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January 3rd, 2023:

Mayor Turner’s final year

The big local political story, besides whatever violence the Legislature commits to Houston and/or Harris County, will be the 2023 Mayor’s race. The incumbent still has a full year to go, though, and he has his plans for what he wants to do with his remaining time in office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus his final year in office on moving existing projects across the finish line, with an emphasis on housing, crime, parks and community facilities.

Turner said he wants to accomplish his administration’s goal of helping to build 10,000 new housing units in his second term, while also continuing the city’s progress since 2012 in reducing homelessness. His “One Safe Houston” plan to address violent crime has several elements that are funded through the rest of his tenure, including expanded crisis response teams. And there are renovations underway in 22 community parks that he wants to see through before his term ends in January 2024.

“It’s about finishing up many of the priorities and projects that are currently on the books,” said Turner, who revealed recently that he worked this summer while battling a cancer diagnosis. He now is cancer-free.

Next year, though, could force confrontations with structural issues at City Hall that Turner is satisfied to leave to his successor, such as a potential adjustment to the city’s revenue cap, and the resolution of a yearslong contract stalemate with firefighters that has spanned nearly his full tenure, and which now rests with the Supreme Court.

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Turner has said a garbage fee — Houston is the only city in Texas without one — is necessary to sustain Solid Waste operations, though he is not likely to take that on in his final year. He likewise has argued an adjustment to the revenue cap is necessary. The most recent discussion of the cap came in October, after it forced the city’s eighth rate cut in nine years. At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh wondered aloud how the city could afford its growing police and fire budgets with those restraints. Turner said he would present an adjustment to the cap if council desired it.

Turner said that adjustment proposal still is in the works but acknowledged he is not “100 percent on it.”

“Some of the these things need to be left for the next mayor,” he said, and the ruling in the firefighters dispute could affect his calculus, as well. “A modification of the revenue cap may not be adequate to address it. In that case, I won’t present it. I’ll leave it up to the next mayor to address how he or she, and the people in this city, should deal with it.”

Turner argues he has done his part tackling intractable problems facing the city. The 2017 pension reforms he ushered in have slashed the city’s daunting debt in that arena from a $8 billion liability to about $1.5 billion. The issue that once dominated city government and politics now is mostly an afterthought. The city’s liability for retirement benefits likewise was expected to grow to $9 billion over 30 years, but cuts Turner implemented are expected to reduce that at least in half.

“I can’t fix everything, but we’ve fixed a whole lot,” Turner said.

Turner and other elected leaders in the city long have said the cap strains the city’s finances and hinders its ability to provide adequate resources to residents. It has cost the city about $1.5 billion in revenue since it first hit the cap in 2015. In that time, it has saved the owner of the median Houston home about $946, or about $105 per year.

I’m not sure I have any hope left about raising the revenue cap. If there actually is some action on it, the most likely scenario is what we have done before, which is to carve out a limited exception for public safety spending. That’s more likely to pass a public vote, and less likely to get cracked down on by the Legislature. It’s at best a band-aid, if it even happens, but you know nothing significant will ever happen until we have a different state government, and we know that ain’t happening for at least another four years.

As for the firefighters, there are two issues that need to be resolved by the courts before anything gets left as a mess for the next Mayor, and those are the pay parity lawsuit and the HFD collective bargaining lawsuit, both of which just had hearings before SCOTx. I have no prediction for either – we may or may not get rulings on them before the November election, but if we do there will be a big new issue for the candidates to talk about. Modifying the revenue cap in some form would leave the next Mayor a bit of leeway in how they try to resolve whatever they need to resolve with these issues. I don’t need more reasons to support modifying the stupid revenue cap, but other people do, so there you have it.

As for the long-discussed trash fee, I support the idea as long as the funds are used to really improve solid waste collection in the city. There’s plenty of innovation out there, but just making sure everything gets picked up in a timely fashion, which is a labor and equipment issue at its core, is the first priority. I think this has a better chance of passing this year than in the future just because some number of people who won’t be facing re-election can vote for it, but we’ll see. Just have a productive last year in office, that’s all I ask.

The only pre-session gambling expansion story you need

Just re-run a version of this for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Although casino giants and sports betting groups are making a big push in Texas, the head of the state Senate said he isn’t seeing much progress on the issue going into 2023.

“I don’t see any movement on that right now,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in an interview with KXAN-TV in Austin.

Patrick, a Houston Republican who has overseen the Texas Senate since 2015, said that doesn’t mean things can’t change during the legislative session that begins Jan. 10.

He said there is “a lot of talk out there” about gambling but that he hasn’t seen any Republican in the Senate file a bill on the issue yet. Republicans hold a strong majority and control the Senate’s agenda.

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State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, has filed legislation to open the state to casinos and sports betting. Under her proposed Senate Joint Resolution No. 17, up to four “destination resorts” in metro areas with at least 2 million people would be allowed, in addition to limited casinos at horse and dog tracks, plus authorization for Native American tribes to operate casino games and slot machines.

In 2021, Patrick similarly doused expectations for expanded gambling in Texas, but even more forcefully.

“It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session,” Patrick told Lubbock-based talk radio host Chad Hasty about sports betting legislation in 2021.

Every session, we get a breathless story about how much the gambling lobby will be spending on their hundreds of lobbyists to persuade the Lege to pass a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment to allow some form of expanded gambling. And then we get the same basic story the next session, because the one constant has been Dan Patrick, and even before him the general – and sufficient – Republican opposition to this idea. Never mind that Patrick wasn’t forceful about it this session – nothing has changed from his perspective since the last time, and none of those Republican Senators are going to file anything because they’re all Patrick’s puppets. Never mind that Greg Abbott has, in his typically mealy-mouthed fashion, expressed “openness” to the “idea” of some form of expanded gambling. Abbott’s a wuss who isn’t going to get into a fight with Patrick over this. All he’s saying here is that if Dan Patrick changes his mind and decides to allow something to come to a vote, he won’t oppose it. Nothing has changed, nothing to see here. File this story away for 2025, because it will be as relevant then as it is now.

Eventually, one of two things will change. Either Dan Patrick will decide that he’s okay with some more gambling, or someone else will become Lite Guv, and then we can find out what that person thinks. Until then, try to remain calm. And see if you can get one of those gambling lobbyist gigs. They have to be a great job, as there’s no expectation of success and they’ll be hiring again next time around.