It’s always easier to talk in the abstract

I have three things to say about this.

The city of Houston has been papering over multimillion-dollar budget deficits for nine years by borrowing money, tapping its rainy day fund, selling buildings and just plain putting off bills to the future, according to city finance officials.


This year, Mayor Annise Parker has pledged not to rely on the patches of the past. She has little choice. The city has spent nearly as much of its rainy day fund as it can without affecting the city’s credit rating. Parker does not support continued borrowing to meet pension obligations. And the mayor learned a difficult lesson last year when she included the sale of city buildings in the budget only to see a $20 million hole emerge when the sales did not come off as planned.

Parker may be able to tap an emerging political will to bring income and spending into balance. There are seven new council members.

One of them, District A’s Helena Brown, has raised eyebrows with her no votes on spending items that previously sailed through council.

“By voting me into office this past election, the voters were mandating that the city have a serious dialogue on its spending habits,” Brown said. “My expectations are simple: Balance the budget and end irresponsible spending.”

Two returning council members have political incentives to act as budget hawks as they seek higher office. And all of the re-elected council members signed off on last year’s creation of the task force, which culminated with this month’s stern warning from Chairman Mike Nichols: “We have no option but to take action and make decisions. … This is not a time to kick the can down the road.”

1. CM Brown’s definition of “irresponsible” spending is “spending with which she does not agree”. This is a very common feature among self-proclaimed “deficit hawks”. The two are not equivalent.

2. One of the two returning Council members who is running for another office is CM Wanda Adams, who is challenging State Rep. Alma Allen in the Democratic primary for HD131. I haven’t interviewed CM Adams yet, so I can’t say with certainty about how she intends to position herself in that race, but speaking as a Democrat I feel reasonably confident that in the first election after Rick Perry and the Republicans in the Legislature imposed savage cuts on public education and many other things that the electorate she faces will not be terribly impressed by boasts and promises of even more austerity.

3. For all of the tough talk about pensions, it remains the case that approximately two thirds of the city’s non-capital budget goes to police, fire, and emergency services. Last year, I interviewed thirty-eight candidates for city office. I don’t recall any of them saying that they intended to cut spending on any of that. Most of them, including quite a few who spoke at great length about the need to cut spending, declared that portion of the budget to be off limits, with some others suggesting that we needed to spend more on those services. If there’s an “emerging political will” to act differently in this budget, it’s not apparent to me.

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6 Responses to It’s always easier to talk in the abstract

  1. Jj says:

    Texas public education spending is up 95% in the last decade while enrollment is only up 20%. Doesn’t that indicate a system badly in need of “savage cuts”? Spending per pupil is up 63%, which is double the CPI increase of 32%.

  2. Bill Shirley says:

    Two things I thought of when I read that:

    1. We’re in the worst recession of my lifetime. When else are you supposed to use a rainy day fund?

    2. A “mandate” can not be created by the voters of one council district.

    And a side note on Jj’s comment: there is no money for education in the city’s budget. All moneys for that come from school districts, the state, and the federal government. So, while certainly something that needs shepherding, not something directly relevant.

  3. JJ, I don’t know where you got those numbers, but consider that over that same time span, school districts have seen the cost of things like gasoline, electricity, and health insurance for their employees rise rapidly. What would you have them do about that?

    Regardless, my point is that the assertion that Wanda Adams will have incentive to act in a similar fashion to Mike Sullivan because they are both running for other offices is at best in need of supporting evidence.

  4. StopUnfundedMicroManagement says:

    Talking in the abstract may be less easy than it seems. That said, allow me…

    “Helena Brown has raised eyebrows with her no votes on spending items that previously sailed through council.” I have been following council meetings on HTV for quite some time now – great medicine for sleepless nights! What raised my eyebrows, long before Helena Brown’s arrival, is how mayor and council seem perfectly happy to let proposals sail through that are “supported” by non-existing funds. Regardless of whatever worthy and laudable cause these proposals may try to address, the money to support playing Santa Claus, simply is not there, neither at a local nor at a state or federal level.

    On a totally non-abstract level where it concerns our personal household budgets, most of us seem happy and responsible enough to accept and practice that we should in general avoid spending money that isn’t backed up by our income. Yet once we become elected officials, the norm seems to be to forget that important lesson on the very first day that office is assumed. Apparently spending other people’s money is considered much less personal than spending your own money.

    Returning to talking about the abstract. What raises my eyebrows even more, is this seemingly unstoppable trend to regulate and micromanage all aspects of our lives. No wonder the bulk of the budget goes to HPD et al: someone after all has to police the micromanaging council ordinances and make sure that we get properly penalized when we fail to obey whatever countless rules that no one can respectfully stay aware of in the first place.

    So I repeat what I just wrote in another posting: if Helena Brown happens to be on a mission to try to stop unfunded and inappropriate micromanagement, then I say: bring her on, and many more like her! As a one-woman show, she probably can do little to actually stop it, but at least she can make us aware of what is happening. And yes, that should raise our eyebrows. For the right reasons, not for the wrong reasons: not because Santa-government fails to provide that we feel we are “entitled” to, but simply and thankfully because it refuses to give us what we can’t afford.

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