Year Two for Mayor Turner

Year One was busy, but a lot of what was done this year depends on what happens next year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Tasked last year with distinguishing himself from a crowded field of mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner styled himself as a progressive with expansive policy goals.

He pledged to boost wages, improve educational opportunities and implement a new road repair job training program, stressing that Houston’s future depends on pairing such initiatives with core services improvements.

“I am bullish on Houston,” Turner would repeat, radiating optimism in the face of a tight budget and looming pension crisis.

A year into office, however, the mayor has set aside much of that to-do list in favor of an ambitious but moderate “back to basics” approach.

Pension reform – a topic he shied away from on the campaign circuit – now is the linchpin in Turner’s two-year plan, and he is loath to discuss much else.

That focus has paid off in the form of a reform package that he says will eliminate the underfunding of Houston’s three retirement systems in 30 years and limit the city’s exposure to market downturns.

Crucially, the plan has received buy-in from the fire, police and municipal pension boards, as well as praise from experts.

“When you look at where we were on Jan. 1, 2016, on pensions and look at where we are today,” Turner said recently, “there is no question that we have come a long, long way from where we started.”

The deal now must earn approval from the Texas Legislature, which controls Houston’s pension systems.


If Turner is successful, however, he intends to spend his political capital – earned, principally, from pension reform and closing this year’s $160 million budget gap – on campaigning to lift Houston’s limit on property tax collections.

The voter-approved revenue cap was instituted in 2004 and limits the increase in the city’s annual property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Turner is not shy about pitching projects he would take on, absent the revenue cap, such as expanding the Houston Police Department by 540 officers by 2020. This plan may take on even more urgency, as HPD has seen a sharp spike in the number of officers filing papers indicating they plan to retire in the first half of 2017.

“We need more police officers. We need more equipment. We need more EMS units. We need more training,” Turner said in September, after a southwest Houston shooting wounded nine. “You can’t keep lowering the property tax rate because of this revenue cap and expect the city to be fully equipped with all of the assets that are needed.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one person on Team Turner who is grinding their teeth at the “back to basics” usage, since that was very much not Turner’s campaign slogan. Be that as it may, the general formulation is correct. Turner spent a lot of time this year working on a pension deal, and what he does next is tied to his success at getting the necessary legislation passed to implement that deal. And if he is successful, then the rest of 2017 will largely be focused on amending the revenue cap. If he can get both of those things done, then the sky is the limit and anything he wants to do is on the table. If not, it isn’t fatal, but it does leave him stuck. How much time can he spend on other things if he still needs to work on getting these things done? I’m sure he’d rather not have to find out.

How likely is Turner to get the pension legislation through? I have no idea, but if there’s anyone in a position to do it, it’s Turner. This is one of those times when experience really matters. No guarantees, because the Lege doesn’t work that way, but if anyone knows how to navigate these waters, it’s Turner. I should note that the pension bills aren’t the only thing on the city’s legislative wish list for 2017. Most of the specific items are pretty narrow and wonky, but the overriding principles laid out in the first few pages will keep the lobbying team busy, primarily I fear on defense. But if you want to know what the city does and doesn’t want from Austin next year, there’s your reference guide.

One more thing:

[Bill] King, last year’s mayoral runner-up, said he is considering challenging Turner, depending on his health and how pension reform plays out.

“If he ends up not solving the pension problem – which he promised he would do – then I think somebody needs to step in and save the city from going bankrupt,” King said.

King, who would like to see Houston switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans similar to 401(k)s, has gotten under the skin of Turner and his staff by sending regular email blasts criticizing the city, including on inauguration day, and holding occasional press conferences.

“The campaign is over, and the total focus should be on meeting the needs of all Houstonians in their moment of crisis,” the mayor tweeted in April, after King criticized the city’s flood response.

I get those emails, too. You can probably guess what my level of interest in them is. King is certainly able to be the next Ben Hall if he wants to – he’s got the money for it, and apparently the lack of anything better to do. The question is, what has Turner done so far to lose anyone’s support? Based on how things have gone so far, I’d say not much. But hey, keep hope alive.

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12 Responses to Year Two for Mayor Turner

  1. Neither Here Nor There says:

    The fact that he will work on removing the tax cap is an excellent idea.

    I pay 42 cents per $100 value to Harris County.

    I pay 59 cents per $100 value to the City of Houston.

    I don’t get anything in return from Harris County except toll roads.

    There is something wrong with that picture, our infrastructure is supported by our City tax while the County does not do anything for us. We get police, fire, street repairs, garbage collection, libraries, neighborhood protection, etc from the City.

    If the people that want taxes reduced cared about the city they would ask the County to lower their taxes in half with the difference going to the City. Why should I pay county taxes when I don’t get anything back in return.

  2. Steve Houston says:

    Neither, I help friends do their taxes each year and inevitably, those from the city ask those same questions. Conversely, mutual friends in the county ask those of us living in the city how can we stand the “high taxes” of the city, trying to get us to move outside the city limits. I took a few hours one time and broke down the costs of moving. Guess what the results were?

    After you pay for garbage, HOA, MUD taxes, contract police, street lights, and “volunteer” fire service among other things, every single one of us would be paying more to live in the county than in the city. In deference to those in the county, the county taxes pay for items we all use and are statutorily the responsibility of the county such as the county courts, the jail, and other county departments but yes, city residents subsidize county endeavors used primarily by those living outside the city (technically “cities” since those in Bellaire, Pearland, and other cities also subsidize county operations). But try to tell that to some of the hardcore GOP types wanting to financially strangle Houston while avoiding the reality that they pay more…lol.

  3. Neither Here Nor There says:

    Steve it is worse than that, as a senior citizen I get that over 65 benefit, the MUD owners don’t get that benefit. I recently found out from a friend of mind that lives in the county unincorporated area.

  4. Joshua ben bullard says:

    I was at the rockets game last night and observed about 1000 people needing to dispatch a uber car that was sitting in front of them at the stadium ,each of the 1000 having to first pay 30% extra to one man before they could board,about 200 Houstonians looked like they are starting to realize they are getting scammed ,and I help them to realize its Mayor Turner that’s behind it.the fact that Turner still forces the entire city to pay 2 private citizens an extra 30% and wait 15 minutes extra every time they hire a uber or taxi is stupidity in its absolute form,he’s a year in his term and no citizen of Houston is legally allowed to hire a uber driver or taxi driver direct ,that’s crazy.a lot of Houstonians are still waiting for Sylvesterturner to ” move Houston forward “….

  5. Nothing really grabbed my attention for 2016.

    Everything he is doing should be expected from city council.

    Maybe city voters could stop electing 16 morons, that are too lazy to put policy ideas on a website, to city hall.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Neither, yes and those in the county still get to pay for all those other services mentioned when they turn 65 despite both the city and county bending over backwards to increase the exemption for them, the most prolific of voters. But to hear some tell it, they “showed the city” by moving in a classic example of cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. Those that aren’t retired also get the benefit of Houston’s infamous commutes, hundreds of hours a year, thousands in gas and auto maintenance, and just as many of the problems they thought they were avoiding by moving. lol

    Joshua and Joe, if your sole metric for doing a great job is, respectively, changing longstanding ride for hire ordinances or cut & pasting policy ideas to a personal website, you are setting the bar too low. In the first case, it’s curious how Josh never managed to blame Turner’s predecessors who wrote the existing ordinances he hates and in the second case, voters just don’t care.

  7. paul a kubosh says:


    I am pretty sure Joshua did complain. Maybe my memory is getting shot but I think he has done a lot of complaining. The problem is no one is listening to our little posts.

  8. Steve Houston says:

    PK, correct me if I’m wrong but he’s a paid advocate for Uber and they only started in Houston in 2014, yes? While he used to complain about other things, he did not do so nearly as repetitively or as focused, and I just don’t recall him fussing about cab ordinances until he personally profited from it.

    But I know at least some local politicians read Kuff, I’ve seen the link on their computer screen in some cases and discussed specific topics with others in relation to comments here. Further, I know you have held sway personally even before your brother was elected, though they don’t always listen.

  9. Steve,

    Let me know when the 4 lawyers on city council put policy ideas on a website.

    Other than that i can’t set the bar any lower until it gets to laziness.

    Plan houston is/was a joke.

  10. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, many would say that using cut & paste as freely as you do constitutes laziness, your lack of original and self generated ideas hardly different from those you vilify. As part time politicians in a city government set up to give virtually all the power to initiate actions to the mayor, what good would it do council to likewise steal the ideas of others while knowing few care either way?

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