On to the revenue cap

With one major accomplishment (basically) finished, Mayor Turner moves on to the next major challenge facing him.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“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.

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14 Responses to On to the revenue cap

  1. neither here nor there says:

    Almost everyone is against paying more taxes, so there is no way to sell via education. What I have noticed is that the “Why is it only Houston” is being used by some City officials. I will go further and claim that the Republicans are only interested in hurting cities that are run by Democrats, why haven’t they made that an issue with the county? That is the soft version.

  2. if harvard lawyers, like edwards, are too lazy to put any real ideas on a website.

    why would we expect city residents to understand basic public finance?

    how dumb can the 4th largest city be?

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, it could easily be argued that Harvard lawyers are too smart to put specifics onto a website. Otherwise, “basic public finance” is easy to understand: Everything government does costs money. That money comes from taxes, fees/fines, and grants. If residents want the kinds of services the city provides, they should be prepared to pay for them. As long as more money comes in than is spent, finances are fine. As long as more is spent than comes in, finances are in trouble.

    Traditionally, using the government as the middleman for any form of service means the money is likely to be spent inefficiently, the trick to making things work is to keep that inefficiency cost less than the required profit a private enterprise would need to compete. Otherwise, there is some iron in NHNT’s words, none of the usual characters ever seem interested in reigning in county spending while making the big cities their whipping posts.

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  5. Steve,

    Let’s be honest, Amanda Edwards isn’t too bright and neither is her city council staff. Anyone with half a brain would compare her interviews and see they regurgitates the same bubble gum. The only reason she’s on city council is because no one wanted to see roy morales on city council.

    I’ve reached out to the FF union about an endorsement for county commissioner.

    Quite frankly, I’m tired of ‘babysitting’ mba’s and lawyers on county court and city council with ideas i googled.

  6. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, and that is one of the points you seem to always miss. These positions are not designed to be filled by the best and brightest, never have been, and never will be. The elitist idea that the elected crew are supposed to be Ivy League graduates with impeccable resumes or policy wonks light years ahead of the public is not supported by historical example, those in charge of steering the ship with regard to policy matters need not be experts in public policy fields. That expertise is supposed to fulfilled by the bureaucracy who figure out ways to make policy goals happen.

    You always harp on officials having websites full of ideas they took from other places as though that would make those ideas any more palatable to the public. All such websites do is give opponents to those ideas a head’s up on where to attack anything they don’t want, typically ideas that cut into their largess. As far as the HFD endorsement, given the sour grapes they have displayed over recent events, that might be a toxic endorsement, self identifying HFD and supporters using social media to throw temper tantrums full of anti gay, anti democrat, anti republican, and anti taxpayer sentiments.

    And I ask again exactly what ideas you have presented to Commissioner’s Court and City Council that they ran with. I liked a few ideas you Googled for your website myself but many of the others forget to account that neither organization pays enough to get better expertise than the private sector provides. I could appoint Paul Kubosh as head of the city courts for a year and they’d run smooth as silk just as if his brother was in charge of bonding practices for the county, much of the BS some of you wring your hands over would go away overnight.

  7. Ross says:

    i have to wonder why anyone would ask for endorsement from a city employee union for a County position that has no influence on what the City does. I would support a candidate for County commissioner who promises to allocate county resources to those of us in the City who pay the same taxes, but get few services.

  8. Uh… if i have to explain what services the city, county and stare do or do not share.

    we have bigger problems.

    Then again, everything is spelled out on my website

  9. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, it’s my understanding that far more HFD employees live in Harris County’s unincorporated territory than in the city limits. There still aren’t enough to make a difference in votes, even if you include their extended families, but a guy like Joe can’t be too picky given his approach to campaigning.

  10. Roughly 10% of city voters voted for an unemployed gringo that… built his own website, didn’t accept any money, published dozens of ideas and corrected 11 of 13 mayoral candidates.

    not too shabby

  11. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, the flip side of that is that over 90% of the people didn’t vote for you; relying on protest votes generally doesn’t get you very far. I know it goes back a few years but you did not do much better running for council than the infamous goofball James Partsch Galvan, both of you getting closer to 5% of the vote while spending virtually nothing, both using the Green Party brand as a means of garnering votes.

    Publishing other people’s ideas or correcting political candidates is nothing special either, but if getting 11k votes in a city with 2.3 million residents is a major accomplishment for you, perhaps you should set the bar a tad higher. On a related note, you often comment about being unemployed or moving from one job to the next as though you have an aversion to steady employment. What’s up with that buddy? 😉

  12. City council was non partisan

    i only ran as a green for state rep because registration was free.

    Looks like Cohen and Edwards continually set the bar pretty low.

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