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November 25th, 2009:

Thanksgiving travel

If you’re traveling this weekend, you’ll find the roads a bit more crowded than last year, but down from the norm.

Americans shaken by last year’s economic crash may be regaining enough confidence to hit the roads in higher numbers this Thanksgiving, according to AAA.

When a wobbly economy finally nose-dived last fall, Thanksgiving trips also plunged, by 25 percent from the year before, the travel association reports.

This year, with unemployment higher than it’s been since 1983 despite economic growth last quarter, 38.4 million Americans — one in eight — will travel 50 miles or more from home, up a slight 1.4 percent.

More here. Drive safe, y’all. Link via the On the Move blog.

Council turnover

One underappreciated aspect of this year’s election is that we may wind up with more than two new At Large City Council members. We started with two open seats, and with incumbents Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones in runoffs, the possibility exists that we could have as many as four freshman members in January. This would be a first for Houston, at least in the term limits era. Since 1997, here are all of the newly-elected Council members for that year:

1997 – Annise Parker (1), Carroll Robinson (5)
1999 – Gordon Quan (2)
2001 – Shelley Sekula Rodriguez/Gibbs (3), Michael Berry (4)
2003 – Mark Ellis (1), Ronald Green (4)
2005 – Peter Brown (1), Sue Lovell (2)
2007 – Melissa Noriega (3), Jolanda Jones (5)

There actually was a third new Council member in 1997, but not in November. John Peavy won a special election in January of 1995 to replace Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4 after she was elected to Congress. After he won re-election that November, he announced in 1996 that he was stepping down. Chris Bell then won a special election in January, and won election to a full term that November. His seat came open in 2001 when he ran for Mayor (Orlando Sanchez, who had been the incumbent in At Large #3, was first elected in 1995 and thus was term limited out that year.) Michael Berry, who won #4 in 2001, briefly ran for Mayor in 2003, and when he pulled back from that he filed instead for At Large #5; I forget what the reasoning behind that was. As such, there were technically three open seats in 2003, but only because of Berry’s seat shifting. Besides, Mark Ellis had been a two-term incumbent in District F before winning a final term in Council as the At Large #1 member, so even if one of Berry or Shelley Sekula now-Gibbs, who nipped Peter Brown in a runoff for her first re-election, had been beaten, there still would have been only two truly new At Large members.

This year, we will have new At Large members CO Bradford and the winner of the Stephen Costello/Karen Derr runoff. I think Sue Lovell will win easily enough in #2, but Jolanda Jones has a tough race on her hands, and may well lose. If either one does lose, then we’ll have the unprecedented situation of three or more new At Large members, and in a year with a new Mayor and a new Controller. I’m thinking the first few Council meetings would be a lot of fun under those conditions.

One other thing to consider in the event we do have three or four new At Large members is that there would not be an open seat until 2013, when Melissa Noriega gets term limited. I would think that a Council Member Andrew Burks or a Council Member Jack Christie would be wise to prepare for a strong challenge from somebody in 2011, for two reasons. One is that those with ambitions for Council aren’t going to want to wait that long. The pent-up demand for an open Council seat by then would surely lead to a ginormous field, in which even a good candidate’s chances would be a pure crapshoot. Seems to me you’d get better odds taking on a freshman incumbent in 2011, in what could be a straight up two-person race. And two, the political establishment might well view Burks and/or Christie as flukes whose victories said more about their opponents than themselves. I believe the likelihood of that is greater if the turnout for the runoff is low. The same could happen to Bradford or Costello/Derr, of course, but I’d expect Burks or Christie to be a more inviting target.

Anyway. Just something I’ve been thinking about. What do you think?

UPDATE: Forgot to include Jolanda Jones as a new Member in 2007. Whether she wins or loses, the only seat that would be open in 2011 is Sue Lovell’s seat, assuming Lovell wins. If Lovell wins and Jones loses, we have one open seat in 2011 and one in 2013, then three in 2015. If Lovell loses and Jones wins, we have no open seats in 2011, two in 2013, and three in 2015. If both lose, no open seats in 2011, one in 2013, and four in 2015. I should have been more clear about that. Also, as noted by Jennifer in the comments, we will have two new District Council seats in 2011, which may provide an outlet for some of those who would otherwise run At Large if there’s a paucity of those seats available.

The budget mess that awaits the next Governor

We already know that the next Legislative session will be a whole lot of no fun thanks to declining revenue estimates and our structural deficits. Here’s a further illustration of the problem.

The current state budget is financed with $12 billion of one-time money (add to the stimulus money several billion the Legislature wisely socked away two years earlier). Some refer to this as our “structural gap.” That gap will have to be filled. On top of that, add several billion for Medicaid growth (and perhaps much more depending on what happens with national health care reform), a couple hundred million for prisons, and a few hundred million more for employee health insurance and retirement. Higher education won’t be left empty handed, either, so throw in another half billion dollars.

Add another billion to public education to pay for the promises in last session’s education bill, and maybe even more. Since the state bought into a system of equalized funding, state aid rises and falls as local property values change. With the economy now suffering, property values will likely stagnate or fall (although your local chief appraiser may disagree). School districts won’t be as wealthy. The demands on state aid may actually increase, driving up the state’s public school budget even more.

Granted, there should be some revenue growth, but with most economists projecting a slow, jobless recovery, it may be muted. If so, revenue growth at best may cover spending growth. That leaves the nagging problem of how to deal with that “structural gap.”

Tax hikes? Not likely.

A simple rollback of the budget-busting property tax cuts from the 2006 special session would suffice. Heck, you probably wouldn’t have to roll it all the way back – the business margins tax does take in some money, just not nearly enough. That’s not likely, either, but it is the simplest and most straightforward solution. Remember, the billions that the Lege “wisely socked away” earlier was general revenue surplus whose sole purpose was paying for those tax cuts. No surplus, no money to pay for those tax cuts. Seems to me anyone who wants to call themselves “fiscally responsible” would demand deficit neutrality from the actions taken in 2006 by the Lege. The alternatives are unacceptable. I sure hope we have a nice, long debate about this as part of the gubernatorial campaign. As of right this minute, we have just barely enough revenue to cover all our expenditures. It’s time to start talking about what the plan is for if and when that is no longer the case.

More back and forth on the latest jail proposal

Grits argues that the latest proposal to build a new processing center for the jail would result in a tax increase because of the need to hire more staff, which is not accounted for in the bonds. The Chron wonders what all the fuss is about. I’m still looking forward to seeing progress made in reducing the overall inmate population. I believe a lot of these issues will be settled, or at least a lot less contentious, when that happens. I hope they will, anyway, because Commissioners Court has agreed to move forward with the plan.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is proposing a central processing center, where everyone arrested by his deputies and Houston Police Department officers would be booked. It would hold 2,193 prisoners: 1,000 in booking areas and about 1,200 in cells designated for specialized populations, such as the mentally ill, medical cases and women.

The proposal does not estimate how much it would cost to staff a new facility.

The Commissioners Court granted approval of the study, which revives city-county talks that go back more than a decade.

Figuring in the staffing cost, which Grits has been harping on, is a must. Surely the overall cost to the county will be lower if the jail population is reduced, right? The more we move in that direction, the better off we’ll be.

UPDATE: Stace raises a different objection to the proposal.

Get well soon, Pancho Claus!

See you at the parade!

The Houston actor best known locally as Pancho Claus still plans to make his annual holiday appearance in the Thanksgiving Day parade despite suffering a heart attack last week.

Richard Reyes, who has portrayed the zoot suit-wearing, lowrider-cruising Hispanic icon for 28 years, said he was admitted to Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital on Thursday after suffering a heart attack. He was moved from intensive care to a regular room over the weekend and said he hoped to be released [Monday].

Despite his recent ordeal, Reyes said he sees no reason he can’t be in the downtown Houston parade as usual.

“All I’ve got to do is wave,” he joked in a phone interview from his hospital room.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Pancho Claus. Good to see he’ll be all right.