With one major accomplishment (basically) finished, Mayor Turner moves on to the next major challenge facing him.
“This is the most consequential campaign of the mayor’s career,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “These things are more complicated and more politically fraught than either his mayoral campaign or the lobbying to get the pension bill passed to begin with, and those were both complicated.”
Turner has made his own climb steeper by pledging to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.
Turner thanked city employees for shouldering $2.8 billion in cuts to their retirement benefits, and said it is now time for all Houstonians to join in sacrificing for the good of the city. The revenue cap, Turner said, hurts the city’s credit rating and hamstrings its ability to provide sufficient services and compete on a global scale.
Many conservatives don’t see it that way, arguing that the cap protects taxpayers and gives the city an incentive to operate more efficiently.
The Harris County Republican Party plans to campaign against Turner’s repeal effort, and is expected to have company.
Voters approved the revenue cap in 2004, limiting the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. Voters tweaked the rule in 2006, allowing the city to raise an additional $90 million for public safety spending.
Houston exhausted that breathing room in 2014, and, with property values still on the rise, has had to trim back its tax rate each fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than allowed.
Despite the cap’s complexity, conservative political strategist Denis Calabrese said he doubts there will be a shortage of voter education on the issue.
“Voters will come into that election very well informed and knowledgeable and they’ll be able to express their opinion,” he said. “The predisposition going into this is that voters don’t support the repeal of the cap, and we’ll see if that changes as a result of the education efforts on both sides.”
You know that I support repealing the cap. The question is how to sell that idea. I agree that the predisposition is likely to be to keep it, though I’d argue that most people know very little about the cap. I’d approach this primarily as a plea from Mayor Turner, as part of his overall plan to get the city’s finances in order. Have him say something like “I promised you I’d get a bill passed in the Legislature to rein in pension costs, and I did that. But the work isn’t done just yet, and I need your help to finish the job. The revenue cap limits Houston’s economic growth and lowers our city’s credit rating. To really get our finances in order, we need to repeal it.” You get the idea. Basically, the Mayor has as much credibility with the voters right now as he’ll likely ever have. That’s a huge asset, and he should leverage it.
Alternately, if the local GOP is going to oppose repealing the cap, then one might keep in mind that the city is much more Democratic than it is Republican, so if this becomes a partisan fight then the Mayor has a larger pool of voters available to him. There are also a lot of potential villains to demonize in such a campaign, from the President on down. This would almost certainly be the kind of low-information, high-heat campaign that makes newspaper columnists wring their hands about civility and discourse, but it would get people to the polls. I’d take my chances with it.
One more thing:
Meanwhile, the City Secretary is reviewing a petition that calls for a vote on giving 401(k)-style retirement plans to all city workers hired after the start of next year, which employees view as insufficient.
Conservative activist Windi Grimes, an organizer of the effort, however, said her group thinks sufficient fiscal safeguards were added to the pension bill passed in Austin, and will not mount a campaign behind the petition.
See here for the background. Is there a provision to allow for submitted petitions to be withdrawn? That would be the better option if the proponents of that idea are no longer interested in advocating for it.