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property taxes

Our property tax system is soooooooo awesome!

How awesome is it? So awesome you don’t even have to live here to get a tax break.

Herschel Walker, the former Dallas Cowboys running back and Republican candidate running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, is slated to get a tax break on his $3 million residence in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb — potentially running afoul of Texas tax law.

According to Tarrant County property and tax records, Walker claimed a homestead exemption on his four-bedroom home in Westlake in 2021 and is expected to do so again this year — even after he registered to vote in Georgia last year. Walker has since voted in two elections there, CNN reported.

The exemption saved Walker more than $1,200 on his property tax bill last year, records from the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector show, and would net him more than $1,500 in savings this year.

Walker’s Texas homestead exemption might also raise questions about his Senate run in Georgia. He is in a runoff with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, in a race to determine just how tightly Democrats will control the Senate for the next two years. The U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to live in the state in which they’re elected.

Under Texas law, homeowners can claim a homestead exemption — which exempts a certain amount of a home’s value from taxation — only on their primary residence. But homeowners may continue to claim the exemption if they “do not establish a principal residence elsewhere … intend to return to the home … [and] are away less than two years,” according to the state comptroller’s office.

Walker bought the house in Westlake in 2011, according to Tarrant County appraisal records. He has claimed the exemption on his Texas home since 2012, records show, allowing him to pay a lower tax bill toward the city of Westlake and Keller Independent School District. School districts make up the bulk of any given Texas homeowner’s tax bill.

So, um, anyone feel like filing a complaint? I can only imagine what a spectacle an attempt to enforce the law in this instance might turn into. The DMN has more.

A few words from Judge Hidalgo

Plus a few words that she could have said but didn’t, which I will fill in.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who narrowly won re-election last week over a strong push from GOP candidates and donors, outlined plans for her next four years in office, including continuing anti-crime efforts and doubling down on early childhood education.

“In some ways, it’s a continuation of the past four years — the work we’ve done to tackle violent crime, for example. We’ve already been able to bring down that violent crime rate by at least 10 percent. These are August numbers. We need to do more. We’re going to continue doing that,” Hidalgo said in a press briefing held Thursday.

Hidalgo took a jab at the two Republicans on commissioners court, Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who broke quorum for more than six weeks to stop Democrats from passing their proposed property tax rate. While the Democrats were proposing a tax rate decrease, Ramsey and Cagle argued for a slightly lower rate on the grounds that residents needed more tax relief.

Because the court was not able to reach a state-required quorum of four members present to set the tax rate by the end of October, the county defaulted to what is known as the no-new revenue rate, the levy that would generate the same revenue as last year. The county is projected to take in an additional $45 million from new properties on the tax roll.

Facing a lower tax rate, the court voted to approve a lower budget, cutting nearly $100 million that was to be allocated to law enforcement, including raises for sheriff deputies.

“I’m proud of the record investments we’ve made in public safety, even despite the fact that two colleagues boycotted our budget process and forced us to cut some expenses we’d planned,” Hidalgo said. “Even with that, we’ve been able to see results and we’re working really hard, including with the recent bond that passed, to try to strengthen our criminal justice system.”

County government will keep tackling issues that traditionally have not been on the agenda, she said.

That’s what she said. She didn’t say anything about Constable/JP redistricting, either as a political goal or a policy goal. She didn’t say anything about taking all of those $100 million in forced budget cuts from Tom Ramsey’s precinct, which I would totally tell her to at least publicly muse about if I were advising her. She didn’t say anything about whiny crybaby sore losers pursuing their completely bogus “investigation” of the Elections office. She’s a responsible elected official, and I’m a yahoo on the Internet, so that probably has something to do with it. But these are things that could be said, and maybe will be said in a more measured and nuanced way at some point in the coming weeks. We’ll see. Oh, and be sure also to see the hilariously thin-skinned response she drew for her victory celebration from a local furniture salesman and gambling aficionado. Someone needs a nap, I’d say.

UPDATE: Said furniture salesman gets roundly panned by Chron readers.

Here’s the result of the Republican Commissioners’ budget busting

The Republican minority on Commissioners Court made this happen.

Harris County will eliminate more than 500 vacant jobs, delay some flood control projects, postpone a sheriff deputy cadet class, and cancel raises and cost of living adjustments for county law enforcement after the default to a lower tax rate forced by the two Republican commissioners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle skipped six straight Commissioners Court meetings to block the adoption of any property tax rate by the Democratic majority, saying taxpayers deserved a break amid soaring inflation and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

With early voting underway and three members of Commissioners Court on the ballot, the county’s annual budget process also played out amid escalating political rhetoric, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of defunding the police.

State law requires a quorum of four members of the court to adopt a tax rate. By preventing the court from setting the rate last week — the last week it legally could — the Republican commissioners forced the county to default to what is known as the no new revenue rate, the levy at which the county will take in the same revenue as last year, plus $45 million from property added to the tax rolls in the last 12 months. Only $15 million of that additional revenue will go toward operations, the county budget office said recently; the remaining $30 million will be used for debt payments.

The no new revenue rate is 53 cents per $100 of assessed value, down from the previous rate of 58.1 cents. In a bid to reach a compromise with Cagle and Ramsey, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had proposed a rate 56.3 cents, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority. It would have included 200 additional members of law enforcement. Cagle earlier had pitched a rate of 55.6 cents and included 200 new lawmen. For the owner of a $300,000 home, the difference between the two commissioners’ proposals would have been about $16.

[…]

Budget Director Daniel Ramos said departments have eliminated an estimated 560 vacant positions as a result of the lower-than-expected tax rate.

He said most of those positions were planned to be filled and that in some cases, departments have used savings from not filling vacant positions to pay for other expenses such as contractors, overtime and maintaining services. Eliminating those vacant positions will mean reduced services in those departments, including the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, he said.

“IFS has medical examiner vacancies because of how specialized the position is, so they use the savings from positions being vacant to offset medical contractors to complete autopsies,” Ramos said. “Harris County will do less autopsies because they don’t have that funding anymore.”

The eliminated vacancies in the sheriff’s office will result in the department reducing the number of people it can hire and the amount of overtime it can pay patrol officers.

The $16.6 million loss for the sheriff’s office is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies, according to a memo from Ramos.

Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez will decide what gets funded and what does not as the department makes “some tough decisions.”

The postponed cadet class could be restored later, Spencer said.

“We expect to continue to lose deputies at the usual attrition rate, so it might be a situation where we have a cadet class down the road just to keep our heads above water with staffing,” Spencer said. “It wouldn’t be adding positions. It would just be replacing ones that we’re able to afford.”

Ramos said county staffers, including law enforcement officers, are feeling the effects of the county receiving less tax revenue than expected as planned cost of living adjustments and pay increases have been canceled.

“Most departments were able to absorb it into their vacant positions,” Ramos said. “We don’t have a final number quite yet, but there are hundreds of vacant positions that got eliminated across basically all departments.”

The Harris County Flood Control District lost its proposed $23 million increase, while the Harris Health System budget decreased from a proposed $957 million to $822 million.

Some flood control maintenance projects will be deferred to future years, Ramos said in a memo to county leaders last month.

“The type of projects that will be deferred include erosion repair, outfall repairs, sediment removal and conveyance improvements,” Ramos said. “Further deferral of maintenance projects will increase the risk of infrastructure failures during flood events.”

Additionally, the lower funding for the flood control department could jeopardize a $290 million federal grant for sediment removal that requires the county to advance the cost of the project before being reimbursed.

See here and here for some background. There’s a separate story about the effects this will have on Harris Health. My “favorite” detail from this story is that the cuts will affect “cybersecurity upgrades”, which speaking from my professional perspective sure seems like a bad idea. And the most fun part about all this is that unless there’s a 4-1 split on Commissioners Court, all this can happen again. Doesn’t seem like a great way to run a government, but it’s what we’ve got.

Ramsey and Cagle finish sabotaging the budget

They got what they wanted.

Harris County’s prolonged political battle over the budget came to an end today. For over a month, the two GOP members of Commissioners Court have broken quorum, skipping meetings to prevent Democrats from passing their proposed tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2023.

They skipped again Tuesday, despite multiple major items on the budget that impacted millions in funding for law enforcement, flood control and the Harris Health System. Here’s a play-by-play of how it all went down, from the Houston Chronicle’s government reporter Jen Rice.

You can read the rest, but it’s more of what we’ve seen before. If you don’t like the cuts to the Sheriff, the DA, and the constables that will now happen, take your complaints to Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey. They’re the ones that made this happen.

UPDATE: Chron editorial: Harris County Republicans just defunded the police.

Republican Commissioners skip the meeting they called

On brand. So very on brand.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court have announced they will skip a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, reversing the position they took Friday, potentially ending a month-long impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

On Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

By Monday, Cagle’s position had changed.

In a statement, Cagle said, “I have read that Commissioner Adrian Garcia is now calling his most recent tax increase proposal his ‘final offer.’ There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer. In addition, Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey has announced that he will not attend Monday’s special session of Commissioners Court. Given Commissioner Garcia’s publicly announced refusal to negotiate in good faith and given the absence of a full quorum of court members in attendance, I will not attend the special session of Commissioners Court scheduled for Monday afternoon.”

Cagle on Friday said he would attend the special meeting hours after Garcia held his news conference in which he called his proposal his final offer.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey has reversed his decision, as well, according to a statement from his office released on Saturday: “He was hopeful in attending Monday’s special meeting of a ‘discussion’; however, vagueness around the “possible action” in that meeting paired with Tuesday’s meeting details leaves the door open to take other actions relating to the massive tax increase. Commissioner Ramsey is officially rescinding his offer and will not be attending Monday’s meeting.”

See here for the previous entry. I’m sure you can imagine just how shocked, shocked I am at this turn of events. We’re way into the farce zone at this point, so barring an unlikely change of heart on their part it’s time to move on to other political solutions. Let’s get that 4-1 majority and not have to worry about this going forward.

UPDATE: You know what Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey had time for yesterday? A little golf, and some fundraising.

There may be a county budget deal available

I don’t trust anything Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey say, but we’ll see.

The two Republican members of Harris County Commissioners Court said Friday they would attend a special meeting Monday to discuss a compromise tax rate proposal by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, potentially ending a monthlong impasse that has held up budgetary decisions and become a significant issue in November’s county judge and commissioners races.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he would attend the meeting if he was assured no vote would take place.

The county attorney’s office confirmed Friday afternoon that the purpose of the meeting is for court members to have a discussion and that no final vote on a tax rate can occur.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey announced he would attend the meeting a short time later.

The two Republican commissioners have skipped the last three Commissioners Court meetings to block the three Democrats on the court from adopting a property tax rate. They view the Democrat-supported rate as too high at a time residents are dealing with the highest inflation in years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They also want the county to fund more law enforcement.

Garcia’s proposal, unveiled in a Friday morning news conference, would set the overall property tax rate at 56.3 cents per $100 of assessed value, 1.2 cents lower than the rate originally proposed by the Democratic majority.

The current overall county tax rate is 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Under the rate of 57.5 cents originally proposed by the Democrats, the owner of a $250,000 home with a standard 20 percent homestead exemption would save about $12 in the first year, assuming the appraised value was unchanged from the previous year.

Under Garcia’s proposal, that homeowner would pay $36 less.

Garcia’s plan calls for an additional $20 million to hire 200 additional law enforcement officers, echoing Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s call for 200 additional law enforcement “boots on the ground.” It also includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for law enforcement officers.

“Today I make you my final offer,” Garcia said. “It checks every box that each of my colleagues has stated as a priority. … If my Republican colleagues continue to refuse to show up to work, it proves, once and for all, they had no intention on getting any deal done.”

State law requires a quorum of at least four members to set the property tax rate. The court has until Oct. 28 to set the tax rate. Failure to come to an agreement would force the county to adopt what is known as the “no new revenue rate,” a levy that generates the same amount of money as the previous year. In Harris County’s case, the no new revenue rate would include an additional $45 million from developed properties added to the tax roll this year.

Again, this is a legislative minority getting to set the terms because of an anti-majoritarian component of our state constitution. If we are going to bring up the quorum-busting by Democratic State House members again, I will remind you that 1) unlike the State House Dems, Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can do their thing from the comfort of their homes – they do not have to flee to another state to avoid being detained by the cops and dragged back to the county courthouse; and 2) the Republican legislative majority eventually got everything they wanted and all they had to do was wait it out, while the Democratic Commissioners Court majority has no choice but to negotiate. Either way, they cannot do what they would have done if the two Republican Commissioners didn’t have this power. These are two very different situations.

As far as the fear that somehow the three Democratic members of Commissioners Court will suddenly appear, gavel them into an official meeting, and pass their preferred budget before they can abscond again, the following is from the Harris County Attorney’s office:

Harris County Commissioners Court has issued a notice for a special meeting on Monday, October 17 that will focus on proposed tax rates and changes to the budget.

In response to members of court claiming they will skip the meeting because of concerns that a tax rate may be adopted, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee issued the following statement:

“There is no ‘vagueness’ about whether Commissioners Court can adopt a tax rate at Monday’s special meeting. The answer is no. Nor does the court having the Monday meeting mean that they could adopt a tax rate at some subsequent meeting with fewer than four members present.

If any member of court plans to skip Monday’s meeting, they should be honest about why, and not claim that they’re doing so out of fear that a tax rate could be adopted.”

State law requires that prior to a Commissioners Court holding a tax hearing those rates must first be noticed to the public at least 5 days prior to the hearing. Any vote to adopt those rates must take place after the hearing but not later than 7 days after the hearing.

Like I said, we’ll see. I don’t trust these guys and neither should you. Even if there’s an agreement reached, it was done under ridiculous circumstances. The Adrian Garcia deal, if that’s what we get, is fine as it is, it’s the process that’s the problem.

Just keep staying away, Commissioners

At this point the pattern is clear. They’re just going to keep staying away, at least until after the election. At which point one can hope that one of them will have a more permanent vacation from these duties.

For those of you who like to bring up the Democratic legislators’ quorum busting from last summer, I will say again that these two have the right to do what they are doing, per the law and the rules of the chamber. That doesn’t mean they’re free from being criticized for it. I will also note that for a variety of reasons, the quorum-busting Democrats eventually came back, and the thing they were trying to stop got passed by the legislative majority in place. Also, for those of us old enough to remember 2003, the Legislature made some subsequent rule changes to make it harder to break quorum, and there were some penalties in terms of committee assignments and other bureaucratic matters in the next session. Assuming there’s still a Democratic majority on the Court in 2023, it would be well within their rights to see about making life a little less pleasant for whichever of their Republican colleagues are still there. I hope someone is at least thinking about that.

We could maybe vote on a piece of the stupid revenue cap next year

Yippie.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he will ask voters in 2023 to amend the city’s cap on property tax revenue to allow for more public safety spending, as the council cut the city’s tax rate for the eighth time in nine years to get under that limit.

Turner said he would bring language to City Council shortly to put the measure on the November 2023 ballot, after At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh expressed concern about how the city will be able to afford the increasing police and fire budgets with strained resources.

“If there is strong sentiment on this council to at least allow the voters to decide, well, let’s put it this way: I’m willing to put it before you and then allow the voters to make that decision,” Turner said. “I will put it before you to be placed on the November ballot of next year.”

City Council voted unanimously to cut its property tax rate by about 3 percent, moving from 55.08 cents to 53.36 cents per $100 in valuation. The city accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of a standard Houston property tax bill, with about half going to the local school district.

The city’s cap on property taxes limits the growth in revenue to a formula that combines inflation and population increases, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. The city hit the former mark this year, as is standard.

Houston first hit the cap in the 2015 fiscal year, and its tax rate since has fallen about 16 percent, down from 63.88 cents per $100. The city has missed out on about $1.5 billion in revenue as a result of those cuts, according to Turner’s administration. The owner of the median Houston home in that time has saved about $946, or about $105 per year.

[…]

Voters tweaked the cap in 2006 to allow the city to raise an additional $90 million in revenue for public safety spending. It was not immediately clear whether the ballot language Turner is proposing would increase that number or seek to carve out public safety spending entirely. The police and fire departments account for $1.5 billion in spending in the city’s current budget.

You know how I feel about revenue caps. At least this will give all those who rail against “defunding the police” the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. I expect there will be at least one lawsuit filed over this regardless, and given what we’ve seen with other litigation it will still be ongoing in 2033.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Republican Commissioners skip out again

Cowards.

Harris County’s two Republican commissioners skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, preventing county leaders from passing a property tax rate and proposed budget for the next fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the tax rate. With only the court’s three Democrats present, the county was forced to adopt what is known as the no new revenue rate, a levy that brings in the same amount of property tax revenue as last year.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the two Republican commissioners “don’t have a plan, they have a campaign ad.”

Hidalgo added that Ramsey and Cagle’s decision to skip the budget vote defunds law enforcement by millions of dollars.

[…]

With the adoption of the no new revenue rate instead of the proposed rate, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will lose out on $5.3 million in proposed increases. The Sheriff’s Office will lose $16.6 million for patrol and administration, plus another $23.6 million for detention.

In response to that funding difference, Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement: “It is crucial that our criminal-justice system be properly funded – the right number of deputies, courthouse staff and prosecutors – and it is up to our elected leaders to set funding priorities.”

Overall, the $2.1 billion budget will be $108 million less than the county had proposed.

The loss of the proposed increases for law enforcement comes after efforts by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar that briefly blocked the county from considering its $2.2 billion budget proposal.

The court had moved forward last week with the budgeting process after a lawyer for the state acknowledged in a Travis County courtroom that the comptroller had no authority to block the county from approving its budget. Hegar can take action only after the budget is approved and if it violates a new state law that bars local governments from reducing spending on law enforcement.

See here for the background. Yes, the Republican Commissioners have done this before. The Constitution allows for this form of minority rule. That doesn’t mean I have to respect it. The main thing I will say here is that I never want to hear any Republican whine about “defunding the police” again, not after the ridiculous bullshit we’ve had to endure from the Comptroller and now from these two clowns, who will be fully responsible for cutting the Sheriff and District Attorney’s budgets. Move on to something else, this has lost all meaning.

Comptroller caves on phony “defunding” claim

In the end, he folded like a lawn chair.

Harris County is moving through the process of passing a fiscal 2023 budget with a 1 percent dip in the property tax rate, after the specter of the state blocking its approval eased in a Travis County courtroom Tuesday.

Prospects for approval of that $2.2 billion budget and the new tax rate next week remain unknown, however, hinging on whether enough members of Commissioners Court show up.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, despite recently threatening to block Harris County’s proposed budget over its alleged defunding of law enforcement, has not formally determined that the county violated state law or otherwise taken action to prevent county leaders from adopting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a state attorney said in court Tuesday.

The acknowledgment came as part of a county lawsuit challenging Hegar’s claims, including those from a letter last month in which the Republican comptroller told county officials they would need voter approval to pass their budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Commissioners Court moved ahead with its budgeting process in the meantime, meeting Tuesday to consider the county’s property tax rate — a procedural step before the court can vote on next year’s budget. Officials first must propose the tax rate, the step taken Tuesday, then hold a public hearing, scheduled for Sept. 13. At that meeting, provided enough commissioners show up, the court can approve the rate and the budget.

On a 3-2 vote, the court on Tuesday proposed the overall tax rate for the county — comprising four rates covering county operations, the Harris Health system, the flood control district and the Port of Houston — at 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That represents about a 1 percent decrease from the current rate of 58.1 cents per $100.

[…]

In an emergency hearing before Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston, attorney Will Thompson of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — which is representing Hegar and Gov. Greg Abbott in the lawsuit by the county — said the dispute “may be a situation where there’s much ado about nothing and the parties are in more agreement than they realize.”

“The comptroller just has not made a final determination,” Thompson said. “He has not done anything that binds Harris County at this stage. Harris County remains free to adopt a budget, in its normal process, following its normal rules for having public meetings and things like that.”

Instead of ruling on Harris County’s request for a temporary order preventing Hegar from blocking Harris County’s budget, Livingston told attorneys for the county and state to, essentially, put Thompson’s comments in writing in a formal court filing. She gave the two sides until Wednesday afternoon to submit the document.

The statement from Thompson came a week after Harris County Administrator David Berry sent Hegar a letter asking him to clarify whether he had “made or issued a determination that Harris County’s proposed budget violates the law” or prevented the county from adopting a budget.

Hegar responded by encouraging Berry to resolve the issue with the Harris County constables who initially complained about their funding.

“I understand that you want assurances from my office, but only Harris County can resolve this issue and clear the path to adopt its budget,” Hegar wrote.

See here and here for the background. It’s very clear from the state’s response to the lawsuit is that they were bluffing the whole time and they knew it. This is why the lawsuit was the right response, despite the whining from Constables Heap and Herman. You don’t concede when you’re right. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, and County Attorney Menefee for properly fighting this.

The rest of the story is about whether the two Republican members of the Court will break quorum again in order to prevent the budget and property tax rate from being passed. I don’t feel like deciphering their eleven-dimensional chess strategy this time around, so let’s just wait and see what happens. If we get the election results we want, we won’t have to worry about these shenanigans again.

Republicans for Collier

Two of them, anyway.

Mike Collier

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, one of Texas’ most prominent Republican local leaders, is backing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Democratic challenger.

“The one person who I’ll support statewide that will get me a little in trouble: Mike Collier for lieutenant governor,” Whitley said on Y’all-itics, a WFAA politics podcast.

Whitley and Patrick have frequently clashed, and on the podcast Whitley slammed Patrick for waging “war on local elected officials.”

Just days after Whitley made the endorsement that crossed party lines, an out-going Republican state senator from Amarillo has followed suit. Kel Seliger plans to vote for Collier in November, a spokesperson for Seliger told The Texas Tribune. Seliger is one of the most senior Republicans in the upper chamber, but has also famously been at odds with Patrick. Neither Whitley nor Seliger are running for reelection.

At the center of Whitley’s disdain for Patrick is a bill shepherded by the lieutenant governor in 2019 meant to slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills. The bill requires many cities, counties and other taxing units to hold an election if they wish to raise 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year, not counting the growth added by new construction.

But Whitley said the bill put Tarrant County in a tight position because property taxes are a major source of revenue for local governments. Meanwhile, Whitley said Tarrant County jails are housing more than 700 inmates that should be in state custody without additional funding from the state. The COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to make jail transfers contributed to state inmates being held in county jails, Community Impact reported.

“We’re paying 20 million plus a year because the state is not paying anything and yet they’re sitting down there talking about all the cash that they’ve got,” Whitley said.

For Seliger, his vote against Patrick this November comes after years of tensions with the lieutenant governor. Seliger is rare among Republicans in the upper chamber for his occasional willingness to go against Patrick. He has said he’s been punished for voting against a pair of the lieutenant governor’s top priorities in 2017, a bill aimed at restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property taxes and a program that would have subsidized private school tuition and home-schooling expenses. In the following session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his title as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. During a 2021 redistricting session, Seliger also voiced concern that Patrick was drawing his district to favor Seliger’s competitor.

[…]

Whitley said he is backing Collier because of Collier’s experience controlling budgets. Collier, an accountant and auditor from the Houston area, is a self-described “numbers guy.” Collier also worked as a landman for Exxon, which Whitley said indicated the Democratic nominee understood the oil business.

“And I just think he’s someone who understands local control. And that’s what I’m looking for,” added Whitley, who as county judge is the county’s top elected official and administrator. “We do everything. We’re the front door for basically all the federal and the state services that the state and the federal government passed laws for us to do.”

This is all nice to see, as is Dan Patrick’s little temper tantrum in response. I’ve said before (many, many times) that nothing will change until Texas’ government changes, and the fastest way for that to happen is for enough people to change how they’ve been voting. I generally don’t believe that endorsements move a lot of votes, but they can move a few, and they can also signal that something is in the air. We’ll know soon enough if this makes any difference – if nothing else, we’ll see what if any effect there is in the precinct data – but I’ll say this much: If Dan Patrick’s political demise can be traced even in part to a fight over local control and bad blood over redistricting, there’s not enough sugar in the world to emulate how sweet that would be. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: And today, outgoing Sen. Eddie Lucio endorses Dan Patrick. I am so glad we are seeing the last of that jackass.

More on the constitutional amendments

From the inbox, from State Rep. Gene Wu:

Rep. Gene Wu

Please share with your neighbors, family, tenants, parishioners, and community partners.

Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation setting Saturday, May 7, 2022 as the special election day for two proposed constitutional amendments in Texas.

The League of Women Voters of Texas has prepared a Voters Guide for the 2022 Special Constitutional Amendments Election using the analyses language from the Texas Legislative Council.

The League’s nonpartisan Voters Guide is available in English or  Spanish. And if you’d rather listen to their YouTube video on the proposed constitutional amendments you may find them at Proposition One and Proposition Two.

It is an honor to serve and represent you.

The LWV explainers are simple and straightforward, with the proposition text and arguments for and against for each. The TLC docs are more thorough but also more dense and with all of the legislative background that you may or may not care about. Together they do a fine job of telling you all you need to know about the amendments on the ballot. Go forth and vote.

Early voting for the May 7 elections begins tomorrow

We all have at least one election to vote in, so get ready to get out there.

On May 7, Texas voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on two proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution, as well as a number of other contests, from local propositions to city council seats.

Early voting for the May 7 elections runs from Monday, April 25, through Tuesday, May 3. As always, polls will be open on Election Day, Saturday, May 7, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

[…]

To vote by mail in Texas, you must be 65 years old or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the early voting period or confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot for the May 7 election is Tuesday, April 26 (received, not postmarked).

This will be a good chance to see if any counties have learned from the March mail ballot debacle and taken steps to reduce the number of rejected ballots. That responsibility very much falls on the political parties as well, and the May 24 primary runoffs will be the bigger test for them. I will be keeping a close eye on this.

(By the way, tomorrow is also the deadline to register to vote for the primary runoffs, if somehow you are not currently registered to vote.)

A list of early voting locations for Harris County for the May 7 election is here and the interactive map is here. Note that fewer locations than usual are available, as this is going to be a low turnout affair, so check to ensure your regular spot is open. I note that the West End Multi-Service Center, on Heights Blvd just south of I-10, which I’ve been using lately as it’s a reasonable bike ride from my house, is not available this time. Check before you head out and save yourself some trouble.

What’s on your ballot for this election? Everyone gets to vote on the two constitutional amendments that were placed on the ballot during the last special session. Prop 2, which increases the homestead exemption from $25K to $40K, is worth a Yes. Prop 1, which approves a property tax cut for elderly and disabled homeowners, is your call. Wherever you are and whatever other races there may be, this one is for all of us to vote on.

In Harris County there is the special election for the remainder of the term in HD147, which is between Jolanda Jones and Danielle Bess. Those two are also in the primary runoff on May 24 – yes, I know, this is weird and confusing – and it really only matters if the same person wins both races. For higher stakes there is the special election in HCC District 2, with four candidates running to replace Rhonda Skillern-Jones. You can listen to the interviews I did with each candidate. For HD147:

Jolanda Jones
Danielle Bess

For HCC2:

Charlene Ward Johnson
Baby Jayne McCullough
Kathy Lynch Gunter
Terrance Hall

Also in Harris County, there are several school bond referenda:

In Fort Bend County, there are two races for Fort Bend ISD, in District 3 and District 7. Note that one of the candidates for District 7 is a problem.

In Montgomery County, there are a bunch of special purpose district elections. If you live in Montgomery, check very carefully to see if one of those includes you.

There are undoubtedly plenty of others, but I’ve only got so much space and time. Check your local elections office webpage for further details, and get out there and vote.

Texas Central owes some property taxes

deep sigh

A planned high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, backers say, would allow travelers to avoid costly and time-consuming freeway traffic.

Before it can deliver that relief, however, the company behind the high-speed rail project will have to stop avoiding its own costly property tax bills for dozens of properties across Texas.

At least $623,000 in property taxes owed by Texas Central Railroad are delinquent, according to a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court in an ongoing condemnation lawsuit, filed by county attorneys from nine of the 11 counties through which the train is planned to run.

“If (Texas Central) cannot afford to pay less than $1 million in property taxes, how will it ever be able to raise the $30-plus billion it needs?” the brief states, referencing what some claim will be the total cost of the project.

Texas Central officials did not respond to a request for comment.

I’m hard pressed to think of a non-embarrassing reason for this. If it was just an administrative screwup, it’s bad but survivable. If it’s something else…hell, I don’t want to know. Just pay your damn taxes already.

What’s on the ballot for the May statewide special election

Yes, you will have a reason to vote this May. It’s a statewide special constitutional amendment election, thanks to the most recent special session. Here’s what’s on tap.

Voters will head to the polls starting April 25 to decide whether to cut property taxes for homeowners by an average $176 a year and provide additional tax savings for elderly and disabled Texans.

There are two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Election Day is May 7.

Proposition 1 would approve the tax cuts for elderly and disabled homeowners beginning in 2023, while a second measure seeks to raise the state’s homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, lowering school property taxes.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who championed both amendments, has said the first proposal would offer relief for about 1.8 million seniors and 180,000 homeowners with disabilities, amounting to roughly $220 million in savings in 2024.

The increased homestead exemption for schools, meanwhile, would save homeowners about $176 annually starting this year, he said. Actual savings would vary depending upon local tax rates.

[…]

Current law freezes school property taxes for most homeowners when they turn 65, and those with disabilities receive the same benefit when purchasing a new property. The proposed change would lower their bills.

“Over-65 homeowners will see their freeze values actually decline, and lifetime savings from both bills in the many thousands,” Bettencourt said.

The second proposal was a compromise after state lawmakers tossed earlier plans to use federal COVID-19 funds to offer a one-time check to Texans who claimed homestead exemptions on their property.

A larger homestead exemption, which is Prop 2, is something I’ve advocated before in the past as a better and more equitable way to reduce property taxes. I’ll vote for that one. Prop 1 hinges on the state boosting its contribution to public education funding, which had been declining as a share of the overall pot of education monies. On the one hand, I’m always wary of this sort of thing because the tendency is just to move money from one budget item to another rather than try to grow revenue to meet growing need. On the other hand, if it’s public education that winds up with a bigger piece of the pie as a result, well, there are worse outcomes. I’ll wait and see on this one, which if you’re keeping score isn’t an outright No.

If all this sounds relatively simple, take comfort in knowing that the actual ballot language is epically ugly, requiring a PhD in Lege-speak to understand it.

For Prop 1, in the voting booth for the May 7 election you’ll be looking at 77 words of incoherency. Ready? I apologize ahead of time. Here it is:

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for the reduction of the amount of a limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for general elementary and secondary public school purposes on the residence homestead of a person who is elderly or disabled to reflect any statutory reduction from the preceding tax year in the maximum compressed rate of the maintenance and operations taxes imposed for those purposes on the homestead.”

Who wrote this monstrosity? Answer: The Texas Legislative Council, which helps lawmakers write their bills.

I called the TLC and talked briefly to general counsel Jon Heining. I asked him why all the gobbledygook?

“Oh, no,” he replied. “We would never explain why we did something. Absolutely not. All of the services we provide for the Texas Legislature are confidential. We don’t comment on the work we do.”

He said his group is publishing a guide to the text in the next few days.

That author asked Sen. Bettencourt about it as well, and got more or less the same response as above. Like I said, I’ll vote for Prop 2 and will wait for more feedback on Prop 1. You should look for more guidance on it as well.

Let’s pay some attention to the Gulf Coast Protection District

They may raise some tax revenue to help pay for the Ike Dike, so best to know what’s happening with it. Especially since they didn’t exactly go out of their way to make it easy to do that.

Danielle Goshen spent months trying to figure out when and where the new group that will work on funding the so-called Ike Dike was meeting. The environmental advocate was eager to know how the Gulf Coast Protection District would cover the local cost if Congress approves the sweeping coastal barrier project.

Goshen is a policy specialist and counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. She’s concerned about pursuing a $29 billion dollar plan, with the prospect that the project could cost even more. The proposal calls for building a massive series of gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay to stop hurricane storm surges from pushing up the industry-lined ship channel.

The legislature created the protection district to find local funding for 35 percent of the portion of the project built here — perhaps by levying taxes. Supporters say the concept is necessary as climate change will likely strengthen the winds and rains of future storms. Advocates such as Goshen caution it will take at least 12 years to design and build. Non-federal funding needed for the barrier system is about $10 billion.

Environmental advocates have expressed wide-ranging concerns about the proposal, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized last fall. They’ve pressed for more information about how the foundations of the gates will restrict water flow between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, potentially impacting water quality and marine life. The barrier also won’t stop the worst of storms and it will still leave the region especially vulnerable during the years it takes to build.

Harris County is the most populous of the five counties the district represents, and residents could be responsible for some 85 percent of the local tax share for the proposal, making for about a 20 percent tax increase, Harris County Administrator David Berry said in December. Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties are also in the district’s jurisdiction.

The costly burden makes it all the more pressing for stakeholders and residents to be tuned into the decision making, Goshen said.

“The real concern is that they’re not doing enough to make these meetings accessible to the public and to really get the word out that they’re having these meetings in the first place,” Goshen said, adding, “We really think that it’s imperative that this district has public engagement at the top of mind.”

Goshen kept searching online for months for information about the meetings, she said, and found nothing. It wasn’t until near the end of 2021 that someone forwarded her an agenda.

It turned out Gov. Greg Abbott had appointed six board members in June. Each county’s commissioners court picked one additional board member. The group had been getting together since August. The meetings were open to all, and met legal requirements, whether or not they’d been thoroughly advertised, according to those in charge.

[…]

The newly formed district now has a website and email distribution list but as the pandemic stretches on, the group still offers no way for the public to watch meetings online. It also has pages on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. Goshen, as well as a Houston Chronicle environment reporter and an environmental advocate, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director Kristen Schlemmer, were its only three Twitter followers before the Chronicle covered the group Wednesday.

See here and here for the background. I confess I had totally forgotten about this – it’s not like we’ve been in a low-news environment lately, but still – but I am now a Twitter follower of the GCPD, whose count was up to 119 including me as of Monday evening. I hope that whatever business the conduct going forward, it’s better publicized and better covered. This is a big deal, and we deserve to know what they’re up to.

We will have a statewide special election in May

Surprise!

Texas voters will decide whether to lower some property taxes that fund schools in a May 7 special election.

Two propositions will be on the statewide ballot. Gov. Greg Abbott officially set the upcoming election date Wednesday.

The first proposition would draw down property taxes for elderly and disabled Texans by reducing the amount they pay to public schools, which typically makes up most of a homeowner’s tax bill. The state would then cover that reduced revenue for school districts. The measure would cost the state more than $744 million from 2024 to 2026.

The second measure would raise Texas’ homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000 for school district property taxes, which would save the average homeowner about $176 on their annual property tax bill. If approved, this measure would cost the state $600 million annually. The state will use a $4.4 billion surplus to pay for the measure’s first-year cost, but as of October, it was unclear where future funding would come from.

Both measures passed during special legislative sessions last year with bipartisan support from lawmakers.

I have a vague memory of this from last summer, and I thought I wrote something about it at the time, but if I did I can’t find it. Go read the linked Trib story for the details. This will be on the May ballot because it happened too late to be on last year’s November ballot, when this sort of thing normally happens. Having it at that time almost certainly means there will be even lower turnout than the typical November-of-odd-year Constitutional amendment vote, but at least it means that the HCC special election will have some company. So mark your calendar, between this and the inevitable primary runoffs you now have two reasons to vote in May.

Does Houston get its fair share from Harris County?

It’s complicated.

Do property taxpayers inside the City of Houston subsidize Harris County services? It’s a question that comes up a lot, given the fact that city residents—like their counterparts in the county—pay separate property taxes to the county, but the county provides many services only to the unincorporated areas.

The answer to that question appears to be yes: property taxes paid to the county by those inside the city do subsidize services out in the county—at least so far as general county services are concerned. (On the hospital front, city residents appear to receive more in services than they pay in taxes to the county.)

The overall picture might look different; for example, residents outside the city make many purchases inside the city, and the resulting sales tax goes to the city, not the county. But at least according to a new analysis from the Kinder Institute, with the assistance of the fiscal analysis firm TischlerBise, the county gets more in property tax revenue from city taxpayers than it provides in services.

[…]

Although much of the unincorporated area is served by municipal utility districts, the county government is responsible for providing many services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, that are typically provided by cities. For this reason, the question of whether city taxpayers subsidize services outside the city has long been debated. At the same time, it should be noted that the county provides many services, such as justice administration and hospital care, to all residents of the county no matter where they live.

The Harris County government collects and spends about $2 billion per year in property tax revenue. The Harris County Hospital District collects and spends about $700 million per year in property tax revenue. A little more than half of the county’s property tax comes from inside the city.

But the amount of money that the county spends on services to city residents varies. For example, we estimate that almost 60% of all county flood control expenditures benefit the city. At the same time, however, almost 90% of county road and bridges expenditures occur outside the city limits.

I have definitely complained in this space about all of the roadbuilding in empty parts of the county as the primary development planning strategy. It’s worked in that the county’s population has boomed, but it has also led to the paving over of a lot of prairie land that had been a key component of flood control, and it has had the feel of leaving the inner core behind to fend for itself. I have felt that a little less in recent years, as the county has kicked in on various city road and bike projects, as well as contributing to Metro for bus shelters and other repairs. I give Commissioner Rodney Ellis a lot of the credit for that. I’d still like to see more done, but at least the disparity is not as glaring.

As this article points out, there are county services that provide a lot of benefit to Houston, and services that are widely used by everyone, so the picture is more nuanced than I might have given it credit in the past. The city also benefits from sales taxes from people who work in the city or travel into the city for business and entertainment. The cited study did not go into that aspect of the finances, though they say more study will be forthcoming. I’m just glad to see this issue get some attention.

The high pastoral life

Sweeeeeeeeeeeeet.

This fall, county officials mailed out property tax bills to the owners of a 10-bedroom, 10.5-bath Houston-area mansion, an 8,000-square-foot residence in a historic San Antonio neighborhood, an elegant Highland Park estate in Dallas and a house on more than an acre overlooking Corpus Christi Bay. The homes are worth millions of dollars. In each case, their 2021 tax bill was identical:

Zero.

Most people know that religious organizations pay no property taxes on their houses of worship. Lesser known is that many also get a valuable break on residences for their clergy as well.

The word “parsonage,” as these residences are called, conjures images of humble, spartan rooms attached to drafty churches. A few still are.

Yet in many places across Texas, parsonages are extravagant estates nestled in the state’s most exclusive enclaves. Like their wealthy neighbors, the clergy occupants enjoy spacious and well-appointed homes, immaculate grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, decorative fountains and serene grottos.

Unlike their neighbors, the parsonage owners pay nothing in taxes, leaving other Texans to backfill the uncollected revenue to cover the cost of schools, police and firefighters.

State law allows religious organizations to claim tax-free clergy residences of up to 1 acre. Yet each of the state’s counties has its own appraiser responsible for overseeing local properties. So no one entity has examined how many parsonages there are in Texas, their value and their legality.

A first-of-its-kind Houston Chronicle investigation analyzing thousands of pages of property records found:

• The state’s most populous counties identified 2,683 parsonages worth about $1 billion, costing other residents who must fund school districts and local governments $16 million every year. The true cost is almost certainly higher because several large counties did not or could not respond, and even those that did conceded they did not regularly update values for the tax-exempt properties.

• There is no dollar limit to a parsonage’s tax exemption. At least 28 of the clergy residences were worth more than $1 million.

• Compared to some other states, Texas’ parsonage law is vague and permissive, allowing appraisers little leverage to question the legitimacy of a religion or clergy member. A lack of enforcement authority means the process effectively operates on the honor system.

• Across Texas’ largest counties, the Chronicle identified more than 30 parsonages for which appraisers had granted the 100 percent tax break even though they exceed the law’s 1-acre limit. Presented with the Chronicle’s findings, 13 appraisal districts said they were initiating reviews of parsonages in their jurisdictions.

“If you’re trying to paint a picture of there’s a lot of abuse in the clergy exemption, it does a pretty good job with that,” Brent South, chief appraiser in Hunt County and former president of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts, said of the newspaper’s investigation. “The numbers don’t lie.”

It’s like my momma always told me. You wanna really make some bank in this world, put some mousse in your hair, develop an drawl, and become a megachurch preacher. (*) Doesn’t get any better than this. The Chron has been running a series of stories about how completely stacked the property tax system is in this state – you can read it here if you want to get your heart rate up. There’s stuff we’ve discussed here before, and there’s stuff like this which I had no idea about. Check it out.

(*) My fingers originally typed that as “magachurch preacher”. Clearly, my subconscious needs a break.

We are making progress on the flood bond projects

Let’s not lose sight of that.

Three years into Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond program, progress can feel maddeningly slow. After decades of underinvestment in flood protection, however, any completed project is a welcome improvement for nearby residents.

Through October, 16 percent of the planned projects for detention basins, channel widening and other infrastructure was complete. All 181 projects are underway in some capacity, from design to construction, and each is on schedule.

“Our project life cycle is three to five years, and in some cases that cycle has just started,” Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Alan Black said. “But at least they’ve all been started. And on top of that, no project has been delayed due to lack of funding.”

Several completed works already are providing better flood protection for hundreds of thousands of homes, Black said.

Those include major maintenance along Cypress Creek and Spring Branch Creek, as well as the first phase of the Aldine Westfield detention basin project

In Kashmere, local officials heralded the progress of a $100 million Hunting Bayou channel improvement project that will remove more than 4,000 homes from the floodplain.

[…]

Whether the bond program is completed as originally planned remains an open question. Commissioners Court sold the bond to voters — who approved it overwhelmingly in 2018 — as, essentially, a buy-one-get-one-free deal. If voters agreed to pay $2.5 billion, the county predicted it could secure another $2.5 billion in federal matching dollars, bringing the total pot to around $5 billion.

So far, that plan has had mixed success.

You can say that again. I’m not going to rehash all of that – the article does so, you can keep on reading. The fact that we’re getting stuff done for flood mitigation is good. The fact that there’s so much more to do, well, that’s the reality.

[County Judge Lina] Hidalgo blamed some of the funding woes on the previous Commissioners Court, which she said was far too conservative in proposing a $2.5 billion bond. Flood control experts peg the total cost to protect Harris County against 100-year storms at more than $30 billion.

“Everybody will tell you, it should have been a much bigger number,” Hidalgo said. The leaders at the time thought it was a politically expedient number to select $2.5 billion.”

I think, if we had to do it all again and we knew that P Bush and the GLO were going to screw us on the federal funds, the Court at that time probably would have proposed a larger bond issue. I also think that the top number was going to be strictly limited by whether or not it would require a tax increase, even a small one. Maybe $30 billion is an overestimate of how much we need to spend to truly mitigate our flood risk. For sure, it’s more than $5 billion, and at some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to need to pay up for that.

Now is the autumn of our discontent

Nobody likes anything right now.

Texas voters have a net disapproval for how state leaders have handled the reliability of the electricity grid, abortion and property taxes, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

In an October poll of 1,200 registered voters, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state’s handling of the reliability of the main power grid after statewide power outages in February left millions of Texans without power for days. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, and 60% of voters disapproved. Even lawmakers themselves have expressed frustration that the laws they wrote to prepare the power grid for extreme weather haven’t led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

“The lurking uncertainty and doubts about the electricity grid [are] a mine waiting to go off,” said Jim Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “If there’s another even moderate infrastructure problem in the state in the grid or service delivery writ large that can be connected with the February outages and the failure of the Legislature to respond in a way that people expect it to be effective, it’s a real political problem for incumbents.”

[…]

According to the poll, 39% of voters approved of how state leaders have handled abortion policy while 46% disapproved. Lawmakers this year passed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, barring the procedure before many people know they are pregnant.

Only 20% of voters said they approved of the Legislature’s handling of property taxes, while 46% said they disapproved. The Legislature has tried for years to cut increasing property taxes for homeowners across the state, but voters see only minor reductions in their bills.

Voter disapproval for the state’s handling of the issue increased from June, when pollsters at the University of Texas last asked about the issue after the Legislature’s regularly scheduled five-month special session.

[…]

A plurality of 47% of voters opposed banning abortions after about six weeks, as the state’s new law does, and 45% approve. Fifty-seven percent of voters oppose the law’s provision allowing private citizens to sue people they believe helped someone obtain an abortion, including 35% of Republicans. Only 30% of voters said they approved of that portion of the law. If the plaintiff wins such a lawsuit, the law allows that person to be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs and attorney fees.

“The idea of bounties and the problems with having private enforcement of public laws of what are seen currently as constitutional rights strikes at least more people as problematic than the actual law itself,” Blank said.

Overall, the polls showed an uptick in approval of how the state has handled abortion policy since the last time voters were polled on the subject in June. Then, 32% of voters approved and 42% disapproved. Blank said that was marked by an increase in approval from Republicans as more voters learned of the state’s new abortion law, which was passed in May.

Polls remained consistent on exceptions to abortion restrictions. More than 80% of voters said abortions should be allowed if a woman’s health was at risk, and nearly three quarters said they should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. Nearly 60% said they should be allowed if there was a strong chance of a serious defect to the baby, but support for other exceptions dropped substantially from there.

This is from the same poll we discussed last week. For the most part there are clear partisan splits, which makes these results less interesting to me overall, but as you can see there are some places where the consensus is greater. That should present an opportunity for Democrats in their messaging, which always sounds easier to do than to actually do it. Independents are particularly negative about everything, including Greg Abbott’s favorite anti-immigration toys, which may just be because these things come with partisan squabbles that independents always react negatively to, or maybe just because they’re grumpy about the state of the world, or maybe they really do represent some electoral danger for Republicans. I do agree that another weather-induced blackout would be bad news for the ruling party. I wouldn’t draw any broader conclusions than that.

Commissioners Court avoids quorum break

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court this week unanimously agreed on a proposal to cut the overall property tax rate for the coming year, a compromise that avoids a potential quorum break by Republicans that would have forced an even deeper cut.

The rate of 58.1 cents per $100 of assessed value is 3 percent less than the current levy. This means the owner of a home valued at $300,000, with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption already factored in, could save up to $54 in the first year. However, as Harris County Appraisal District valuations continue to rise, homeowners could see slightly higher tax bills, despite the lower rate.

The overall rate is the sum of the rates Commissioners Court sets for four entities: the county as a whole, the flood control district, the hospital district and the Port of Houston. Compared to the current levies, the flood control district rate will increase slightly, while the other three entities would see a rate cut.

Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia last week proposed a rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, a 2.2 percent cut from the current rate of 59.9 cents.

The two Republican members wanted more significant savings for taxpayers, noting economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey proposed a rate of 57.9 cents.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned against cutting the tax rate, and thus revenues, too much because it will make raising more revenue in the future more difficult. That is because of a revenue cap the Legislature placed on cities and counties last year which limits year-over-year growth to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

“We should be negotiating on what the county needs,” Hidalgo said. “It does not benefit me, politically, to want to cut taxes less. I simply know we’re headed down a dangerous path.”

After hours of haggling at a hearing Tuesday afternoon, the panel agreed on the 58.1 cent rate, which Garcia offered as a compromise. The court at one point was mulling a half dozen options and County Administrator David Berry confessed he was struggling to keep track of who had proposed which.

See here for the background. They say in baseball that you gain more by avoiding dumb decisions than you do by making brilliant ones. I’m just glad we were able to avoid the dumb outcome here.

Republican County Commissioners ponder another quorum break

It’s a thing they can do, and have done in recent times. They shouldn’t, not for this, but they can.

The three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday proposed cutting the overall property tax rate for the third year in a row, though the two Republican members left open the possibility they may force the adoption of a lower rate by skipping the vote in two weeks.

County Administrator David Berry warned that option would leave the county scrambling to pay for essential services, including debt service for the $2.5 billion flood bond program. Republican commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, however, see an opportunity to compel the Democratic majority to cut what they view as wasteful spending.

“We are having a budget challenge because of wasteful spending, not because of tax rates,” Ramsey said, citing the creation of new county departments and hiring outside consultants for various studies. “So, when we adopt a tax rate, it should be in that context.”

Each year, Harris County sets the tax rate for the county government, flood control district, hospital district and Port of Houston; the first three together comprise an overall rate that is used to calculate each property owner’s annual tax bill.

Berry proposed an overall rate of 58.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value. This would save the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with the standard 20 percent homestead exemption $27 since their last tax bill.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court have expressed support for that rate.

Cagle’s pitch of 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which included lower county and hospital district rates, would save this same homeowner $48.

The Precinct 4 commissioner said residents who still are struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic deserve more property tax relief.

“When we do the tax rate hearings, we need to be very careful that we make sure we don’t keep just the tax-spender mindset,” Cagle said. “The taxpayers, right now, are going through a rough season in their lives.”

[…]

The pair of Republicans have rare power over the tax issue because while they frequently are out-voted 3-2 by the Democratic majority on the court, Texas law requires a quorum of four members to set tax rates.

That means they simply can skip the Sept. 28 meeting when the vote is scheduled and thwart the Democrats’ plan; Cagle and then-commissioner Steve Radack did this in 2019 to block a tax hike the majority had proposed.

If the court does not approve new tax rates before Oct. 15, by law they revert to what is called the no new revenue rate, a steeper cut than even Cagle had proposed.

Berry said that would leave the county unable to fully fund the budget Commissioners Court unanimously approved in February. It also would constrain the county budget in coming years under a Texas Legislature-imposed revenue cap, which limits annual growth to 3.5 percent unless approved by voters.

“Over time, going to no new revenue rates are going to be very, very difficult for the county, given what we see in terms of rising health care and pension expenses,” Berry said.

He cautioned that reverting to the bottom rates would leave the county flood control district without enough to pay debt service on the bond program voters approved in 2018. That also could spook creditors and threaten the county’s robust AAA bond rating.

All five court members agree falling behind on debt payments would be foolish.

See here and here for more on the previous quorum break. If everyone agrees that a Cagle and Ramsey walkout would lead to a bad fiscal outcome for the county, then the very simple and logical solution is for them to not do that. They’re getting some of what they want, which is not a bad outcome for a political minority, and they have the option of campaigning for their alternate vision in an attempt to win back a majority position on the Court for next year. Done and dusted, let’s move on.

But if they choose to break quorum to force an even lower tax rate, in the name of “cutting spending”, then it is incumbent on the Democratic majority to respond. They can’t change the quorum requirement, which is a quirk of the state constitution, but like the Republican majority in the Legislature there are things they can do to make the price of breaking quorum higher. I would endorse two things to do in response: One, rewrite the budget so that the full cuts that would have to occur come entirely from Cagle and Ramsey’s apportionment. Do whatever it takes to make them feel the pain, since they were the ones who wanted the pain in the first place. And two, absolutely go for a maximalist redistricting map, to eject one of them from their current positions. Don’t play nice, don’t let bygones be bygones, just respond in kind and let them absorb the lesson that their actions have consequences. It’s basic stuff.

Now again, none of this has to happen. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey can show up and vote how they see fit, and still get a lower tax rate even if it’s not as low as they would like. You can’t always get what you want, especially when you’re outvoted. Or they can go their own way and force their will onto the county, and see if the Dems have it in them to do payback. We’ll know on September 28 what they choose.

Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

For more than a year, the federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used that pot of stimulus funds as Congress intended: buying personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for kids learning from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission and covering other costs.

But in Texas, local schools have yet to see an extra dime from the more than $19 billion in federal stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus bill last year, officials used the state’s $1.3 billion education share to fill other holes in the state budget, leaving public schools with few additional resources to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Now, educators and advocacy groups worry that the state could do the same thing with the remaining $17.9 billion in funding for Texas public schools from the other two stimulus packages. Because of federal requirements, Texas has to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.

“Principals’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, with tutoring, with trying to get kids back engaged, while the Legislature is sitting on a whole bunch of money,” said Michelle Smith, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not just this school year, but for several school years to come.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.

Because of the state’s waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C., or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.

Libby Cohen, the director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the most recent stimulus package also includes guidance on how to use that money. Texas and New York are the only two states that have provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic, according to Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX.

“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”

Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now, and want the Legislature to start funneling the federal funds to school districts as soon as possible.

But state lawmakers holding the most power over budgeting and education funding want the Legislature, instead of local school districts, to decide what to do with these federal stimulus dollars.

“The federal funds will ultimately get to school districts but the overriding question is how should these funds be spent and who should make that decision?” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary obligation for educating Texas children vests in the Legislature according to the Texas Constitution.”

I can accept that the Legislature should have oversight of this process, but I don’t accept that they must play the part of approving each allocation. All that does is put a bottleneck on things, at a time when the schools need the funds now. More to the point, it’s not even clear that it will be the Lege making these decisions:

I see even less point to that. There’s a lot of money at stake, not all for the schools, and it makes sense to want to ensure it’s being spent for its intended purposes. But it doesn’t make sense to sit on it and take a lot of time figuring that out, because that money is needed now, especially the money for schools and students.

One more thing to consider: Rising property values, which have fueled an increase in local property tax revenues, have already been used by the Legislature to pay for other things.

Because of the way public schools are funded, a rise in local property tax revenue means the state doesn’t have to send as much money to local school districts. The schools would get the same amount as before — it’s not a budget cut — but the money that might have come from the state comes instead from local school property taxes.

This year, that amounts to $5.5 billion — most of it from property value increases. About 21% of that amount — $1.2 billion — comes from what the Legislative Budget Board called “lower-than-anticipated Average Daily Attendance rates, increased non-General Revenue Funds revenues, and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.”

In plain language, that’s a drop in the average number of students that school funding is based on, money that comes from sources other than state taxes and money from the first round of federal COVID-19 relief.

That last one is a sore spot for local officials, who see the state skimming from a pot of money that was supposed to go to public education. Here’s how that scam works: The money is still going to public education, but the amount the state would have sent is being reduced by the same amount, freeing the state to use money it would have used on schools on some other part of government.

The budgeteers’ word for that is “supplanting” — instead of getting the state money that was coming to them, with the federal money on top, the schools get the same amount of money they’d have received without any federal aid.

Give the schools their money already. There’s no more time to waste. The Chron has more.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

Can we please not screw the schools right now?

Really, we don’t have to do this.

Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.

Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.

The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.

The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.

For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.

Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.

There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”

“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.

The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.

Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.

“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”

I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to create a local government corporation to manage Harris County’s toll road system in a move expected to provide a windfall to county coffers and allow surplus toll collections to be spent on non-transportation purposes.

Approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, the local government model would allow the Harris County Toll Road Authority to refinance its debt at historically low rates and divert funds to help the county respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, and invest more in flood control, supporters said.

Under the proposal by new Budget Director David Berry, the county will receive a $300 million lump sum in toll revenue and then $90 million annually from the system. The toll road authority collected $901 million in the fiscal year that ended in February.

Peter Key, interim executive director of HCTRA, urged the court in a memo to adopt the new governance model.

“This is an unprecedented situation that presents unique financial challenges for the county and may require additional levels of financial support for the county to effectively respond to these challenges for the foreseeable future,” Key wrote.

The toll road authority’s current bond indenture and state law limit the use of surplus revenues to non-toll roads, streets, highways and related facilities, according to a Q&A created by the county budget office. After refinancing under the new governance structure, HCTRA revenues can be used by other county departments.

The proposal would not affect toll rates, the budget office said, nor would it privatize the system or sell off any assets.

[…]

While Fort Bend, Brazoria and Montgomery Counties use local government corporations to finance and operate their toll roads, Harris County’s will serve as a financing vehicle only. The toll road authority estimates Harris County will save $60 million by refinancing the system’s roughly $2.7 billion debt at lower rates through the corporation.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she supported the idea because the county can “maximize every dollar” in a challenging fiscal environment.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said diverting some toll revenues would be an effective way to boost flood control spending. It also could be used as matching funds to state or federal appropriations on ambitious capital projects like deepening the Houston Ship Channel.

I’m fine with this. If the toll roads are generating more revenue than is needed to operate and maintain the roads, then sure, let’s use some of that money for other necessary purposes. Flood control would be high on my list, but other capital projects make sense, too. Commissioners Court will still be accountable for all this, as they currently comprise the board of this LGC, and they will be responsible for appointing subsequent board members. Let’s put this revenue to some good use.

(You may say, if the toll roads were bringing in such excess revenue, we should have cut toll rates. I say that’s a policy choice, and my preferred policy would be to do something like this instead. Lowering tolls is pretty far down on my priority list. Your mileage may vary.)

In the “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” department:

Both Republican commissioners voted against the proposal. Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 lamented the fact that there had been no public meetings on the topic before Tuesday’s vote, unlike the extensive campaign in the summer of 2018 seeking support for the $2.5 billion flood bond program.

Precinct 3’s Steve Radack derided the idea as a ploy by the court’s Democrats who, in his view, are looking to siphon money from the toll road authority instead of asking taxpayers for more.

“This is a money grab,” Radack said. “They’re going to use it to pay for things that are normally paid for via (property) taxes.”

Hey, remember when Commissioners Radack and Cagle broke quorum to prevent the democratically-elected majority on Commissioners Court from voting on a property tax rate hike that was intended to cover future downturns in revenue resulting from COVID-19 and the state’s rigid new revenue cap? Good times, good times. Maybe let the majority vote on its policies next time, and campaign against them on the places where you have disagreements? Just a suggestion.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

The rough fiscal road for school districts

It’s gonna be bad. How bad remains the question.

Coronavirus already has wreaked havoc on school districts — closing campuses for the remainder of the school year, shifting learning online, and exposing a wide digital divide between students who have ready access to the internet and those who do not. And that is only this year.

Next year, even if the restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus still could spark a budget crisis for traditional and charter school districts across Texas.

School finance officials and state leaders already are warning that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic, coupled with the ongoing oil slump, could result in a plunge in state revenues as sales taxes drop and commercial property values slip. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar already has said the state is in a recession.

As districts work to finish their 2020-2021 budgets for approval this summer, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said it would be prudent for them to squirrel away some money, even if it is too early to tell how much of an impact the pandemic will have on funding next year.

“Talking to superintendents, my message to everybody is, let’s get through this year, let’s get to summer time, and next session we’ll need to watch things very closely,” Huberty said.

[…]

[2019 school finance reform bill HB3] requires districts to base their upcoming budget on current year property values, instead of the previous year’s values. Districts receive a larger infusion of state money too, but the rate at which they can tax local property owners effectively will be capped by the state, said Catherine Knepp, an associate at the Moak, Casey & Associates school finance consulting group. How much local tax rates have to be lowered depends on the rate local property values rise and several other factors.

“Districts were still figuring out how to do that,” Knepp said, “Then enter coronavirus.”

For local revenues, Knepp said districts most likely to be impacted by the coronavirus closures will be those in which a larger share of their tax bases are commercial or industrial property rather than residential. About 60 percent of Deer Park ISD’s tax base, for example, comes from industrial properties that could suffer if the oil slump continues or if businesses there shut down entirely.

[…]

Huberty said the Legislature plans to save $1 billion of federal stimulus money for the next session to help fund schools and other parts of the state’s budget. Although it is too early to tell how much damage could be done as businesses and much of public life remains closed, he said money could be tight next session and said superintendents should begin looking where they could trim their budgets.

“The bones of what we put together with HB 3 remain intact, and we got some stimulus money from the feds to help us out with next year,” Huberty said. “But we’re going to have to look at everything.”

It’s a whammy from multiple fronts, as state revenue as well as local property tax revenues will be down, and the deep drop in oil prices will mean the Rainy Day Fund isn’t as topped up as it has been lately. On top of all that, when local revenues do start to recover, they will have to deal with the cap imposed by HB3. Which, as I understand it, does have an exception for things like epidemics, though who knows how that will play out. Even if everyone agrees to waive the restricting revenue cap, even the previously existing one could force tax cuts at a time when the districts are starved for funds. This will be an issue for multiple Legislatures, not just the 2021 Lege. It’ll also be a fine how-do-you-do for the TEA-appointed Board of Managers in HISD, whose first task (assuming they eventually get seated) will be dealing with the expected ginormous budget hole. Bet all those people who applied for the position a couple of months ago are having second thoughts now.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

City wins final judgment in revenue cap lawsuit

Wow, is this ever a blast from the past.

The city of Houston has prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the amount it can collect in property taxes, ending 14 years of litigation over a set of measures approved by voters in 2004.

At issue in the suit were two ballot measures from 2004, specifically Proposition 1, which limited the annual increases in property tax and utility revenues to the combined increases in population and inflation for Houston, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Prop 1 was approved by voters in 2004, as was was another measure, Proposition 2, that further limited the city’s ability to collect revenue. The city, under then-Mayor Bill White, abided by the first measure because of a directive in it that stated whichever cap received more votes would be the one adopted.

Individuals from a conservative group then filed suit, accusing the city of violating the caps by not also adopting Proposition 2.

After years of court battles, a state district judge has ruled that the city has “fully complied” with Proposition 1.

See here for the city’s statement. The most recent update I can find in my own archives is from 2008 (!!), though it is likely there has been more action on the lawsuit that either wasn’t reported or went unremarked upon by me. However you look at it, this is some old, old business, and now it is done. Think of it as an alternate thing the city of Houston can celebrate now that the World Series didn’t work out the way we’d hoped.

Another ReBuild Houston lawsuit

Gotta say, this puzzles me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A pair of Houston residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council Monday, accusing them of failing to follow the will of voters who approved a charter amendment last year for funding drainage and street repairs.

The lawsuit accuses city leaders of shortchanging the dedicated drainage fund by failing to transfer the full amount required by last year’s ballot proposition.

The proposition, which essentially was a “do-over” vote on the city’s 2010 street and drainage repair program known as Rebuild Houston, requires the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of its property tax rate to the street and drainage fund. The city, under former mayor Annise Parker and Turner, has transferred less than the full amount generated by the 11.8 cents for the last five years.

The plaintiffs allege a roughly $44 million discrepancy in what the city currently has budgeted compared to the amount generated by 11.8 cents of property tax rate. Over 10 years, the funding shortfall could exceed $500 million, the plaintiffs say.

Turner’s office issued a statement disagreeing with the premise of the lawsuit, saying that transferring the full amount generated by 11.8 cents of tax rate would require moving some $50 million more annually and would “cripple” city services.

“That would mean cuts to essential services like police, fire, solid waste, and other services,” the statement said. “Mayor Turner doesn’t support that.”

The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, are engineers who were part of the campaign that put the program, then known as ReNew Houston, on the 2010 ballot. It later was renamed Rebuild Houston.

They said they were suing because the city had failed to meet the expectations outlined in Proposition A, which 74 percent of voters approved last year. They are seeking a court order to force the city to direct more money and “to fund the things they said they were going to fund,” Jones said.

“Houstonians spoke loud and clear just one year ago when they voted to create a fund to fix our streets and drainage,” Jones said in a later statement. “…We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our street and drainage infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 about the ReBuild re-vote. You can click the links to the Chron stories, but there’s nothing in either of them that mentioned a percentage of property taxes. The story mentions this was a part of the original mix of funding for ReBuild Houston, and here I have to confess I don’t remember that. There was so much noise and drama about the drainage fee that anything and everything else got overpowered. If this is what’s supposed to happen, then the consequences will be unpleasant. On the plus side, maybe it’ll take another decade to get settled via the courts.