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April 2nd, 2020:

Cities and counties are going to need their own bailout

This story is about the rough financial future that the city of Houston faces as we go through the coronavirus shutdown, but it’s not just Houston that is in this position.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration continues efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, another dire challenge looms for City Hall: its budget.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices has thrown an already cash-strapped spending plan into more arduous territory, raising the specter of the first furloughs or layoffs of city employees since 2011.

Controller Chris Brown, who recently finished a recession stress test for the city’s coffers, has said he thinks the situation is likely to rival the recession that began in 2008, approaching the test’s worst-case scenario: a budget deficit in excess of $300 million.

He told council members Tuesday they should begin dusting off the recession playbook.

“Unfortunately, they had to do some furloughs and cut some expenses and things like that, because you can’t control the revenue right now,” said Brown, the city’s independently-elected financial watchdog. “These are tough decisions that are going to have to be made, I think.”

Turner said budgeting is always difficult under a revenue cap, but the city in the past has forged its way through challenging deficits and will do so again.

The mayor would not say whether he thinks layoffs will be necessary, but he sees other actions that can help cut the deficit. Turner plans to use some of the city’s current fund balance, which is projected between $187 and $203 million. The rainy day fund, he pointed out, will also have $15 million when it comes time to adopt the budget.

Some job vacancies have already gone unfilled, he said.

“We always assume there is going to be a budget shortfall with the revenue cap,” Turner said, referring to Houston’s voter-imposed ceiling on increased property tax revenue. “There’s always some elephant in the room. The elephant here now is the coronavirus and the impact on your sales taxes.”

The city’s two largest streams of money are property and sales taxes. All eyes are on the latter, which are expected to take an unprecedented hit as most businesses have been ordered to close and the region’s residents have been told to stay home in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.

It’s not just sales tax revenue, which will hammer the state budget as well. No one’s flying into or out of the airports, no one is staying in hotels or renting cars or booking conventions. All of those things affect the enterprise fund, which is a part of the city’s budget that is largely not subject to the revenue cap. And as noted, it’s not just Houston. Every city, in Texas and elsewhere, will be facing this. Part of the solution here, very simply, needs to be a federal relief package for local and state governments, all of which would otherwise have to lay people off and drastically cut back on services, all of which would just further exacerbate the recessionary effects we are now feeling. Just as we expect business activity to more or less return to normal once everyone can leave their homes again, we should expect local tax revenues to more or less return to normal. All of that assumes that the business are still there to return to, which is why we needed the first stimulus bill, to prevent them all from suffocating in the meantime. We all want to return to normal, but we have to do everything we can to preserve what was normal until we can get back to it. That’s what the federal government can do, and what it needs to do.

But we should also recognize that forcing cities and counties and states to observe “balanced budget” requirements at a time like this is not only ridiculous, it’s self-mutilating. Mandating an artificial deadline for when one number must be shown to equal or exceed another is beyond stupid and pointless, and that’s even more so if we not-unreasonably assume that the feds will eventually come in with a check to make up for the sales taxes that did not happen. The single best thing Greg Abbott could do with his emergency powers once we’re at or near a point where we can begin to think about easing up on the stay-at-home rules is to declare that all “balanced budget” requirements are suspended for the next two budget cycles, along with the revenue cap that was passed in the last Lege. That won’t be carte blanche for cities and counties to start spending like crazy – they’ll still have to get their budgets to “balance” later on – it will just be a recognition that this was something entirely beyond their control, and they deserve a chance to recover from it. It won’t happen, of course – I’m sure Greg Abbott and the entire army of financial ghouls he has behind him are salivating at the prospect of forcing their local nemeses to slash their budgets – but it should. I will never stop beating this drum.

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 30

The Texas Progressive Alliance thanks all of the essential employees out there for their service as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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