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A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

It’s really hard out there on the restaurants

I feel for them, but none of this is unsurprising.

Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.

Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.

“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.

Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.

I wish there were a better answer. What should happen is another round of stimulus money from Congress – the original PPP idea was fine, if incredibly clunky at first – because we really can’t just reopen everything and hope for a return to normalcy. The virus is still out there, and we’re not doing nearly enough about it. At least we will have some new face mask orders, which should help a bit. Restaurants are a huge piece of our economy, with a ton of jobs at stake, and we’re not doing nearly enough to help them through this crisis. I don’t know what else to say.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.

How low can sales tax collections go?

If we’re lucky, no lower than this.

Texas collected about $2.6 billion in state sales tax revenue in May, leading to the steepest year-over-year decline in over a decade, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday.

The amount is 13.2% less than the roughly $3 billion the state collected in the same month last year.

A majority of the revenue collected last month was from purchases made in April and reflect the state’s first full-month look at how the novel coronavirus impacted businesses. That is when Texans lived under a statewide stay-at-home order and Gov. Greg Abbott, like leaders across the globe, ordered businesses across several sectors to close to combat the spread of the virus.

“Significant declines in sales tax receipts were evident in all major economic sectors, with the exception of telecommunications services,” Hegar said in a news release. “The steepest decline was in collections from oil and gas mining, as energy companies cut well drilling and completion spending following the crash in oil prices.”

[…]

Monday’s numbers are also reflective of the lag in data as revenues are collected and then reported by the state. Last month, for example, Hegar announced that the sales tax revenue collections for purchases in March dropped roughly 9% — which at the time was the steepest decline since January 2010.

Other major tax collections were also down in May, Hegar said Monday. Motor fuel taxes, for example, were down 30% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop since 1989. And the hotel occupancy tax was down 86% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop on record in data since 1982.

See here for the background. The presentation here is a little confusing, so let me clarify by quoting from the Chron:

Though the revenue totals are for May, they mostly represent transactions in April, when a statewide lockdown was in place to slow the spread of the virus. March sales were down 9.3 percent, state records show.

OK, so basically retail and other activity that leads to sales tax collection was down 13.4% in April after being down 9.3% in March. March was when the shutdowns began, though people had already slowed their activity before the official orders started happening later in the month. Pretty much all of April was in lockdown, while May is when things have begun to reopen. The hope would be that while May will be down compared to last year, it will be a lesser drop from 2019 than April and March were. That’s the hope, anyway. Maybe motor fuel taxes will inch up somewhat, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on hotel occupancy taxes. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

Patrick’s megadonor task force tells him what he wanted to hear

Knock me over with a bag full of unmarked bills.

Local governments could find their emergency powers hemmed in during future emergencies under recommendations proposed by a task force that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick set up.

State government needs an off-switch to end local disaster declarations if necessary and clarify what steps mayors, counties and school boards can take during an emergency, says the Texans Back to Work Task Force in its 114-page report.

“The recent shutdown showed how the principles of representative government can be thwarted when mayors and county judges have too much power in making unilateral decisions without the agreement of the rest of the executive body,” the report says.

The report comes as public pushback against emergency orders is increasing at all levels of government, particularly from conservatives.

[…]

“Obviously we’re not calling for a one-size-fits-all,” said Task Force Chairman Brint Ryan, founder and CEO of Ryan, LLC. “But if there was a framework, you know a conceptual framework or guidelines in place, then you could achieve that local control and local initiative without confusing businesses that have to operate in more than one locale.”

Patrick echoed that concern, saying “we can’t have this patchwork” where even cities in the same county can have different rules.

See here for the background. Just a reminder, there was a time when Greg Abbott thought it was just peachy keen for local officials to make their own decisions about stay at home orders, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.” Funny how these things work, isn’t it? Also as a reminder, those whiny conservatives are in the minority of public opinion. But Dan Patrick’s gonna Dan Patrick, and he chooses his megadonors wisely. We could have had this report the same day he named his task force, it’s not like they were going to come to any other conclusion.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Chip Roy would also like you to die for the economy

Truly, I struggle to understand this kind of thinking.

Rep. Chip Roy

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a firebrand freshman Republican, on Wednesday called for a return to economic normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to secure an “overall net positive outcome” for Americans.

“The goal here is for the least amount of human harm, right?” the Austin conservative said in a Wednesday interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. “And so the virus is one piece of a much larger puzzle. So should we reopen our society? I believe yes.”

“I think it is important for us to engage as human beings together, to worship together, to work together. Can we do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable?…It’s important that we do that, and we can do that.”

Roy argued that the American economy cannot freeze for the months or years it will take for scientists to develop a vaccine.

“We need immune systems that are strong. We need immunity systems that can fight this,” he said. “We need herd immunity. So we have to work through this together to get re-engaged so we can build that up.”

When pressed over whether the herd immunity concept will lead to unnecessary deaths, Roy countered that the nationwide lockdown and its subsequent delays in cancer screenings, addiction treatment and mental health ramifications from unemployment have added to indirect death and suffering.

Just so we’re all on the same page here, the “herd immunity” strategy only works if something like 60% of the population becomes infected. Remember those very early projections of one to two million deaths if we did nothing and just let the virus run its course? That’s based on 150 to 200 million people getting COVID-19, and a one percent death rate. Are one to two million dead people an acceptable price to pay? I wish that question had been posed more directly.

Please note, that’s one to two million deaths from coronavirus, and that’s assuming it burns out after infecting 60% of the population – there isn’t anything magical to stop it from getting to, say 80% of the population, which adjusts the death toll up to about three million. That also doesn’t take into account deaths from heart attacks and strokes and falling down the stairs and whatnot that couldn’t be treated because the hospitals are completely overwhelmed from COVID-19 cases. Remember when we were concerned about that? Back before we all agreed that “flattening the curve” was for the collective good? Boy, those were the days.

But let’s say we get lucky and manage to limit ourselves to “just” one million deaths. It turns out that a significant number of COVID-19 patients experience serious and lasting health effects from the disease, and may need lifelong health care as a result. So maybe add in another five to ten million people with permanent health conditions, some of which will be disabling, some of which will be very expensive to treat. Are we approaching a price point that is too high yet?

I mean, it sure seems to me that all that death and destruction would also be bad for the economy, and that’s before we mention the effects of a society where anyone can just get infected at any time. I’m sure the places in America that rely heavily on tourists and foreign travelers will be happy with this. “Come visit Disneyland! You probably won’t get COVID-19 and die, but even if you do, YOLO!” I can’t decide if Chip Roy hasn’t fully thought this through, or if he has and he’s decided it’s still better to let pestilence win.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: We don’t know yet that getting COVID-19 means that you’ll be immune to it afterwards. You may be immune to it for awhile, but maybe not for all that long. What would be worse than getting COVID-19? Getting it a second time. That’s gotta suck.

So yeah. Even when you factor out the utter depraved sociopathy, it’s still a bad idea. Don’t you wish now that Donald Trump had been pushing full-tilt for universal testing and contact tracing? In his defense, he had a lot going on. Maybe next pandemic, if he’s not too busy. In the meantime, support Wendy Davis for Congress in CD21. She would prefer not to let millions of people die.

Down go the sales tax receipts

It’s bad. Expected, but bad.

Texas collected $2.58 billion in state sales tax revenue in April — a roughly 9% drop from what the state collected the same month last year, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Friday. That drop, from $2.8 to $2.58 billion, marked the steepest decline since January 2010, Hegar said.

April’s revenue, which the state collected from purchases made in March, is among the first official glimpses at the dramatic blows state and local budgets will take from widespread social distancing measures first taken last month to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. And Hegar warned that the state’s largest single source of funding will continue to “show steeper declines” in the coming months compared with a year ago as the economy continues what will likely be a slow crawl out of a weekslong virtual shutdown due to the pandemic.

“The steepest declines in tax remittances were from businesses most quickly and dramatically affected by social distancing,” Hegar said in a statement. “However, those losses were, to a degree, offset by increases from big-box retailers, grocery stores and online vendors. Remittances from oil and gas-related sectors also fell significantly as oil and gas exploration and production companies slashed capital spending in response to the crash in oil price.”

Hegar’s been sounding the alarm for awhile, it was just a matter of what the exact number was. If we’re lucky, April will be no worse. Whether things get better in May and beyond, which is the intent of the reopening scheme, won’t be known for a couple of months. How the population as a whole acts, and whether or not the virus comes roaring back, will be the keys to that.

How partisan is concern about coronavirus?

On the one hand:

Texas’ economy is taking a catastrophic hit — and hundreds of thousands of Texans are out of work — as officials shutter businesses and limit some establishment’s operations to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. But while Texans’ optimism about the state’s economy has fallen, they largely support those measures, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Two-thirds of registered Texas voters agree with decisions by Gov. Greg Abbott and several local officials to suspend nonessential business operations. And more than three-quarters of voters support orders to stay home except for essential activities. The poll’s findings come as Abbott says he will soon announce plans to reopen a wide range of Texas businesses.

Some hardline Republicans have pressured Abbott, who has taken a middle-ground approach in responding to the global health crisis, to relax his statewide stay-at-home order. And Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has suggested that saving the economy was more important than responding to the coronavirus. But after first making that suggestion last month, Patrick has experienced an uptick of disapproval among two groups: registered voters over 65 and independents. The poll was conducted before Patrick went on national television this week and said “there are more important things than living” as he advocated for reopening the economy.

“To the extent that some people are saying Republicans are beating down the doors of their houses… there is no evidence of that in this poll,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. “There’s not evidence of resisting serious measures.”

On the other hand:

Texas voters are concerned about the coronavirus and believe it presents a serious crisis, and they are deeply worried about the economy, unemployment and the health care system. But they also think the disease could be contained enough to return daily life to normal within a few months, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The coronavirus pandemic is a serious crisis, according to 66% of registered Texas voters, while 26% say it’s “a serious problem but not a crisis.” Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call it a crisis: 91% said so, compared with 48% of Republicans. And urban voters (75%) were more likely to call it a crisis than suburban voters (66%) or rural voters (54%). While 81% of black voters say the pandemic is a serious crisis, only 66% of Hispanic and 65% of white voters agreed.

“Partisans are relying on different sources of information,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re hearing something different. It’s not that Republicans don’t think it’s a crisis. It’s that they don’t think the Democrats are getting good information.”

A majority of voters (54%) are “extremely” or “very” concerned that the coronavirus will spread in their communities. Again, the poll found differences: The level of concern is higher among Democrats than Republicans, urban voters over suburban and rural voters, and black and Hispanic Texans over white voters.

Large majorities are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national and state economies, unemployment and the health care system. At the same time, 43% say they’re satisfied with the health care system, while 52% are not.

The economic concerns erase party lines: 72% of Texas voters are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national economy, and 67% say the same about the state economy. Worry over unemployment — 75% say it’s a top concern — is also amplified. Democrats (83%) were a bit more likely than Republicans (71%) to express deep concern, but the issue is clearly on the minds of a substantial majority of Texas voters.

“These attitudes are, to some extent, evidence that social distancing has worked,” Blank said. “People are more concerned about the economy. You might have no chance of getting the virus because you’re not leaving your house, but you could still lose your job. That affects more people directly than the coronavirus does.”

I don’t know what to make of that. To be honest, there may not be that much to make of it – it may just be a matter of question wording, or emphasis. It’s still the case that 72% of Republicans are at least “somewhat” concerned about coronavirus spreading in their community. It should be higher, but it’s a solid majority. And any time there’s an uptick in disapproval for Dan Patrick, things can’t all be bad. Let’s make sure we’re saving all that video for the 2022 campaign, please.

Greg Abbott’s grand plan is coming

Ready or not (spoiler alert: not ready).

Gov. Greg Abbott could make an announcement as soon as Friday about reopening a wide range of Texas businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, including restaurants, hair salons and retail outlets.

During a series of radio interviews Wednesday, Abbott gave the most details yet about the highly anticipated announcement, which he has been previewing since he announced preliminary steps to reopen the economy last week. He initially advertised the next wave of steps as scheduled for Monday but made clear in some of the interviews that they could now come sooner.

Abbott stressed in the interviews that he is seeking approval from medical advisers on the business reopenings and that they will reopen under new standards to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also suggested his announcement’s implementation could vary by county, depending on how prevalent the virus is in each place.

“We’re gonna be making an announcement opening so many different types of businesses, where you’re gonna be able to go to a hair salon, you’re gonna be able to go to any type of retail establishment you want to go to, different things like that, with a structure in place that will ensure that we slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, adding that businesses won’t be “fully opened, but … will be opened in strategic ways, in ways that are approved by doctors to make sure we contain the coronavirus.”

[…]

Currently, Texans can patronize restaurants through takeout or delivery. Starting Friday, retailers will be able to deliver items to customers’ cars or homes under the “retail-to-go” model that Abbott recently announced. Abbott’s comments Wednesday seemed to suggest that Texans would soon be able to go inside those establishments, though they would still be required to follow unspecified standards to keep the virus at bay.

Abbott’s comments came five days after he announced his initial measures to restart the economy, naming a task force, reopening state parks, relaxing restrictions on medial surgeries and allowing “retail-to-go.”

See here for the background. Who knows what this means, and who knows what medical advisers he’s listening to. I mean, Lord knows I need a haircut, but last time I had one it was given by someone who was not six feet away from me. The word that first comes to mind in reading this is “half-baked”.

And let’s be honest about something here. Abbott could order all restrictions lifted tomorrow if he wanted, but the economy isn’t going to “reopen” until everyone feels comfortable going out in public and doing all the things we used to do before everything was shut down. And right now, all the evidence we have says most people are not going to do that. Would you go to a sit-down restaurant tomorrow? A movie theater? A gym? The Galleria? Is your office set to reopen? Mine isn’t, at least for the next week. Most of us have still done grocery shopping and things like that, but we have all greatly minimized our social interactions, to the extent that our jobs allow. What exactly do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and all of the cheerleaders for reopening the economy think is going to happen? And what happens if the curve that everyone hopes is peaking starts to climb upwards again? The Chron has more.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.

So this is reopening

There’s not much to this, is there?

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to reopen the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, including those that in the next week will loosen surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allow all retail stores to provide product pickups and reopen state parks.

Abbott also named a “statewide strike force” devoted to getting the economy going again. Austin banker James Huffines will chair the task force, while veteran lobbyist Mike Toomey will lead its staff. The group will oversee what Abbott described as a phased reopening, starting Friday with additional announcements set for April 27 and sometime in May.

At the same time, Abbott announced all Texas schools will stay closed through the rest of the academic year. He had previously shuttered them until May 4.

Abbott made the announcements during a news conference at the Texas Capitol that he began on a note of optimism.

“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said, noting the number of infections is “beginning to level off” and the death toll, while tragic, has “not come close to the early, dire predictions.”

“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott added.

[…]

Abbott said the task force will include fellow state leaders such as Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as top medical experts including state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The medical advisers will focus on developing a strategy to “comprehensively test and trace COVID-19 that will enable Texas to gradually and safely” begin returning to normal, Abbott said.

The task force will be rounded out by an advisory group of business leaders, Abbott said, naming prominent entrepreneurs including Kendra Scott and Michael Dell.

The first phase came in a series of executive orders issued Friday. One order allows for product pickup at retail stores — what Abbott described as “retail-to-go” — that will begin April 24. Outlets will be allowed to bring orders straight to customers’ cars in a manner similar to how many restaurants are currently offering curbside pickup.

Another order, which goes into effect 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, will allow a limited amount of nonessential surgeries at hospitals, as long as those surgeries don’t deplete the hospitals’ supplies of personal protective equipment and allow the facilities to keep at least 25% of their capacity available for the treatment of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

A third order will allow state parks to open Monday. Visitors to parks will be required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from people outside their households.

Additional openings will be announced April 27 “after further input from medical staff,” Abbott said.

See here for the background, and here for the very manly-man-named Strike Force. Just so we’re clear, “beginning to level off” means we’re still not yet at the peak, which is to say the curve of new cases and deaths is still increasing. Go read that previous post about the curve maybe starting to flatten in Houston. “Near the peak” is not where you want to be.

There’s also no actual plan for expanded testing, which is a bare minimum for easing the restrictions. We are not testing more people in Texas. We don’t even really have the funding to test more people. Who are your medical advisors, and what is their advice for getting true comprehensive testing off the ground?

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott decided that it was better to let Mayors and County Judges lead the way on stay-at-home restrictions? Well, local leaders are nowhere to be found on the Strike Force.

What happens if the Strike Force and Dan Patrick’s Secret Megadonor Team disagree? Do they fight it out?

What if Greg Abbott reopened the economy and no one came, because they’re more worried about ramping down social distancing too quickly than they are about being able to go out in public like they used to? I can tell you that the latest word from the large multinational corporation that I work for is that they expect us all to still be working from home into May. I won’t be surprised if a lot of similar businesses are thinking along the same lines.

You get the idea. We all want to return to normal. We all want businesses to open again. But we all also want to not get sick and maybe die. I don’t think we’re ready for the returning to normal and opening things up part yet. The Chron, the Texas Signal, the Press, the Observer, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: What RG Ratcliffe says:

The problem is not so much that Abbott has named an advisory committee but that he has again found a way to deflect responsibility before taking action. Just as he let mayors and county judges do the hard work of shutting the state down to stop the spread of COVID-19, he is now hoping the strike force will help him balance competing demands for fighting the virus and getting Texans back to work. Abbott put his toe into the water on Friday, but put off big decisions until April 27, saying he wanted to be guided by data, doctors, and the advice of his strike force.

Such a weak leader.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

Only the megadonors can save us now

Actual headline, from an actual Houston Chronicle story:

Dallas megadonor leads secret team charged with carrying out Dan Patrick’s plan to restart economy

Remember how I said that the story of Steve Stockman and his supporters using the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to butter up Donald Trump for a pardon was the most 2020 story ever? Took less than a week for events to prove me wrong. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

You can read the story if you want, in which you will learn that the people who are closest to and/or have worked for said megadonor, whose name is G. Brint Ryan, think he’s a swell guy who only wants to do good, and that he himself swears he would never use the position of favor and access that he bought for himself fair and square to benefit himself or his businesses. Nope, he’s just there to look out for the little guy, by which he means people who couldn’t afford Dan Patrick’s list price and thus depend on even richer people like him to make sure they don’t get forgotten. Truly, we are blessed to have the likes of G. Brint Ryan in the favorite contacts of our state leaders. As to what he might be doing in secret to restart the economy in a way that won’t kill too many people, well, if he told you that then there wouldn’t be a secret, now would there? Just cool your jets and let the magic of the patronage system do its work, OK?

What does “reopening the economy” look like?

We’ll find out (sort of) later this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that reopening the Texas economy will be a “slow process” guided by public health concerns as he continued to preview a forthcoming executive order that will detail his strategy to reignite business in the state.

Abbott, who first hinted at his plans during a news conference Friday, said he’ll outline them later this week. Asked for more details Monday, he indicated his announcement will include a “comprehensive team” that he said will “evaluate what must be done for Texas to open back up, ensuring what we are doing is consistent with data, with medical analysis, as well as strategies about which type of businesses will be able to open up.”

“This is not gonna be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once” situation, Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin where he announced $50 million in loans to small businesses suffering under the pandemic.

Abbott also told reporters to expect an announcement this week on whether schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Abbott previously ordered them closed until May 4.

[…]

As he did Friday, Abbott said Monday that testing will be a part of his announcement later this week on reopening the economy.

“We will ensure that a component of that will include adequate testing,” Abbott said, adding that he just had a hourlong conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, about the testing necessary to “safely reopen the state for doing business.”

That last part is interesting, since so far the state of Texas has sucked at doing testing. Far more of it will be necessary to really open society up again, or else we’ll be right back where we started, with this giant unstoppable risk that we’re all vulnerable to. I’ll wait till there are more details before I go too far down the rabbit hole, but the first question on my mind is will this override whatever stay-at-home orders there are still in the counties? You may recall, Abbott was perfectly happy to let mayors and county judges lead the way when the hard decisions had to be made about shutting down. Will he still respect them later this week when he wants to start things up, or will that all be yesterday’s news? How will the Abbott plan compare with the reopening plans in other states? Stay tuned and find out.

The Republican death wish

It would be one thing if they were just putting their own lives at risk, but that’s not how viruses work.

After Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins became the first to announce a mandatory stay-at-home rule, conservative groups including Empower Texans began ringing alarms in opposition to Jenkins and to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who they say paved the way for the move.

Abbott had said he would applaud local leaders who felt they should issue stay-at-home orders for their communities.

“I’m extremely concerned about what Dallas Co just did, and Abbott’s apparent sanctioning of it,” Empower Texans president Ross Kecseg wrote on Twitter.

So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the highest-ranking state official to echo those concerns.

“What I’m living in fear of is what is happening to this country,” Patrick said in a Fox News interview. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

Patrick, who turns 70 next week, went on to say he’d be willing to risk his own life and well-being to help preserve the way of life for other Americans — a statement that drew harsh rebukes on social media and inspired hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

[…]

Critics of the stay-at-home orders are contradicting the advice of public health authorities at every level of government, from the World Health Organization to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health officials. Epidemiologists have stressed that keeping people apart is the best way to fight back against a new virus for which there is no vaccine, and that aggressive early steps are the only way to get ahead of COVID-19.

The discord in Texas mirrors what’s going on at the national level with Republican governors showing more reluctance than Democratic ones, like Cuomo, to shutting down their states, said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor of health policy and politics at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“On the one hand, they certainly want to protect the public health, but they are also afraid about hindering the freedoms of their citizens and they’re also concerned about the economic impact of having society in many ways shut down,” Callaghan said. “It’s a tricky balancing act for many politicians on the conservative side.”

Not only does that send Texans a mixed message but Callaghan said it could also reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

“If you want to see a true impact of flattening the curve throughout the state of Texas, it’s important for it to be a statewide policy,” Callaghan said. “Certainly in those areas that choose to enact some sort of shelter in place policy, you’re going to see some effect, but we don’t know if it’s going to be a smaller effect than if the entire state had chosen to do something.”

See here for the background. It’s not actually clear that they want to protect public health, since everyone who knows anything about public health and epidemiology is practically shouting from the rooftops that these shutdowns are necessary and we risk having literally millions of people die without them. Indeed, rightwing magazines are touting the virtues of deliberately spreading coronavirus, in a ridiculous and dangerous belief that it’s preferable to social distancing. I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance going on, since the one thing that can mitigate the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders is massive government action to put money in people’s pockets to replace the income they’d be losing, and that would seem to be the thing that Dan Patrick fears more than his own death. It’s clear that they’re taking their direction from Donald Trump, because that’s what they do these days and Trump is getting tired of the whole pandemic thing. It will be interesting to see if actual elected Republicans turn on Greg Abbott if he however reluctantly orders a statewide shutdown. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to say other than there’s one way to get through this without a lot of people dying, and what these Republicans are agitating about is not it.

Thus endeth this year’s Rodeo

Surely not a surprise.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will close due to concerns about coronavirus after a Montgomery County man with no recent travel history tested positive for COVID-19.

The case is the first example of community spread in the Houston region and was directly responsible for the decision to cancel the Rodeo, Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference early Wednesday afternoon. Officials also announced that the man likely attended a barbecue cookoff for the Rodeo late last month, though it was unclear if he had symptoms at the time.

Turner said he will sign an emergency health declaration Wednesday that will remain in place for seven days, at which point City Council will decide whether to extend it. Under the declaration, all events produced or permitted by the city will be canceled through the end of March, Turner said. That includes Sunday’s Tour de Houston fundraising bike ride, which officials will attempt to reschedule, according to the mayor.

Rodeo officials said they were “deeply saddened” but agreed with the city’s move to cancel the livestock show and rodeo.

“As hard as this is to do, it is the right thing to do,” said Joel Crowley, president and chief executive of the Rodeo.

It’s a tough choice to have to make, and there’s a real cost to doing it.

The Houston rodeo generated $227 million in total economic impact last year, directly supporting nearly 3,700 jobs in 2019, according to a study by Economic Analytics Consulting commissioned by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year. The study measured new spending in the Houston region generated by outside visitors and spending by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Inc.

[…]

The cancellation of CERAWeek, which was expected to bring 5,500 attendees from some 80 countries downtown, cost businesses an estimated $7 million in lost hotel, dining, rental and other direct spending, according to Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The rodeo’s cancellation is expected to be more costly for the local economy. It’s known as as the world’s largest entertainment livestock exhibition, and it’s one of Houston’s largest tourist events of the year, lasting for nearly the entire month of March and requiring the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers.

Last year, the event attracted 273,000 out of town attendees during that time.

Economic projections like this, especially when sourced to the event in question, are unreliable. I don’t think anyone would doubt that the city, and especially the people who work at these events, will suffer for not having them. Still, this was the right thing to do, and will be less costly by any measure than continuing on with business as usual. Let us hope that the need for such drastic action will be short term and not longer. The city of Houston’s press release, which declared a public health emergency along with Harris County, is here. Texas Monthly and the Trib have more.

Anadarko anxiety

We know how you feel, The Woodlands.

Occidental last month agreed to buy Anadarko for $38 billion, outbidding the much bigger oil company Chevron. The looming question is whether Oxy will maintain a presence in The Woodlands or move out entirely, relocating the Anadarko employees it opts to keep on the payroll to Oxy’s new headquarters in Houston’s Energy Corridor.

With Oxy under increased pressure to cut both costs and the massive debt it will take on to complete the acquisition, it’s a decent bet that layoffs are coming and Anadarko’s twin-towers headquarters — the tallest buildings between Houston and Dallas — could end up for sale. Oxy recently bought ConocoPhillips’ old headquarters in the Energy Corridor, a campus of low-rise buildings on 62 acres that can accommodate up to about 4,000 people, according to ConocoPhillips.

Oxy, which plans to relocate there from Greenway Plaza, could move its 2,000-plus employees and still have room to fit much of the Anadarko workforce if it sells The Woodlands property, appraised at about $12 million, but likely worth much more on the open market. Anadarko, which first moved to The Woodlands in 2002, is Montgomery County’s largest private employer with nearly 2,000 full-time, local workers.

“It’s a huge impact to have that many people working and living here,” said J.J. Hollie, president and chief executive of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce. “Losing that would cause ripples we’d certainly feel.”

It’s not that long ago that Anadarko abandoned their office space in the Greenspoint area to move into that then-shiny new building in The Woodlands; they built a second tower a few years after that. Looks like we’ve come full circle. I’m not worried about The Woodlands – there needs to be a lot more businesses leaving town before they have anything to worry about – but I’ll feel bad for any small businesses that depend on Anadarko employees and will suffer in their absence. Sorry this may happen, y’all, but it’s the world we live in.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

Three reasons our State Senate still sucks

One:

The Texas Senate approved in a preliminary vote Monday its first major anti-abortion bill of the session — a measure that would prohibit state and local governments from partnering with agencies that perform abortions, even if they contract for services not related to the procedure.

“I think taxpayers’ dollars should not be used for abortion facilities or their affiliates,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, who authored the legislation.

Senate Bill 22 passed in the initial vote 20 to 11 with Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville bucking his party to support the bill. Lucio is the author of another anti-abortion bill, which would ensure abortion providers physically hand a controversial pamphlet detailing alternatives to abortion to women seeking the procedure. (In a final vote Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill 20 to 11, with Lucio again supporting the measure.)

Anti-abortion advocates support the measure in part because it would terminate “sweetheart rent deals,” which is just one of the ways local governments partner with abortion providers. Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, has singled out one key target during the bill’s hearing: Planned Parenthood’s $1-per-year rental agreement with the city of Austin.

[…]

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates rail against the bill as an attack on local control. The bill would “tie the hands of cities and counties,” according to Yvonne Gutierrez, executive director for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. She also worried that the language of SB 22, which would limit “transactions” between the government and abortion providers, is too broad and would target more than just the downtown Austin rental deal.

Seems to me the taxpayers of Austin are perfectly capable of handling this for themselves, but by now we are well aware of the contempt in which legislative Republicans hold cities.

Two:

After emotional testimony, a forceful show of opposition from leaders in the state’s business community and more than an hour of floor debate, the Texas Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping religious refusals bill, a priority proposal for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that LGTBQ advocates have called a “license to discriminate.”

The measure, Lubbock Republican Charles Perry’s Senate Bill 17, would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. It would also prevent licensing boards from enacting regulations that burden “an applicant’s or license holder’s free exercise of religion.” The bill does not protect police officers, first responders or doctors who refuse to provide life-saving care.

After a heated debate, the measure passed on a 19–12 initial vote, with one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio, voting for it, and one Republican, Sen. Kel Seliger, voting against. It requires one more vote in the Senate before it can be sent to the Texas House for debate.

Perry said the bill provides a defense for licensed professionals who find themselves before credentialing boards based on conduct or speech motivated by their “sincerely held religious beliefs” — a pre-emptive protection for religious employees at a time when, he claimed, religion is under attack.

But LGBTQ advocates and Democrats have criticized the bill as an attempt to give cover to those who would deny critical services to members of the LGBTQ community. Last week, leaders from major businesses like Amazon, Facebook and Google, as well as tourism officials from some of the state’s biggest cities, came out in force against the bill. Discriminating against LGBTQ communities is bad for business, they said.

See here for some background. Of course this targets the LGBT community – that’s one of the modern Republican Party’s reasons for being. Well, them and the getting-rarer-but-not-extinct-yet travesty like Eddie Lucio. Good Lord, that man needs to go. More from the Observer.

And three, not a story but a resolution: “Declaring the crisis at the Texas -Mexico International Border an emergency and requesting congress to adopt a budget that fully funds all means necessary to fully secure the Texas-Mexico international border.” Well, guys, be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about the “border crisis” resolution. It was exactly as big a waste of time as it sounds.

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

From the “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” files

Same song, second verse.

If budget writers don’t come up with money to address a state employee pension shortfall and mounting needs for public schools, health care and transportation, credit agencies are likely to downgrade Texas’ AAA rating in the near future.

That was the warning Comptroller Glenn Hegar gave lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Finance Committee in Austin. Though the Texas economy is growing at a healthy pace, Hegar said, the state’s budget is riddled with enough unfunded liabilities to worry credit rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.

“We’re not at a crisis,” Hegar said, but “we’re going in the wrong direction.”

A downgrading of Texas’ credit rating would make it more expensive for the state to borrow money — and perhaps damage state leaders’ credibility when advertising Texas as “open for business.”

“I want to avoid that, because I think that’s a black eye on the state of Texas,” Hegar said.

Rebounding oil prices, natural growth and migration to Texas have led to an increase in tax collections, according to the comptroller’s office. But much of that new revenue is already dedicated to historically underfunded programs such as the state highway fund, meaning that Texas lawmakers likely won’t have more money at their disposal in 2019 when crafting the next two-year budget.

At the same time, lawmakers will need to plug holes in the pension system for state employees, and they’ll face pressure to make solvent a health insurance program for retired teachers. On top of that, big bills coming due for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled that is perennially underfunded by the Legislature, could put the state budget $2.5 billion in the red before lawmakers even convene in 2019. (The state’s current two-year budget is about $217 billion.)

In addition, state leaders will have to tackle the bills from Hurricane Harvey recovery.

I’ll just say again here what I said in January: The vast majority of these issues are the result of deliberate choices made by our Governor, our Lieutenant Governor, and our Republican-controlled Legislature. Instead of seriously addressing the needs of the state, current and future, our Republican leaders have been obsessed with trivia, from bathrooms to plastic bags to trees. We have gotten by and done all right because times have been good, but we are in a far more precarious position for when the economy goes south than we should be. In the meantime, we are squandering this opportunity to ensure a better future for all of us by making such cavalier and ill-advised fiscal choices. Every Democratic candidate running for state office needs to internalize and articulate that message going forward.

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

Republican voters are “meh” on the bathroom bill

From the inbox:

The Texas Association of Business conducted surveys in five GOP-controlled legislative districts across the state the week of July 24th.

“Texas business has long opposed the bathroom bill because it is unnecessary and will have significant negative economic impact on Texas.  The significance of these surveys, is the voice of individual Republican primary voters echoing the business perspective with over 60% of the opposing respondents saying that the bill is unnecessary and distracts from the real issues facing Texas today,” said Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

The purpose of the surveys was to test general voter sentiments on a range of issues, including views on the so-called ‘Bathroom Bill’ legislation.

“There was remarkably little variation from district-to- district and the cumulative statewide results mirrored the individual district results. The number of interviews (1,500) was very large and we are quite confident that the combined results are a very accurate reflection of Republican Primary voter sentiments on this issue,” said political consultant and pollster Joe Counter. “The survey results were essentially the same in every region with overwhelming opposition and/or indifference to the legislation.”

The districts represented a cross-section of districts from around the state: SD8 in Collin County in North Texas, SD22 in Central Texas, HD15 in Montgomery County North of Houston, HD106 in Denton County in North Texas, and HD136 Northwest of Austin.

The surveys were conducted by Counter Consulting in Plano, Texas. Each of the legislative surveys was an n=300 with a margin of error (MOE) of +/-5.77%.

That sounds promising, but it’s also very vague. I mean, we don’t even know from this what the wording of the questions and responses were. So I emailed the person who sent out that release and asked for more data. This is what I received in response.

To: Jeff Moseley
FM: Joe Counter
DT: July 31, 2017
RE: Legislative Surveys / Bathroom Bill Results

Counter Consulting (in conjunction with Conquest Communications in Richmond, VA) conducted five surveys the Week of July 24 th in GOP-held legislative districts on behalf of the Texas Association of Business. The surveys sought the opinions of ‘likely Republican Primary voters’ on a host of issues including the so-called ‘Bathroom Bill’. Each survey was an n=300 with a MOE of +/- 5.77%.

The districts represented a cross-section from around the state: SD8 in Collin County in North Texas, SD22 in Central Texas, HD15 in Montgomery County North of Houston, HD106 in Denton County in North Texas, and HD136 Northwest of Austin.

As you will see from the results and topline/crosstab sheets related to those questions, there was very little variation in the results from district-to- district or in the cumulative totals (which included 1,500 completed interviews). While these cumulative results cannot be assigned a MOE (that would normally be around 2% for an overall sample size this large), it is safe to say given the similar results in the different districts, that these views do in fact reflect those of ‘likely GOP voters’ statewide.

Specifically, two questions were asked about the ‘bathroom bill’ legislation.

Q. The Texas Governor has called a Special Session to address issues that he felt went unresolved in the Regular Session. Among these is the so-called ‘Bathroom Bill’ for which there are a number of competing versions. Can you tell me which of the below statements comes closest to what you think will happen if this legislation is passed?

a. It will make Texas a better, more pro-family state.

b. Texas families will suffer from immediate job loss due to discrimination being legalized in the minds of many corporate leaders who will take their businesses elsewhere.

c. Nothing much will change—Texas already has laws to punish people who misbehave in bathrooms and public place.

d. I don’t really have an opinion on this.

Results:

  • a minority (25%) of likely GOP voters are in favor of a bathroom bill passing
  • a slightly smaller percentage (20%) cite ‘negative ramifications’ from job loss due to perceived discriminatory laws
  • a plurality (40%) feel ‘nothing much will change’ if some version of the bathroom bill is passed

A follow-up question was asked of the three-quarters of respondents who were NOT in favor of the legislation.

Q. What would you say is the main reason why you oppose the so-called ‘Bathroom Bill”?

a. It is a discriminatory law.

b. If passed, it will cause our economy to suffer, as there is evidence that some businesses will relocate out of Texas, some out-of-state organizations will stop coming to Texas for their conventions, and there are threats that major sporting events would be moved out of Texas.

c. This law is a distraction from the real issues that Texans face, as Texas law already punishes people who harass or assault people in bathrooms.

d. Unsure

Results:

  • only 12% cited ‘discriminatory concerns’ as the reason they are opposed to the legislation
  • only 12% cited ‘economic repercussions’ as the reason they are opposed to the legislation
  • the overwhelming percentage (61%) stated that the “law is a distraction from the real issues facing the state”

You can see the tables in the linked document. I think the key to understanding this is in how one interprets the plurality “nothing much will change” response. One could take that to mean that the respondent thinks the bathroom bill is such common sense that who could possibly find it objectionable, or that what is being proposed is so weak as to be meaningless, or that they agree with the assertion about existing laws and thus find the whole exercise to be a waste of time. Or maybe it’s just a bit of good old fashioned denial. I think the near-equal amounts of clear support and opposition, coupled with this large if muddled middle ground, suggests that if nothing else there isn’t much of a burning desire among Republican primary voters for a bathroom bill, contra Dan Patrick’s claims. But one could also say that a sizeable majority of GOP voters think either nothing bad will happen or Texas will benefit from passing a bathroom bill. There’s plenty of room for competing claims.

That said, this is a decent template for peeling away voters who are not already onboard with the idea. For some, you can play up the negative consequences, and for the others you can stress how out of touch Patrick and Abbott and their minions are. That’s a strategy that could work in a primary as well as in November. If the TAB wants a better Legislature in 2019, this is a roadmap for them on how to achieve it. The rest of us can and should take note, too.

The economic impact of SB4

It could be big.

Representatives from Texas’ business, local government and higher education sectors argued Tuesday that the state’s new immigration-enforcement law, which is slated to take effect Sept. 1, could do billions of dollars in damage to the Texas economy.

Using data from the 2015 American Community Survey and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance — a group made up of 40 state-based immigrant and civil rights groups — estimated during a Tuesday press conference that the state stands to lose roughly $223 million in state and local taxes and more than $5 billion in gross domestic product under Senate Bill 4.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May and seeks to outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials, would also allow local police officers to ask about a person’s immigration status when they are detained — not just when they are charged with a crime.

“We estimate those costs as they relate to jobs, earnings, taxes and GDP if 10 percent of undocumented immigrants were to leave Texas,” the group said, calling that 10 percent figure a conservative estimate. The group analyzed the top 10 industries that benefit from undocumented labor and used Harvard University economist George Borjas‘ undocumented population analysis in its research, according to the methodology outlined in the study.

[…]

The economic argument isn’t a new one for opponents of the law; several Democratic state lawmakers tried and failed to convince their colleagues of its merit during this spring’s regular legislative session. State Democrats also called for an update to a study released in 2006 by former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. That analysis showed that undocumented immigrants who lived in Texas in 2005 added $17.7 billion to the state’s economy.

In a statement Tuesday, representatives from local chambers of commerce at the news conference went after the lawmakers who championed the legislation, calling them dishonorable.

“Each of you standing with us have a big job to do,” said Ramiro Cavazos, the CEO of San Antonio’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “And that it is to protect this economy for our children and our grandchildren.”

The Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Bilateral African American Chamber, the United Chamber of Commerce Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce were among those represented at the news conference.

The Chron adds some details.

Paul Puente, executive secretary of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, said many undocumented construction workers are already packing up and leaving with their families to neighboring states such as Oklahoma and Louisiana ahead of SB4’s implementation on Sept. 1.

An analysis of data from the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that if 10 percent of undocumented immigrants leave Texas, the state would forfeit about $190.7 million in federal tax revenue and $223.5 million more in state and local taxes.

The disappearance of those estimated 95,000 undocumented workers would also result in nearly $2.9 billion in lost wage earnings. The analysis also found that the state would lose an additional 70,000 jobs dependent on undocumented consumers, with an estimated $2.4 billion more in lost wages.

The researchers said the ripple effect throughout the economy could reach between $9.2 billion and $13.8 billion.

That’s a lot of money, and it doesn’t include things like tourism and conferences. You can dispute the figures if you’d like, but the broader point is that maybe it’s a bad idea to pass a law like this that so many people think with justification will hurt themselves, those close to them, and the state as a whole. There was plenty of testimony to this effect in the hearings, from law enforcement and religious groups and business interests and just plain folks, and there’s the lived experience of other states who have done this. It was just that the Republican majority refused to listen. And that job that Ramiro Cavazos mentioned that we all have to do includes remembering who supported and who opposed this terrible law when the next elections roll around. The Current has more.

Still more big businesses against the bathroom bill

It’s like there’s a strong, overwhelming consensus or something.

Top executives of big oil companies and other major Houston firms and organizations on Monday weighed into the political dogfight over the controversial bathroom bill, calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to block passage of the legislation that they warned will harm Texas’ ability to grow its economy.

That stance puts the Greater Houston Partnership in direct opposition to Abbott, who has championed the legislation.

[…]

In a two-page letter that followed similar pleas from executives at several Fortune 500 companies, Houston business leaders noted that Texas has worked for decades “to establish its reputation as a great place to do business.”

[…]

“We support diversity and inclusion, and we believe that any such bill risks harming Texas’ reputation and impacting the state’s economic growth and ability to create new jobs,” the letter from Houston business leaders states. “Innovative companies are driven by their people, and winning the talent recruitment battle is key. Any bill that harms our ability to attract top talent to Houston will inhibit our growth and continued success — and ultimately the success of our great state.”

The letter asks Abbott to “avoid any actions, including the passage of any ‘bathroom bill,’ that would threaten our continued growth.”

You can see a copy of the letter here. It has a few names on it you might recognize. Everyone is from Houston, and as we know Abbott doesn’t care about Houston or other cities, except to the extent that he can meddle in their business. So, you know, don’t expect too much from this. RG Ratcliffe has more.

Abbott versus the cities

The continuing story.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

See here for some background. It’s mighty nice of Abbott to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule of threatening legislators to meet with these concerned constituents, but they shouldn’t have had to take time out of their busy schedules to try to persuade the Governor to leave over a century of accepted governance in place and butt out of their business. And not for nothing, but the cities whose Mayors Abbott has been ignoring are the reason he can make elaborate claims about how awesome the Texas economy is.

Let’s begin with population. The five counties that contain the state’s five largest cities have a combined 12,309,787 residents, which is 44 percent of the state’s total. If you want to talk about elections, the registered voters in those counties make up 42 percent of Texas’ electorate.

Those counties out-perform the rest of the state economically. Texas’ five biggest urban counties constitute 53.5 percent of total Texas employment. If you broaden it out to the metropolitan statistical areas, which include the suburbs as well, the proportion becomes 75.8 percent — and growth in those regions has outpaced growth in the state overall since the recession.

Not convinced Texas’ cities drive the state? Let’s look at gross domestic product: The state’s five biggest MSAs contribute 71 percent of the state’s economic output, a proportion that has increased by two percentage points over the past decade. Focusing just on counties again, workers in the ones that contain Texas’ largest cities earn 60 percent of the state’s wages.

If you look at the embedded chart in that story, you’ll see that the metro area that is doing the best economically is the Austin-Round Rock MSA, and it’s not close. It’s even more impressive when you take into account how busy the city of Austin has been systematically destroying Texas with its regulations and liberalness and what have you.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, quite a few of the Mayors that are pleading with Abbott to back off are themselves Republicans, and represent Republican turf. It’s good that they are trying to talk some sense into him, but I’d advise them to temper their expectations. Abbott and Dan Patrick and a squadron of Republican legislators, especially in the Senate, don’t seem to have any interest in listening. The one thing that will get their attention is losing some elections. What action do these Mayors plan to take next year when they will have a chance to deliver that message?

Texas’ climate change future

Gonna be awesome.

The Texas economy could face some of the costliest consequences of climate change as temperatures continue to increase over the next several decades, according to a new study.

In the study published last week in the journal Science, researchers found that the economic burden of climate change will hit states along the Gulf Coast – including Texas – harder than the colder, northern states that will profit from warmer weather.

[…]

The study estimates that the U.S. economy will lose about 0.7 percent of GDP per year by 2080 for each degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures.

Texas, however, will likely see a loss of 3.4 to 9.5 percent per year beginning in 2080. And Harris County could face median damages worth up to 6 percent of GDP a year beginning in 2080. Some counties in Texas could fare much worse, facing damages up to 20 percent of GDP – ranking them among the worst hit counties in the nation.

Much of the costs for Texas come from higher heat-related deaths, said James Rising, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California at Berkeley who coauthored the study. By the end of the century, mortality rates in the state likely will increase by between 16 to 45 death for every 100,000 people due to the extreme heat. For perspective, Texas currently experiences about 13 motor vehicle deaths for every 100,000.

Researchers also were able to measure the economic impact climate change would have along the coast, with Texas ranking among the five states impacted most. With rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes, the study analyzed the potential cost of damage faced by Gulf Coast properties.

The study, which comes from researchers at the Climate Impact Lab, relies on “business-as-usual” emissions estimates, mapping the effects of climate change if nothing is done globally to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 21st century.

You can see the study here. As you can see from the map, the entire South really takes the brunt of it, which given how widespread climate denialism is in that part of the country seems like a particularly brutal form of poetic justice. Too bad the people who are the biggest part of the problem will be long dead before the worst of the effects take place. But hey, no worries, it’s just our kids and grandkids. The Atlantic and the Press have more.

The Arizona experience

This is what Texas has to look forward to post-SB4.

Seven years in, Arizona’s experience hints at what Texas, with the nation’s largest Hispanic population after California, might expect. Supporters of Arizona’s legislation say it has worked, helping to reduce the number of immigrants illegally in the state by 40 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. More than 200,000 left. Since then, the population has stayed about the same.

“Enforcement does work and even the threat of enforcement makes a difference,” said the bill’s Republican sponsor, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, who became Arizona’s first legislator to be removed from office in a 2011 recall election shortly after the passage of what’s known as SB 1070. “As long as you got the bird feeder out, the birds are going to come and eat. You gotta take the bird feeder down.”

Many of Trump’s supporters see it the same way at a time when the issue has arguably never been more rancorous. But business leaders in Arizona warn that such a reduction came at a cost.

“No one stops to think that, when you eject people from an economy, you’re not going to feel it,” said Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. “It’s a dramatic impact. People aren’t buying food, clothes, gas. They’re not going to baseball games or buying soccer uniforms, they’re not going out and socializing. Business owners have to cut back and lay people off. It’s a snowball effect.”

Some economists have found that the exodus reduced Arizona’s gross domestic product by roughly 2 percent a year. Proponents of the law say that loss was bolstered by savings in education, medical care and the costs of incarceration. A 2004 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group seeking to reduce immigration, argued those services cost the state more than $1 billion annually.

But Landfried called that a red herring, noting that all of Arizona’s residents, no matter their legal status, contribute to property taxes paying for education, whether they own homes or rent. Immigrants illegally in the state don’t qualify for any public benefits, although their American children do.

The overall impact to the state’s convention and tourism industry alone was $752 million in completed and potential cancellations and booking declines, Landfried testified to the U.S. Senate judiciary committee in 2012. That involved more than 4,200 lost jobs.

[…]

Some executives say that even the perception of the law as anti-Hispanic casts a shadow that they are still struggling to overcome. The city of Oakland, Calif., declined Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s invitation to a Governing Magazine summit this month, reportedly citing an ongoing travel ban due to the 2010 legislation. Stanton’s office, meanwhile, has been working to improve relations with the state’s largest trading partner of Mexico, recently opening a second office there.

“This was a complete disaster for our state from an image perspective and from an economic perspective,” said Lisa Urias, the president of a large advertising agency and a member of the boards of the Greater Phoenix Leadership Council and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “There is still lingering damage that is there, and we are still a state that feels very raw about this issue.”

Of course, Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick have clearly shown via their support of a bathroom bill that they don’t really care about the state’s image and economy, since everyone with any credibility has told them that it would be bad for those things. The same is true for the so-called “sanctuary cities” law, with law enforcement added in for good measure. At this point, it’s hard to imagine anything that would change their minds. All that remains is to change who’s in power. Easier said than done, obviously, but it’s the only way.

Super Bowl economic impact was about what we expected

Not too bad.

The receipts are in, and February’s Super Bowl LI appears to have been a substantial boon for Houston — albeit with slightly less spending than expected.

Gross spending during the nine days of Super Bowl programming, minus the amount of usual tourism displaced by the event, came to $338 million, according to a consultant retained by the Host Committee. That’s a bit off the $372 million originally projected by the same firm, Pennsylvania-based Rockport Analytics.

The discrepancy occurred because the costs of goods and services were lower than expected, even though the number of out-of-town visitors was higher than anticipated, at 150,000, according to Rockport Analytics. In particular, visitors spent about half of what was expected on rental cars because of the availability of car-sharing service Uber and special Metro routes.

Host Committee Chairman Ric Campo, the CEO of apartment developer Camden Properties, said that should still be counted as a win for Houston, since it allowed more people to come to the party.

“One of the things that the Host Committee really worked hard on was affordability,” Campo said. “We didn’t want you to have to go to Discovery Green and spend $100 to feed your family.”

The total impact includes $228 million spent on wages and $39 million spent on state and local taxes. Although that number was about $6 million lower than projected, it was more than enough to pay back the state for the $25.4 million the state advanced the Host Committee, with $15 million in proceeds.

[…]

In addition to the financial impact, officials played up the the game’s halo effect for the city’s image, and the benefit of catching the interest of potential customers. Houston First President Mike Waterman said several of the 16 convention organizers he brought down to see the event have committed to bringing conventions to the city.

“We weekly get customers coming to Houston and saying they saw us shine during the Super Bowl, and now they’re interested in booking a meeting here,” Waterman said.

Let’s hope Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t ruin that by forcing a bathroom bill down our throats. The one economic impact estimate I saw before the Super Bowl pegged the haul at $350 million, so it was pretty darned close. I’m glad all these people came to visit, I’m glad they had a good time (and spent some money), and given that we’re preparing a bid for the 2024 Super Bowl, I hope they’ll want to come back. Assuming our leadership doesn’t take the good impression they went away with and turn it into trash.

Bill King wants you to lower his property taxes

That’s not what he says in this op-ed, but it is the effect of what he’s arguing for, even if he’s not honest enough to come out and say it.

Let’s start with the basic point that despite King’s disingenuous attempt to rebrand it, what the city has is indeed a revenue cap and not a property tax cap. The mechanism that causes the cap to kick in is a combination of inflation and population growth, and if the city’s total revenue from one year to the next exceeds that combination, the cap gets enforced, which has so far always meant a reduction in the property tax rate. My point is that it doesn’t have to be an increase in property tax collections that triggers the cap. If sales tax collections were sufficiently robust, it could tip the revenue increase past the limit. If population growth plus inflation, which together have at best a small influence on the city’s expenses, are sufficiently small then even a modest increase in revenue could cause the cap to come into play. The factors that define the cap have basically nothing to do with the things that drive the city’s finances.

What the revenue cap does above all is prioritize property tax cuts over anything else the city might choose to do. If in a flush year the city wanted to pay down some bond debt or make an extra payment into the pension funds, well, too bad. The cap says the city has to cut the property tax rate, which doesn’t just affect the flush year in question. The reduced rate remains in place, thus hampering the city further in bad times like we just experienced. It also takes the option of increasing the tax rate off the table, which is one reason why Mayor Parker raised fees so much. These are the policy decisions that get made when policy options are artificially limited by bad laws. The effect of the cap is especially pernicious when the city is recovering from down years, as it is now, because even the process of revenues getting back to previous levels after falling due to a bad economy can trigger it. Every candidate for office in Houston I have ever interviewed has talked about spurring economic growth to improve the city’s bottom line. The revenue cap puts a limit on how much that growth can be leveraged. Why would anyone think that’s good policy?

And let’s be clear about who the main beneficiaries are when these forced property tax cuts are enacted: Wealthy property owners like Bill King. Renters get nothing, while owners of lower-priced houses get nominal reductions. It’s only once you get up int seven figures and more that the cuts start to add up. To be sure, it’s still not that much, mere pocket change to the beneficiaries, but the point is that the lion’s share of those benefits go to those who have the most to begin with.

Which brings me back to my main point. If Bill King thinks this dumb law is really good public policy, even if ratings services that he likes to cite when he argues about how to fix the city’s finances think it’s a dumb law, then fine, he’s allowed to argue for it. But just as people have been asking how much Donald Trump would benefit from the tax “reform” plans that are being floated by his administration and its Congressional enablers, we should ask how much he himself has benefited in recent years from the coerced property tax rate cuts that he wants us to go along with. The least he can do is tell us how much this policy that he advocates will add to his own bottom line.

UPDATE: King insists in the comments and via email that “other revenue sources” like sales taxes don’t trigger the charter amendment. Fine, whatever. This does not change my point that the revenue cap is a stupid idea, nor that people who have benefited from it, like Bill King, should be honest about that when they advocate for its continued existence.