Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Bonds on the ballot

Mayor Turner has one more item to deal with this November.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is poised ask voters to approve bonds this fall to fund improvements to city parks, community centers, fire stations and health clinics, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to a crowded November ballot.

The proposed five-year capital improvement plan, unveiled at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, calls for $6.7 billion in airport and utility projects, to be funded by user fees, as well as $538 million in improvements such as expanded police and fire stations, renovated libraries, miles of bike trails and repairs to city buildings to paid for with taxes or philanthropic gifts.

The plan relies on a November 2017 bond vote as one of its key funding sources, with about $190 million worth of projects in the five-year plan contingent on approval of new debt.

Houston’s last bond vote was in 2012, and the city’s capital spending is expected to quickly exhaust the debt voters authorized then.

“It’s not a question of going to voters with debt. We will be going to the voters with an investment proposal, a package of community improvements that are important to delivering the kind of services Houstonians expect and deserve,” Turner said. “Those improvements, whether they are police or fire stations, libraries or community centers or parks, make our city a better place for all of us to live.”

City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday the size of the bond package has not been determined, but Houston typically seeks enough leeway to last a bit beyond any one five-year capital plan.


The mayor has pledged 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’s landmark pension reform bill, which takes effect Saturday, also requires voters to approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. Should voters reject it, those groups’ substantial benefit cuts could be rescinded, hiking the city’s costs overnight.

Adding a general bond issue to the ballot alongside the pension bonds and what amounts to a tax hike is risky, said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political scientist professor.

“The more measures you put on the ballot, the more confusing it becomes for voters and I think the more attention is taken away from selling the one item that absolutely must pass, and that’s the pension obligation bonds,” Aiyer said. “It would make a whole lot more sense to make the pension obligation bonds a standalone and push some of these other items off.”

First of all, “what amounts to a tax hike”? Leave the spin out, please. Four of the five bond issues in 2012, which totaled $410 million, passed with at least 62% of the vote; the fifth drew 55%. That was a very high turnout context – there were over 400K votes cast for each item – while this year will not be. Even if the Supreme Court intervenes and puts city elections on the ballot, far fewer people will vote this year. Still, bond issues usually pass. Especially if there aren’t city elections, all of these issues will come down to how successful the Mayor and his team are at getting the voters they need to come out and support him.

I would push back on the notion, as expressed by the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott, that having these bond issues makes the November ballot “ugly”. We are basically talking three items – revenue cap change, pension obligation bonds, and these bonds, though they will likely be split into multiple smaller items – in an election where there may be no city candidates on anyone’s ballot. Remember, there will be no Metro vote or Astrodome vote – what we have now is all we’re likely to get. Frankly, unless the Supreme Court sticks its nose in and orders city elections this fall, the number of votes people will be asked to cast will likely be smaller than what it usually is in an odd-numbered year. In addition, only the revenue cap vote is one that will be in any way complex – we have bond issues all the time, people understand them, and the pension obligation bonds are just a special case of that. Ugly to me will be having a bunch of campaigns put together on short notice and sprinting towards the finish line with far less time to do the sort of retail-politics outreach that most city candidates get to do. YMMV, but if what we have now is what we end up with, I’ll consider it a relaxing stroll. Campos has more.

Related Posts:


  1. Bill Daniels says:

    “Tax hike” isn’t spin, it’s just fact. There is no bond fairy that leaves bond payments under the pillow. That money comes from somewhere. User fees for airport expansion? OK, that’s a very fair tax, on people who use the airports, but still, a tax. For the other stuff? Tax hike on property owners.

    Sylvester says, maybe they will be paid for with “philanthropic gifts.” Uh, OK, why not get the gift first, then spend the money, vs. spend money, then hope against hope that some evil rich guy writes a check.

    I agreed with the pension bond, even though it seems the firefighters are having second thoughts. Stacking all these other tax increases on top of that?

    I’m hearing Molly Hatchet here………Flirtin’ with Disaster.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    Bill–you are correct, and this is why an income tax is better, because then the people who have paid off their homes won’t be priced out of them by high taxes. If you don’t want to pay the income tax, just earn less money. I am all for having a very very high tax on people who use the airports. Air travel leaves an enormous carbon footprint and all of the people who use it need to pay for the environmental damage. We need to encourage people to drive their cars, which are far less damaging.

  3. Bill Daniels says:


    OK, I laughed out loud! I wasn’t even sure I was getting trolled until the airport part.

    Credit where credit is due. 9/10

    Still, one only has to look at Illinois to see what a death spiral of high taxes looks like. Here’s the Illinois comptroller laying out their bleak future:

  4. Steve Houston says:

    Bill: “I agreed with the pension bond, even though it seems the firefighters are having second thoughts.”

    Bill, just so we’re on the same page here, HFD’s pension board is suing the city for the cuts made and no matter what the outcome of the pension bond election, their cuts remain in place. They get no proceeds from that bond and if the bond fails, all the employee concessions from the municipal workers and police disappear. The costs of those two pensions will then increase again for the next two years which means there will be even less money available for raises at HFD, their union already suing the city because they want more than the city offered. HFD’s pension board agreed to most of the cuts made but drew a hard line moving past that so “second thoughts” doesn’t really capture the spirit of their disagreement right now.

    Jason, there is a growing body of data that proves driving, especially in real world conditions, leaves a larger carbon footprint than flying. “One of the few researchers trying to make a straight, consistent comparison across the U.S transportation sector is Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. In working papers released over the past two years, Sivak has attempted to overturn the conventional wisdom: His main recent finding is that the average energy intensity of driving is about twice that of flying, a conclusion based on the current average on-road fuel economy of cars, pick-up trucks, SUVs, and vans (21.6 mpg).” (“Fly or drive? Parsing the evolving climate math” on Yale’s Climate Connections). A great many cars get much less mileage than that and are often driven without passengers while airlines typically run at or near capacity (in some cases that come to mind, they are booked over capacity which causes other issues if you believe recent headlines…lol). Regardless, you are as likely to see an income tax in Texas within the next ten years as you are to hear all the bail bondsmen in Harris County admit they are wrong about reform.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Looks like Houston is going to need all that extra bond money just to keep the lights on, since they will soon be losing out on federal grant money, thanks to the House passage of the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act and Kate’s Law.

  6. It just blows my mind that people talk about Carbon Footprints. Its like talking about the man in the moon. Who cares?

  7. Steven, bail bondsmen….trying to pick a fight? Gloat all you want free bonds for everyone. No responsibility. You guys are real brave why not go after the Judges who are putting the hurt on people? Can’t do it. All talk no action. Here is a link for you:

    You will never here the Progressives give Kudo’s to Mike for calling this one out.

    All you people talk a big game but when its time to put your money where your mouth is all I here is cricketts.

  8. Ross says:

    @Paul, that’s been how the stupid pieces of crap we have for some judges in this County have Operated for years. It’s all part of the “efficiently tough on crime” image they like to project. I’m not sure how denying appointed counsel makes you tough on crime, other than the conviction rates go up due to plea deals. I suppose the judges think that the family should have hired an attorney with the bail money instead of paying the bail.

    Here’s a good piece on the topic, from a progressive source,

  9. Hey Ross,

    My brother charged him $800 dollars on an $80,000 bond. You and your progressives jump to conclusions again. It is what I expect from a Progressive. Lets see how many White Progressives will be there Thursday to protest this crap? Let me make an early prediction. None.

  10. Ross says:

    @Paul, what conclusions did I jump to on the bail side? I was speaking in general about Harris County processes where making bail causes judges to think you aren’t indigent, when you really are, not the specific case. Kudos to your brother for what he did, shame on the judge for being a jerk.

    I’m not as progressive as you might think, but I read a number of progressive sites, mainly because they are better written than the conservative sites that can’t make a cogent argument and mostly devolve into whining or screaming. I would prefer to read well written pieces I disagree with than crap that aligns with my views.

  11. “I would prefer to read well written pieces I disagree with than crap that aligns with my views.”

    Well I agree with you there. Its probably the main reason I come here almost everyday.

  12. Steve Houston says:

    PK, I was merely using it as an example everyone here can identify with since it’s been a hot topic of late. Even though I don’t agree with you on major parts of the topic, you may have noticed I always suggest including you and your brother in the discussion for the expertise you bring to the table. And you’re correct about the judges because no matter what political party a judge is affiliated with, most were not willing to apply sensible reform lest some manipulative propaganda artist start a Willie Horton campaign against said judge. Oh wait… 😉

    As far as carbon footprints, a lot of people recognize the need to do better when it comes to environmental issues. The trouble is, many of those who believe in the ideas behind it don’t keep up on the peer reviewed studies that sometimes show accepted truths are not very accurate, or at very least there is plenty of room for debate.

    On that felony robbery case, hasn’t it been a longstanding practice by local courts that if a defendant made bond, he would then be proclaimed as not indigent by the court? While that is just more proof to me how bail reform is needed in the county, if all the parties knew it to be so, it sounds like Mike didn’t do the guy any favors by giving him a sweetheart deal of 1%. But lumping all reformists under a single banner and then labeling them all as “progressive” seems a bit curious too. Harris County is still led by the GOP and they could have built more jails to accommodate all the prisoners such bail policies require, of course that might cost a few dollars per voter, gasp!!!, and the tea party enthusiasts would be up in arms.

    But seriously, one can be conservative and point out various flaws with the old system just as easily as one can be some liberal snowflake. Automatically setting bail for someone based solely on the allegation, without any regard to any consideration for the individual circumstances doesn’t seem very conservative to me. Sure, there’ll always be crazies that think someone with dozens of previous charges on their record who still owes thousands in back fines and doesn’t have a job should be given a PR bond on assaulting a state trooper charge but realistically, in many first time misdemeanor cases a PR bond would be appropriate, at least many more than were given such bonds. Does that mean an increased percentage will not show up, making more work for law enforcement, sure but as a matter of public policy it also makes sense no matter what label you apply.

  13. Ross says:

    @Steve, as far as I can tell, denying court appointed counsel to someone who makes bail in Harris County has been a common policy for decades, even though it’s against the state policy required by law to do so when the defendant is still indigent and bail was made by someone else. I can only conclude that the judges that do that are pieces of shit who care nothing for the law, the Constitution, or justice.

    I looked up one of the plaintiffs in the bail suit. She was originally arrested for failure to identify, and at some point got a PR bond. She failed a drug test (do the courts really expect defendants on the lower end of the socio economic and intelligence scale to quit smoking pot or drinking alcohol?) and her PR was revoked and bond set at $6,000. That’s plainly stupid when the maximum fine for the offense is $2,000, and as afar as I can tell, she never skipped a court date.

  14. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, isn’t the practice of setting bond above the maximum fine amount just another way of compensating for the likelihood of a bonding company offering a smaller amount, a way to punish the person no matter the merits of their case?

  15. Ross says:

    @Steve, absolutely.