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the effect it had on Brays Bayou and the massive project that the Harris County Flood Control District undertook to mitigate those effects, which some people including Bell are now saying have taken too long and not done enough. None of this, you may note, has anything to do with ReBuild Houston. I’m sure Bell has been critical of ReBuild Houston, but as far as I can tell what he has not done – along with Adrian Garcia and Marty McVey – is publicly express an opinion on the Supreme Court ruling or the subsequent new litigation or the call for a revote. Any or all of those things would have been nice to know, but none of them are a part of this story. I don’t know if Chron reporter Tina Nazerian didn’t think to ask about any of these things or just didn’t report the answers she got when she did. Either way, we got nothing. For a bit of writing that does have something to do with ReBuild Houston, see PDiddie.

ReBuild Houston and the Mayor’s race

It’s all about the conservative voters, because no one cares what anyone else thinks.

When the most conservative candidate in the Houston mayor’s race dropped out two months ago, the battle to win over right-leaning voters became a two-man show: former Kemah Mayor Bill King versus City Councilman Stephen Costello.

Both candidates bill themselves as moderate fiscal conservatives chiefly concerned about the city’s finances – pensions in particular – and, by all accounts, neither is an ideal choice for the far right.

Nonetheless, support among local Republicans has begun to coalesce around King, who has taken a hard line against ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streets and drainage program.

Now, with Houston recovering from severe flooding and the state Supreme Court ruling against the city in a lawsuit over ReBuild, program mastermind Costello only looks to be in trouble.

“The timing of this couldn’t be worse for Costello,” said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, adding that King now has a window to break through.

ReBuild Houston is designed to allow the city to pay down existing debt while financing drainage and road improvements primarily through monthly drainage fees collected from property owners.

Earlier this month, hours after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the language of the 2010 charter amendment did not adequately describe the drainage fee to fund ReBuild, King released a statement attacking the program and Costello.

Last week, he called for ReBuild to be put back on the ballot this November.

Meanwhile, candidates to King’s left barely have touched on ReBuild.

Yes, it would be nice to hear what Adrian Garcia, Chris Bell, and Marty McVey have to say about this. It’s been more than a week, guys. What kind of race are you running here? I don’t even know what to think.

As for this story, it’s an expanded version of the one I blogged about Saturday, in which King called for a revote on the Renew Houston proposition, with more quotes from his and Costello’s campaigns and various Republican types. I won’t repeat myself, so I’ll just take a moment to marvel at how issuing debt is now considered the preferred “conservative” choice over pay-as-you-go. Given the way debt has ballooned at the state level and the fact that this particular PAYGO plan involved creating a new revenue stream instead of cutting something or pretending to cut something, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m going to wait to hear what a court says about the status of the current litigation before I get too deep into all this. I hope to hear what the rest of the Mayoral field has to say before then.

ReVote Houston?

Mayoral candidate Bill King calls for a do-over on Renew/ReBuild Houston.

Bill King

Bill King

Houston mayoral candidate Bill King wants to put ReBuild Houston, the city’s controversial streetand drainage program, back up for a vote.

[…]

King, the most vocal opponent of ReBuild Houston in the race, has seized the moment to attack ReBuild.

“I only see one way out of this quagmire,” the former mayor of Kemah said in a statement Thursday. “We need to have another election on the ReBuild Houston program in November. But this time with clear and transparent ballot language.”

Should ReBuild make it back on the ballot this year, King said he would continue to oppose the program, proposing instead to finance city infrastructure projects with bonds.

See here and here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call for a revote, but I’d like to hear something from the trial court first.

King’s full statement is here, and I now have a statement as well from Steve Costello, which is here. Not surprisingly, the two don’t agree on the path forward.

For me, as I have said before, whatever else you may say about ReBuild Houston, it has provided for a supplemental revenue source for infrastructure projects, while also helping to retire existing debt. I support having that supplemental revenue source for this purpose, and would support it again if it does come to a revote. I understand King’s point about bond payments being cheaper than construction cost increases, but that doesn’t do anything to increase the revenue available to pay for it all. Also, debt service comes out of general revenue, meaning that when there are limitations on the budget due to increases in other expenditures and/or the revenue cap, it puts an extra squeeze on everything else. I’m not at all opposed to bond financing, but it’s hardly a panacea. Bond issues do sometimes get voted down and they can generate plenty of their own controversy and opposition.

Basically, King is saying we should go back to financing street and drainage projects as we did before the 2010 Renew Houston referendum. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I believe it is entirely inconsistent with any promise to improve or hasten such projects. I mean, either you’re for increasing funding over what we used to have or you’re not. As I’ve said many times now, if not this, then what? One could promise to kill off TIRZes as a way of adding resources for infrastructure (good luck with that), or cut funds from other projects and programs (please specify, and remember that public safety is 2/3 of general revenue), or perhaps adopt the leadership strategies of America’s most innovative supervillains, among other potential options. As with pretty much every other issue in this race so far, I look forward to hearing more details.

New litigation against ReBuild Houston

To be expected at this point.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against the city, seeking to reimburse residents who pay the drainage fee that helps fund ReBuild Houston, the multibillion-dollar streets and drainage improvement program that voters narrowly approved in 2010.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued Friday that found that the ReBuild ballot measure failed to disclose the cost of the drainage fee to the public. The case has been sent back to trial court, where plaintiffs expect a swift victory and legal experts said it’s likely a judge will honor the Supreme Court ruling.

Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs in that case, is also behind Wednesday’s class action suit. The named plaintiff, or class representative, is resident Elizabeth Perez, one of the plaintiffs in the original ReBuild suit.

In order for the class action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid the drainage fee because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

See here for the background. Is there a form I can fill out to attest that I’d sooner have an arm gnawed off by wombats than consent to be legally represented by Andy Taylor? Because while I have no doubt that there are many homeowners who would like to get a refund on their drainage fees, there are plenty – like me and the commenter on this Chronicle story – who are happy to have paid a few extra bucks each month to help fund infrastructure improvements, however imperfectly they were done. If Andy Taylor tries to claim that all homeowners were coerced into paying the fee, then he deserves to lose, because he sure as hell doesn’t speak for me.

A later version of the story suggests Taylor’s actions are indeed odd.

In order for the class-action suit to move forward, a judge must agree that there is a group of similarly disadvantaged people, constituting a “class.” Taylor is attempting to include all residents who receive a water bill, to which the drainage fee is tacked on every month. His argument hinges on the idea that property owners were “under duress” when they paid drainage fees because they could have their water shut off if they failed to do so.

City Attorney Donna Edmundson called the class action lawsuit “very premature” because the trial court case over the legality of the ReBuild ballot measure hasn’t been resolved. Without establishing that the fee is illegal, Taylor’s class action suit would be moot.

“This presupposes we’ve lost,” Edmundson said. “We haven’t lost on remand yet. We still get our day in court. The charter amendment has not been struck.”

Stanford law professor Deborah Hensler said Taylor’s case is ambitious because he is not only seeking to halt the fee, but also to reimburse residents going back five years. The sheer logistics involved in repaying residents and the financial hardship to the city could factor into a judge’s decision even if the legal case is sound, Hensler said.

“Most judges are sensitive to the size of the damages,” Hensler said.

Well, no one has ever said Andy Taylor doesn’t reach for the stars. He seldom gets there, but he does reach. We’ll see what a judge makes of it.

On a related note, I went and checked the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of each of the five candidates for Mayor who had not made a statement about the Supreme Court ruling as of my previous post. Here’s Sylvester Turner’s statement, posted on June 15 at 11:44 AM. The other four – Chris Bell, Adrian Garcia, Marty McVey, and most puzzling to me Steve Costello still had nothing to say on the subject as of last night. I will ask again: What are you waiting for?

Supreme Court deals a blow to ReBuild Houston

Ugh.

Houston’s divisive, multibillion-dollar effort to fund two decades of street and drainage improvements faces an uncertain future after the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the ballot measure voters narrowly approved in 2010 obscured the nature and cost of the drainage fee at the heart of the ReBuild Houston program.

The case now returns to the trial court level, where experts say the justices’ strongly worded opinion appears to make a victory for the city unlikely. At issue was whether the ballot language made clear what voters were being asked to decide.

“The city’s semantic obfuscation is particularly egregious here, considering that the ballot proposition at issue concerned a revenue-raising measure,” Justice Eva Guzman wrote, having taken the extra step of penning a concurring opinion to accompany her colleagues’ ruling.

Though the final outcome is far from certain, the possible absence of the largest of ReBuild Houston’s four sources of revenue – the hundreds of millions of dollars Houstonians have paid through the drainage fee – would greatly undermine the city’s infrastructure repairs. As of this spring, $655 million had been spent or earmarked for new projects under ReBuild Houston, with almost 100 projects completed. That work includes 515 miles of rebuilt or repaved streets, 697 miles of ditches graded and 188 miles of storm sewers cleaned – all while paying down old debt, supporters say.

Conservative activists, however, cheered Friday’s ruling as fervently as they long have railed against the drainage fee, which they deride as a burdensome “rain tax.” The lawsuit in question concerns a related criticism: that the ballot language was misleading, making the charter amendment illegal.

[…]

Houston appellate lawyer Richard Hogan, who is not involved in the litigation, said a separate legal action would have to be launched to make the drainage fee disappear from residents’ water bills. However, after reading the Supreme Court opinion and related filings, Hogan said he would put his money on an eventual victory for the plaintiffs.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that they’re not going to win the case when it goes back,” Hogan said. “I can’t imagine that, after the Supreme Court said all this, that a trial judge in Texas would thumb his or her nose at the Supreme Court and tell them, ‘No, it wasn’t misleading.’ ”

I have a copy of the opinion here. I’m still mulling this over, but for now I have three thoughts.

1. I freely admit this may just be sour grapes on my part, but I have a hard time seeing this ruling as anything but ridiculous. I don’t know how any actual voter who didn’t spend the last six months of 2010 in a coma could have failed to understand that voting for the Renew Houston proposition meant imposing a fee on themselves. I’m struggling to not see politics at the root of this decision.

2. So far the only Mayoral campaign reactions I have seen to this have been press releases from Bill King and Ben Hall, both of which hit my mailbox on Friday, and both of which were happy about the ruling. (Mayor Parker also put out a press release, which was quoted in full in the Chron story.) I’ve looked at the Facebook pages of the other five candidates, and so far nothing. Chris Bell, Sylvester Turner, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, and Marty McVey – what are you waiting for?

3. There’s still a lot of legal wrangling to come, but it’s fair to say that ReBuild Houston is on life support and may not survive. If it goes down, then what if anything replaces it? I feel like I spent a lot of time back in 2010 asking Renew Houston opponents what they would do to provide more funds for flooding and drainage improvements, and I never got anything resembling a coherent answer. So I’ll ask again, with an eye especially at the Mayoral candidates. If not ReBuild Houston, then what? How do you provide more funds to do more street repairs and flood abatement? Remember, we live in a revenue cap world, so simply proposing a property tax increase (not that anyone would, I suppose) is insufficient. If you don’t propose some kind of supplemental revenue stream, then as far as I’m concerned you’re not serious about wanting to do street improvements and flood mitigation. If you do have a proposal, then I want specifics, and I want to see evidence that you’re going to fight for it. Say what you want about Steve Costello, and I’m sure he’s going to take his fair share of abuse and criticism now, but he put his money where his mouth was in 2010, and he got something passed. If the Supreme Court has taken that away, what will you do instead?

Flooding as election issue

I suppose this was inevitable.

As thousands of Houstonians recover from the recent storms, the flooding is emerging as a political issue. Mayoral candidates are criticizing the city’s drainage infrastructure, attacking an unfinished project along Brays Bayou – around which much of the flooding occurred – as well as ReBuild Houston, the controversial street and drainage repair program that voters approved in 2010.

Even if the long-term goals of both efforts had been met before Memorial Day, however, experts say the city still would have flooded, as no drainage system could handle the 11 inches of rain that fell overnight in Epps’ and other neighborhoods.

“The rainfall greatly exceeded any design standard for the street system: ReBuild Houston, the old systems, whatever. And the rainfall exceeded any expectation for the bayou systems to contain water,” said Mike Talbott, director of the Harris County Flood Control District. “Any time you exceed the design capacity rainfall event, you’re going to see flooding occur.”

During major downpours, swampy Houston’s first lines of defense are its streets and the underground pipes or roadside ditches alongside them. City storm sewers can send an inch or two of rain over a few hours to the bayous without water pooling in the street, but much more than that will cause road flooding – and this is by design.

The ultimate goal of the city’s current standards, said Carol Haddock, senior assistant director of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, is to contain a “100-year” rain event – in theory, the worst 1 percent of storms – within the public right of way. That means residents living on any street rebuilt since the early 2000s, when these standards were enacted, should be able to take 13.5 inches of rain in 24 hours without their homes or yards flooding, though their street and sidewalks will be underwater. It’s unclear how many streets have been fully rebuilt under the current standards, but it is certainly no quick task to replace Houston’s more than 8,000 miles of roadway.

What happened with the recent storms, however, saw some areas take nearly that much rain in half the time. Haddock said she is aware of no city that designs to such a standard.

“If everybody wanted us to be able to accommodate every rain event and keep everything open, it would cost every project we build a multiple of what we already spend,” said Wayne Klotz, president of local engineering firm Klotz and Associates and a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The passage of ReBuild Houston, a program fed largely by a drainage fee levied on property owners, did not change the city’s design standards, but Haddock said the funding it provides will improve drainage by speeding up the replacement of older streets with poor drainage.

Some areas flooded last month because the water could not get to the bayous, Haddock said – that is the city’s job, and what ReBuild is supposed to address. Other neighborhoods flooded, she said, because the bayous had insufficient capacity and broke their banks; improving those channels is the Harris County Flood Control District’s job.

“When Project Brays is done, and 20 years from now, when many of these neighborhoods have been rebuilt, I think the models would predict that we’d fare much better,” Haddock said. “There’s always the possibility that a storm event will exceed what it was designed for, whether you’re talking about pipes or streets or levies or dams. What you’re trying to do is reduce that risk as much as you can.”

These are important issues, but let’s maintain some perspective. No city is built to withstand the kind of rain we were getting without some floods occurring. Whatever you think of ReBuild Houston, we’ve got years to go and many millions of dollars to spend to get a significant number of our streets updated. Go reread that Jim Blackburn piece for some ideas of what kind of questions we should be asking our Mayoral hopefuls going forward. There are a lot of things we’d like to do and that we need to do, but we’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions about how to prioritize them, and how to pay for them.

Costello makes his official entry

That makes him number five of some as yet unknown number to make that announcement.

CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

Houston City Councilman Stephen Costello pitched himself Monday as a no-frills, no-nonsense politician who would address the city’s problems like the engineer he is if voters elect him mayor this fall.

Costello, a wonky at-large councilman who chairs the body’s budget committee, told supporters packed into a downtown ballroom that he certainly was not the “flashiest” politician, but a practical problem-solver who would tackle the city’s looming pension liabilities by winning local control over the city’s fire pension system.

If nothing is done, Costello said, Houston could face a “catastrophic financial crisis.”

“Houstonians should have the authority to craft our own solution rather than continuing to leave our fate in the hands of politicians in Austin,” Costello said, drawing applause. “Instead of playing politics on this issue as so many have done, and continue to do today, I am going to lead on it.”

Costello said as mayor he would also launch a “Neighborhoods to Standards” effort to fill potholes and relax congestion, and increase funding for police. The name was reminiscent of former Mayor Bob Lanier, who launched a “Neighborhoods to Standard” program to target small sections of the city with massive infusions of street repairs, sidewalks, street lights and other basic amenities.

Let me say up front that I like CM Costello. I think he’s been a good Council member, I think Renew Houston was a big accomplishment that not many would have taken on, and I can think of a lot of people who would not be my pick for Mayor given the choice between Costello and them. Having said all that, I’ve got to repeat something I said in my public safety manifesto: What makes any candidate think they can succeed on this issue where Mayor Parker has not? How does CM Costello, or anyone who wants to campaign on this issue, plan to get traction in a Legislature that wants the city and the firefighters to work it out between themselves? I’m willing to accept the possibility that there’s something Mayor Parker could have done, or could have done differently, that Candidate X can and will do. But I’m going to need to hear specifics and some corroboration from at least one legislator before I take it as anything other than rhetoric along the same lines as “we need to cut waste and encourage growth”.

Anyway. At this point, I believe CM Oliver Pennington is the only major candidate that is already known to be running who hasn’t done the “official campaign announcement/kickoff” thing. Among the candidates not currently known to be running but widely believed to be in, well, there’s Adrian Garcia. He’ll say whatever it is he’s going to say when he’s ready to say it. Costello’s press release from the event is beneath the fold, and Texas Leftist has more.

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King makes his official entry

Add Bill King to the “made his official announcement” list.

Bill King

In the middle of a noisy, torn-up west Houston street that he said epitomized Houston’s crumbling roads, Bill King launched his campaign for mayor Monday morning, pledging to return the city “back to basics.”

King, a former Houston Chronicle columnist and a mayor of Kemah, pledged to tackle the issue on which he long sounded the alarm – pension reform.

“There is no pathway to financial stability for the City of Houston that does not lead through meaningful pension reform,” said King. “Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or is not telling you the truth.”

King recognized that trimming pension payouts is “an emotional and difficult” issue, but stressed that he does not support changes to current city employees’ benefits, just future employees.’

King also took a veiled shot at who is likely to be his main competitor for the votes of the center-right, business crowds: Councilman Stephen Costello, who is tied to a road improvement plan called “ReBuild Houston” that King derided as the “Rain Tax.”

“We cannot afford to wait another five or six years to rebuild our streets,” said King, standing in the median of S. Kirkwood Road. “It’s time that we rethink ReBuild Houston.”

As you know, King is not at the top of my candidate list. Nothing against the guy, as he is perfectly nice and adequately qualified, but we do not see eye to eye on enough issues that I can’t see him being my choice in November. A case in point here is his shot at ReBuild Houston. Putting aside my distaste for anyone that uses the term “rain tax”, if you don’t like it but you want to make fixing the streets a priority, what would you do instead? We all agree that fixing the streets will cost a lot of money. ReBuild Houston provides a funding mechanism for that. There are certainly issues with it, not the least of which is a lack of visibility, but what would you do instead? This was a question that the foes of the Renew Houston referendum never ever attempted to answer. They agreed with the problem, opposed the solution, and had no alternate plan of their own. So I’ll ask again: If this isn’t the answer, then what is? You have eight months to come up with something viable.

Now sure, I get that this was a campaign event, not a get-all-wonky-with-details event, but as I’ve said before, just about everyone running for Mayor this year has been running in one form or another for a long time. I’ve said what my priorities are. I don’t plan to be patient waiting for the Mayoral herd to start talking specifics. I’m not singling out King here – so far, no one has said anything that isn’t suitable for a bumper sticker. I’m saying I don’t plan to grade on a curve, or to cut any slack. Just tell me what you want to do, in enough detail that it makes sense, and we’ll go from there.

Anyway. King is in, and there are still more of these announcements to come. I’ve put the press release I received from the King campaign beneath the fold. On a tangential note, I see via Facebook that Chris Brown has announced his intent to run for Controller this year. Brown is Deputy Controller, and his name surfaced as a potential candidate a few weeks ago. He joins three other candidates so far – HCC Trustee Carroll Robinson, 2013 Controller candidate Bill Frazer, and former Council member Jew Don Boney. That Facebook photo is the only info I have on this, so it wasn’t worth a post on its own, thus the addendum here.

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Supreme Court hears Renew Houston appeal

Last stop of the litigation train for the plaintiffs that have sued to overturn the Renew Houston referendum, on the grounds that the voters were misinformed about what they were voting for.

Two lower courts have sided with the city, and the case has now landed in the state’s highest court, where attorneys for both sides made their arguments before the nine justices.

First was Andy Taylor for the plaintiffs.

“The problem here is you can’t tell when you go into the ballot box and say, I’m going to vote for this, that in fact you just opened up your pocket book and said, my property can be hit with this cost,” Taylor said.

On the ballot, the proposed charter amendment known as Proposition 1 made no mention of a fee, other than saying it’s a dedicated pay-as-you-go fund.

Robert Heath represented the City of Houston. He said newspaper postings and general media coverage on the proposition was sufficient to inform voters.

He acknowledged that probably not everyone paid attention.

“Just as when we assume or presume the people know the law, that people really don’t know all the law,” Heath said.

See here for the last update. I will make two points: One, the “ballot language was misleading” claim is the same losing argument that the litigants against the 2003 Metro referendum made about the Universities line and the so-called “Westpark corridor”. It was rejected then, and I see no reason why it would not be rejected now. Two, it’s pretty well established by now that many voters have no idea who they’re voting for in many elections. (Two words: Dave Wilson.) Why should referenda be held to a higher standard than that? We should know by summertime, when the Supreme Court is expected to make its ruling.

Supreme Court to hear Renew Houston lawsuit

Jeez, I’d forgotten this was still a thing.

In a lawsuit filed after the election, three Houston property owners allege the ballot language was misleading.

“You would have thought if you voted for this thing that it was a one-time, one-year tax,” said Andy Taylor, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, “when in fact it is a permanent tax forever in an amount that is literally hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars over time.”

A spokesperson for the city of Houston did not respond to requests for comment.

Both the trial court and the appeals court sided with the city, saying it wasn’t required to lay out specifics of the measure on the ballot.

The last update on this was in July of 2012, so you can see why it had slipped my mind. I don’t know why the Supremes would see this any differently than the district court or the 14th Court of Appeals, but you can never be too sure. Oral arguments are scheduled for February 24. Lord only knows how long it will take for a decision after that.

(And yes, that’s the same Andy Taylor that is litigating on behalf of the HERO haters. All lawyers wind up representing unsavory characters from time to time. Andy Taylor seeks them out.)

Diverting ReBuild Houston funds

I don’t know about this.


Expressing impatience with the pace of street repairs under the Rebuild Houston program, City Council on Wednesday voted to siphon off some of the drainage-fee supported funds to speed up projects and help resolve smaller neighborhood problems sought by their constituents.

In an amendment to the city’s five-year $7.8 billion capital improvements program, the council voted to draw down $31 million from ReBuild Houston, prompting a warning from Mayor Annise Parker and Department of Public Works and Engineering officials, who said the move could drive the program’s cash flow into the red within two years and force the delay of other projects.

“Council members today would get a lot of short-term relief, but council members in a couple years may see delays,” Parker said.

Councilman Jerry Davis and other council members pushed back, saying constituent concerns have forced them to look for new funds.

“I respect the voices of the engineers and I respect the voices of Public Works,” Davis said. “But again, this is why we’re voted in to be here to make these decisions based upon the wants and needs of the people.”

Davis said council members would revisit reserve spending if a cash flow problem proved imminent.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who proposed the amendment with Davis, said the $31 million still would be spent using ReBuild Houston’s “first-worst” prioritization model.

[…]

Under the amendment, the $6 million would be made up of any money left over from bond-funded library, parks and street projects. If there is no leftover money – which Parker said was likely – the $6 million would come from ReBuild Houston funds. Those funds, however, would come with charter-prescribed spending restrictions.

Parker warned council members that the $1 million-per-council-district funds would not solve larger neighborhood problems.

“One of the challenges for council members is going to be managing expectations,” Parker said, adding that the funds approved Wednesday are “not going to pave a lot of streets.”

I get why Council did this – ReBuild Houston hasn’t exactly moved at breakneck speed – but that’s not what this fund was for, and I worry that this will set a precedent. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea, and maybe any future delays will be offset by the earlier completion of some other work. Maybe there won’t be complaints about what gets prioritized from these diverted funds. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see. A statement from CM Costello, who opposed this proposal, is beneath the fold.

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One point of perspective on the repeal petitions

Here’s the Chron story about the HERO-haters turning in their repeal petitions.

Opponents of Houston’s new non-discrimination ordinance Thursday turned in well more than the minimum number of signatures needed to trigger a November vote on whether to repeal the measure.

Staff in the City Secretary’s office will have 30 days to verify that the names – 50,000 of them, opponents said – cross the minimum threshold of 17,269 signatures from registered Houston voters that foes needed to gather in the month following the measure’s passage in an 11-6 vote of the City Council.

Most of the divisiveness around the ordinance stems from the protections it extends to gay and transgender residents, groups not already protected under federal laws barring discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.

Mayor Annise Parker pledged to fight the effort to overturn the ordinance should it make the November ballot, a task she acknowledged city rules make fairly easy.

“This was not a narrowly-focused, special-interest ordinance,” said Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city. “This is something that the business and civic community of Houston was firmly behind, and we fully expect if there is a campaign that it will be a spirited campaign, but we’ll have the same outcome in November as we had around the council table.

“Houston does not discriminate, Houston will not discriminate and Houston will not be fooled by misinformation, hyperbole – I would use the word ‘lies’ but I’m going to back off from that – and people who are just simply unwilling to read the ordinance for themselves.”

See my post from Thursday evening for the background. As we know, the haters were busy collecting petitions last weekend, and my presumption was that if they weren’t scrambling to clear the bar, they were aiming for a show of force. It would actually have been enough to force a recall election against Mayor Parker, if they largely prove to be valid. The haters claim to have verified 30,000 of the sigs themselves, but we’ll see about that. As I said on Thursday, the petitions will be very closely scrutinized, and I expect the final number to be a lot lower.

One thing to keep in mind when we talk about that number. Via Facebook, I understand that the haters are referring to it as “two-thirds of the total vote against Mayor Parker in 2013”. That’s true enough as it goes – remember, that 50,000 is likely to be an illusion – but we’re not in a low-turnout odd-numbered election year. We’re in an even-numbered partisan election year. We had a situation much like this in 2010, with the red light camera and Renew Houston items on the ballot. That year, there were 389,428 votes cast in the Houston part of Harris County – a smidge less than half the total county turnout – plus another 8,492 votes in Fort Bend County, with between 320,000 and 350,000 votes cast in each of the three propositions. Even if all 50,000 signatures represents a valid Houston voter that will show up in November, that’s still less than 1/3 of the total that will likely be needed for the haters to win.

Let me provide one more number, as long as I’m on the subject. Last year, the Early to Rise group submitted 150,000 signatures to put an item for raising HCDE’s tax assessment to fund pre-K in Harris County. Of those signatures, 80,505 were verified. If the haters have the same level of accuracy, their total number of valid sigs will be around 27,000. Still plenty to qualify for the ballot, but a lot less than 50,000. They may well be more accurate than that, but I do know they were using paid canvassers as the Early to Rise proponents were, so I expect they’ll have a fair amount of slop in their work. Again, we’ll see how much.

I don’t post any of this to encourage complacence in HERO supporters. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. But if we put our heads down and do the work, I feel confident we will win. As Greg highlights, the city of Houston is Democratic, and we’ve got more voters to reach out to than they do. Register voters, talk to voters, and make sure everyone who should be voting does so. That’s the winning formula. PDiddie, John Coby, Texas Leftist, Lone Star Q, and Hair Balls have more.