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Sylvester Turner

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

Interstate 45 still is on a road to rebuild after Texas transportation officials on Tuesday kept the controversial project in the state’s 10-year construction plans, but warned that failing to get federal highway officials to remove their hold on it could halt the plan altogether later this year.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday approved the state’s 2022-2031 unified transportation program, keeping the I-45 project listed in it. The unified program is the guidepost for freeway construction in Texas, as only projects included can receive state funding.

That approval, however, is contingent on settling a dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal officials told TxDOT in March to stop work on the project until concerns related to its impacts on minority and low-income communities and how TxDOT addressed those effects is completed.

“It is not the local support that’s the problem. It’s Washington, D.C., (that) is the problem, impeding our ability to go forward with this project,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We will give FHWA 90 days and we will come back and revisit this,” Bugg said. “After the 90 days have expired we will discuss what to do with the project.”

He said if the issues have not made progress, the commission could start the process of removing the project from the long-term plan. TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said removing the project would require another 60-day public comment process.

Williams said discussions with federal officials are constructive and continuing, but he would not speculate whether it is practical or possible for federal officials to operate on the commission’s timeline.

[…]

As part of the UTP public comment process, TxDOT received 12,700 comments, 8,170 of them related to the I-45 project. The response, which included an online poll, was a record-breaking amount of public engagement for a TxDOT program, officials said.

Of those comments related to I-45, TxDOT said 5,529 — around two-thirds — supported keeping the funding in place.

Critics, however, questioned the process TxDOT used to solicit comments. The online poll, opponents said, set up a “take it or leave it” choice of either TxDOT’s vision or nothing at all.

“It is your responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to engage the public in productive ways and you have failed to do so,” said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINKHouston.

See here, here, and here for some background; the version of this story from before the meeting is here. I might suggest that the issue here is not with the FHWA and its timelines, but if we had agreement on that point we probably wouldn’t be here right now. Not much else to say here, we’ll see where we’re at after we catch up with that can we just kicked.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)

There needs to be more defiance of Greg Abbott and his no-mandates mandate

I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.

School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.

Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.

[…]

Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.

“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”

Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.

Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.

[…]

It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.

“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.

[…]

Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.

The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.

Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.

Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.

The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.

So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:

HISD to consider mask mandate

This would be a big deal, for all the obvious reasons.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday he plans to bring a mask mandate for ratification to the district’s board meeting next week, setting the stage for the state’s largest district to potentially buck a gubernatorial executive order banning such mandates.

Under the proposed mandate, all district students and employees would be expected to wear masks in facilities and buses, House said during Thursday evening’s board meeting.

If approved, the mandate would be among the first of its kind issued by a public school district in the Houston area, and apparently the state, since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting such directives.

[…]

It was not clear Thursday night if other districts plan to follow House’s initiative.

“We know that we are going to get pushback for this,” House said. “We are not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is: If we have an opportunity to save one life, it is what we should be doing.”

In revealing the proposal, House noted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and cited an increasing two-week positivity rate in the county and skyrocketing hospitalizations.

“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me,” House said. “It concerns me greatly.”

If approved, the mandate will bring the district closer to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in updated guidance suggested all individuals in schools not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors.

Children younger than 12 remain unable to get vaccinated.

Abbott’s order prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. Any local governments or officials who tried to impose such an order could be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000, according to Abbott’s office.

It was not clear how the fine would be given to school districts that challenged the order or whether any entities that announced mandates this week had been fined already.

Here’s the statement from Superintendent House. As noted, Harris County is back at the highest threat level, and Mayor Turner has ordered city workers to wear masks, also presumably in violation of Abbott’s order, so far without any repercussions. It’s hard for me to imagine that Abbott would let this go by, but all we can do is process the events that occur.

Also as noted, other Houston-area school districts were not planning to defy Abbott, though I’m sure they’re watching to see what happens here. What’s puzzling and infuriating is that the updated TEA guidance to school districts says that schools now don’t have to inform parents of positive COVID cases (though they do have to report that information to state and local health departments, and they also don’t have to contact trace, but if they choose to do so, parents can still choose to send their kid to school if they are a “close contact” of a positive COVID case. It’s almost maximally designed to be risky. There is some limited allowance for remote learning, and I don’t know how that may play out. We’re approaching September as if it were still May.

Superintendent House’s proposed action here – it would still need to be approved by the HISD Board of Trustees, who may decide that’s a step too far – is bold but carries a lot of risk. We don’t know what kind of blowback House and HISD could face from Abbott, who clearly values his primary campaign and pandering to the most extreme members of his party more than anything else. When he finally lashes out – again, I cannot imagine him letting this slide – it’s going to be ugly. But against that, Superintendent House has the best of reasons for his action – putting the safety of the kids and the teachers and the staffers first. I’m on his side and I’m impressed by his willingness to take a stand. We’ll just see how far it can go.

Back to Code Red

Pretty much inevitable at this point.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and urged unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

At a news conference, Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public settings, and avoid hospitals except for life-threatening conditions.

“We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very conceivable that we can once again be heading toward a public health catastrophe.”

[…]

The county’s data report Wednesday evening showed how far and fast the situation has deteriorated: an explosion of new cases and a positivity rate of 16 percent. Hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased for 20 straight days and show no signs of slowing; they are on pace to set a pandemic record in about a week.

At its heart, the stay-home request of unvaccinated residents is toothless. Hidalgo lacks the authority to enforce it, let alone issue less restrictive edicts, such as mandatory mask wearing. As one of the most popular local elected officials, however, she hopes to shake residents from a sense of complacency that the pandemic is over.

“I know there’s a lot of conflicting messages, there’s a lot of confusion, so I don’t want to talk about what I don’t have the ability to do,” Hidalgo said of the state pre-emptions. “The truth of the matter is, the best we can do right now, the most we have the authority to do right now, is what we’re doing. So, we’re going to continue to make the most of that and really be direct about what we want the community to do.”

The mayor, who bucked the governor in requiring city workers to wear masks this week, said the numbers would dictate the city’s response to the virus. As of Thursday, 197 city employees had active cases of COVID-19.

“The numbers will dictate my response, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after that. But I’m not going to be constrained by some order,” Turner said. “Wherever this virus goes, and whatever we need to do to check it and to save lives, is what I’m prepared to do.”

As the story notes, several other big counties have taken this step already, and more will surely follow. For those of you who like visuals, here you go:

Not a pretty picture at all. There’s nothing more Judge Hidalgo can do, since Greg Abbott has cut off any power that local officials had once had. I note that as of this writing, Mayor Turner’s employee mask mandate has not yet drawn a response from Abbott or Paxton. Makes me wonder if there’s more room to push the envelope a little, or if further provocation will draw their wrath.

While we can count on Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to mitigate the spread of the virus, we can also count on her colleague to the north to do nothing.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to increase dramatically in Montgomery County and around the region as the delta variant surges in unvaccinated residents.

While the Department of State Health Services recently started tracking cases in vaccinated people and specific data is not yet available, county health officials are reporting most new cases in unvaccinated residents.

“We can say that the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been vaccinated,” said Misti Willingham with the Montgomery County Hospital District. “Vaccines help reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Being vaccinated does a great job prepping your immune system should you encounter the virus.”

[…]

According to data from the health district since July 7, total hospitalizations in Montgomery County increased from 42 to 238 with 48 of those patients in critical care beds. MCPHD noted 157 of those 238 are Montgomery County residents.

The county’s active cases jumped 767 to 4,219. Since July 7, active cases in the county have surged by 3,624. The county’s total number of cases is now 60,941, increasing from 55,838 since July 7. Additionally, the county added three more reinfections bringing that number to 26.

However, health officials did not report any additional deaths from the virus. The total number of deaths remained at 354.

The county’s testing positive rate has climbed from 4 percent in early July to 19 percent. To date, 30,742 people have fully recovered.

Note there’s no comment from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough in that story. Which is just as well, because when he does talk, this is the sort of thing he says. I have no words.

Since it’s all up to us to keep ourselves safe, we may as well remind ourselves of what we can do. Or at least, what we could do with just a little cooperation from our state government.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing exponentially in Houston and Texas, responsibility for blunting the surge is still largely a matter of personal choices, leaving medical and public-health professionals pleading with Texans to be vaccinated, mask up and maintain social distancing.

On Wednesday, Texas reported 8,130 hospitalizations, a 44 percent increase since last Wednesday. At Texas Medical Center hospitals, 311 patients were hospitalized for COVID, up from 61 only a month before.

“When all the indicators head in the same direction, that gives you a good idea,” said epidemiologist Catherine Troisi, who teaches at UT School of Public Health. “Right now everything is looking bad.”

[…]

“Delta is so transmissible, it’s picking off anyone who’s unvaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. “That’s what’s been happening in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now it’s starting here.”

Of the three main strategies to blunt the effect of the coming surge — vaccinating, masking and social distancing — Hotez favors vaccinations, and says it’s crucial to administer as many as possible immediately.

“If we wait until mid-surge, a vaccine campaign will be much less effective,” he said. “If ever there were a time to vaccinate, it’s now.”

He continued: “The single best thing we could do is mandate vaccinations for schools, but in Texas we’re not even talking about that. We can’t even mandate masks.”

Troisi agreed that urging individuals to act responsibly isn’t enough.

“From a public health standpoint,” she said, “we need to get people vaccinated, and we need to increase testing. Maybe we don’t have to mandate vaccines. But you shouldn’t be able to go into Target or eat at McDonald’s if you’re not vaccinated. There have to be consequences for not getting the vaccine. You can’t just put other people at risk.”

The delta variant moves faster than previous coronavirus strains, notes Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“With the traditional coronavirus, if someone is infected, on average they’re infectious starting two-and-a-half days after infection and show symptoms at five days,” he said. “But with delta, a key difference is that the time between exposure and being infectious is shorter by a day.”

A percentage of people infected today are almost certain to need hospitalization within one to two weeks. So preventive measures taken today, he said, “will help reduce hospitalizations a week from now, and will have major impacts two weeks from now.”

In other words, all of the same risk-minimization techniques we had before, back when we didn’t have an amazingly effective vaccine that was free and available to everyone over the age of 12 to really truly minimize the risk. I’m going to boil it all down to “get you and everyone in your family who is eligible vaccinated, and do everything you can to avoid any contact with unvaccinated people”.

For sure, stay the hell away from this.

Texans for Vaccine Choice will host a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol later this month, protesting “the current state of medical mandates” as the state grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccination rates.

The rally is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. A panel discussion will address the state’s current COVID protocols and vaccine requirements.

“I’m speechless,” Dr. Peter Hotez said Thursday morning. “To do that when there’s a public health crisis, with COVID rates going up — it’s terrible.”

As someone once said, terrible is as terrible does. If the COVID they will spread could be limited to just them it would be one thing. But it’s not, and so here we are.

Mayor Turner tells city employees to mask up

We’ll see how it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner told city employees Monday that they again must wear masks when they are at work and unable to socially distance, a requirement that could run afoul of Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order.

Turner’s memo mentioned the recent uptick in cases because of the delta variant of the coronavirus and the importance of remaining vigilant against the spread of the virus.

“Therefore, effective Wednesday, August 4, 2021, all city employees able to medically tolerate a face covering shall wear a face covering that fully covers the individual’s nose and mouth upon entering the city premises and while on city premises in an area where social distance measures are difficult to maintain,” Turner wrote.

That includes bathrooms, elevators, meeting rooms and offices where people cannot sit at least 6 feet apart, Turner said.

The governor’s order, signed last week, appeared to bar such mandates. Abbott’s office Thursday evening did not respond to a request for comment.

“No governmental entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority, and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering,” the order stated.

Mary Benton, the mayor’s communications director, said the city was within its rights to take the action, despite the governor’s order.

“The mayor has a right and responsibility to ask city employees to wear face coverings indoors to help stop the virus from spreading,” Benton said. “With the rise in the delta variant cases and high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, Mayor Turner is doing what is necessary to keep (city) employees healthy, so they can provide for their families and the city can ensure that government services are provided to the public without interruption.”

I mean, we’ll see. Not only has Abbott refused to consider any state action to fight COVID, he’s issued an executive order banning localities from taking any action, which includes school districts and also includes mask mandates. I have a hard time believing that neither he nor Ken Paxton will respond, though to be fair the last time Paxton tried to block a city from doing a mask mandate, he was largely unsuccessful. Sure seems like it can’t hurt to try at this point, though I hesitate to suggest that there’s not a next level Abbott could take this to.

The Chron story notes that Dallas County courts have put out their own mask mandate as well. I would like to see Harris County follow suit on that. If nothing else, flood the zone a little. Fort Bend County has raised its threat level, which comes with a blanket call for everyone to mask up, while retail outlets are starting to move in that direction as well, because they kind of have to. The more everyone actively works to limit the spread of COVID, the worse and more out of touch the actions of Greg Abbott will appear.

One more thing:

Today would be an excellent day for the Supreme Court to rule that Abbott’s veto of legislative funding was unconstitutional.

UPDATE: This is also good.

President Joe Biden directly called out Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning mask mandates in a speech Tuesday in which he begged Republican governors to “please help” curtail a rapidly growing fourth wave of COVID infections.

Biden condemned states that have banned public schools and universities from requiring workers and students to wear masks or get vaccinated, saying “the most extreme of those measures is like the one in Texas that say state universities or community colleges can be fined if it allows a teacher to ask her un-vaccinated students to wear a mask.”

“What are we doing?” Biden said. “COVID 19 is a national challenge and … we have to come together, all of us together, as a country to solve it.”

“If some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” he said. “I say to these governors: Please help. If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” can apply to many situations. This is one of them. As above I’m sure Abbott will have something to say in response, but maybe this time he will find it a challenge to defend the indefensible. One can hope, anyway.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County

As we know, this is not an election year for city of Houston offices. That usually makes for a pretty dull summary of finance reports, since it’s just incumbents and about half of them are term-limited and thus not really motivated to do much. But I had last checked on these in January 2020, which was the conclusion of the 2019 election cycle, and I didn’t want to wait till next year for a first look. And you never know what you might find.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       185,055     76,357        0     522,058
Peck          14,915     10,892    5,000      18,072
Jackson       19,700     14,126        0      33,317
Kamin         79,860     10,697        0     115,828
E-Shabazz     36,000     19,879        0      20,468
Martin             0      3,473        0     130,577
Thomas        
Travis        34,950      5,886   21,000      76,500
Cisneros       1,000        456        0      18,296
Gallegos       2,075      8,620        0      77,372
Pollard      280,908     11,371   40,000     303,572
C-Tatum       58,718      6,847        0     117,013
Knox          11,685      4,571        0      16,510
Robinson      58,983     16,085        0     149,046
Kubosh        60,910     24,318  206,010      65,667
Plummer       30,770      6,417    8,175      33,010
Alcorn         3,200      5,251        0      31,013
Brown         24,550      3,892   75,000      19,281

Edwards            0      2,580        0      45,081

Sorry, no links to individual reports this time – the city of Houston’s reporting system spits out downloaded PDFs, which I have to rename and upload to Google Drive to be able to provide links for them, and it ain’t worth the effort at this point. I’ll do that in 2023, when things heat up.

One of these things is not like the others. I’ve been asking folks who they think will run for Mayor in 2023, partly to see how my own speculations have turned out. One name that has come up a lot is that of Ed Pollard, the first-term Council member in District J. Let’s just say his July report does nothing to temper that kind of talk. To put it mildly, one does not need $300K to run for re-election in a low-turnout district like J, and that’s more than two years out from the actual election. Pollard may have his eye on something else, of course – he ran for HD137 in 2016, and who knows what opportunities the next round of redistricting may present – but if one is being mentioned when the question of “who is thinking about running for Mayor” comes up, this is the kind of finance report that supports such talk.

Other names that come up when I bring up the question include Michael Kubosh, Chris Brown, and Amanda Edwards. Neither of the first two has raised all that much, though they both have the capability. Kubosh has knocked $60K off his loan total, which may have contributed to his lower cash-on-hand total. As for Edwards, she’s the opposite of Pollard at this point.

The one person who has been openly talked about as a candidate – by someone other than me, anyway – is Sen. John Whitmire, who has enough cash in his treasury to not sweat the small stuff. He recently announced his intent to run for re-election in 2022, which is completely unsurprising and not in conflict with any 2023 speculation. Mayor Turner ran for and won re-election in HD139 in 2014 before officially beginning his Mayoral campaign in 2015.

Beyond that, not a whole lot to report. Mayor Turner has some money on hand if he wants to influence a charter amendment or two. CM Tiffany Thomas did not have a report that I could find – sometimes, the system is a little wonky that way. The only other number of note was for term-limited CM David Robinson, who has added over $100K to his cash on hand since last January. Maybe that’s a sign that he has his eye on another race, and maybe that just means that some people are good at fundraising. I’ll leave that to you. Next up, HISD and HCC. Let me know what you think.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

Supporters of state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston northward trekked to Austin on Thursday to keep the imperiled project on pace, fearing the region could be stuck with an aging freeway and no sign of relief.

Urging state officials to stay committed to the project — and, most importantly, pay for it — supporters said it is up to highway officials to deliver the benefits they say will help heal issues of racial and income inequity raised by opponents.

[…]

Fifteen years in the planning, the project to rebuild I-45 around the central business district and north to Beltway 8 near George Bush Intercontinental Airport is estimated to cost $9 billion but can start construction only if the Texas Department of Transportation keeps its money on the project. Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who oversee TxDOT’s spending, are considering removing all phases of the project from the state’s 10-year plan, essentially shelving it until Houston-area leaders and highway planners can come to agreement.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners will hold a public comment session Monday and accept input via mail, phone, email and online forms until Aug. 9. The commission is scheduled at its Aug. 31 meeting to decide whether to remove the project from the annually updated 10-year plan. If removed, the rebuild would need to be reinserted into the plan, allowing TxDOT to redirect the money to other highway expansions or rebuilds in the meantime. Most of the money would have to remain in TxDOT’s Houston region that covers Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller counties.

Yes, that is the infamous I-45 survey. You still have time to fill it out.

Critics said the pause gives officials ample time to rethink the design but that a last-ditch online survey with a yes-or-no vote is not a way to come to agreement.

“Honestly, we are on the same team and we want the same things for all of the communities,” said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Stop TxDOT I-45 group opposed to the project. “We want economic development, we want to reduce flooding, we want safety, people to be able to move through the region freely. This is not the answer.”

Cook was one of two speakers Thursday among about a dozen opposed to the project. Transportation officials limited public comment to one hour as part of their meeting.

A larger turnout of opponents is expected for the full public hearing Monday. Stop TxDOT I-45 has continued walking door to door in affected communities where hundreds of homes and businesses could be impacted, as community business groups mounted an aggressive online campaign in support of TxDOT.

“You can find a way to connect this project with something someone cares about,” said Ben Peters, a Stop I-45 volunteer, as he walked in Fifth Ward on Saturday.

Opponents, Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have said that rather than widen the freeway, more of it should be converted to accelerate Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, replacing two managed lanes with, perhaps, a transit-only lane and dedicated stations along the freeway.

TxDOT, while incorporating some changes from more than 300 public meetings over the past decade, has not wavered from the managed lanes plan, saying some of the suggested changes are too significant and would set the design process back years. Regional officials repeatedly approved those designs, TxDOT leadership noted.

“I-45 is established as one of the most pressing candidates in our region for TxDOT to make improvements to address safety, traffic delays and potential emergency evacuations,” said Craig Raborn, director of transportation services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal transportation money in the region.

H-GACs Transportation Policy Council supports the project but has encouraged critics and TxDOT to keep addressing differences. The policy council’s chairman, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, urged his county leadership this week to write a letter in support of the project.

I kind of have a hard time believing that TxDOT would pull the money from this project – which would not kill it but would move it to the back of the line while the current funds were used on other projects – but I can imagine them getting a little antsy. We’ll know soon enough.

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether.

“A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

Many fear the state — if it does not get full-throated support — simply will pull the project and leave one of the spines of the local freeway system a crumbling mess.

If removed from the state’s 10-year unified transportation program, updated annually and approved by the commission, the planned rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 would be shelved. That would leave drivers and residents waiting months, maybe years longer than promised for two managed lanes in each direction, updated and additional rainfall detention, wider frontage roads and upgrades bringing some aging parts of the freeway up to current standards.

See here for the previous entry. My first thought in reading this story was “SurveyMonkey? Really? How sure is everyone that this can’t be hacked or spammed?” But Mayor Turner in his full statement and Michael Skelly on behalf of the Make I-45 Better Coalition articulate a different problem: The survey doesn’t have enough choices. From Skelly’s email:

The worst part is that the only two options on the public comment form are both flawed:

  1. Supporting the I-45 expansion exactly as it’s designed — despite the many flaws we’ve previously discussed, or
  2. Rejecting the I-45 expansion entirely and removing all funding for it

What about keeping the funding, but building a redesigned project that actually supports the residents and environment of the City of Houston? We could “make I-45 better” by—for example—following the alternative designs that the City of Houston Planning Department unveiled after listening to many, many public comments. The City of Houston pushed for a Vision C which would have accommodated transit, reduced rights of way impacts, and saved money, but TxDOT completely ignored the City’s suggested plan. If TxDOT truly cared about the public, they would allow for a better, safer project to be built.

Just to be clear—despite a new public comment period opening, the I-45 project has not changed since the last comment period in 2020, following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Having a third choice would risk not getting a majority in favor of any one option, but it would be a better gauge of what the public actually wants. As configured, there’s an even higher risk of “be careful what you ask for”.

In the meantime, you have until August 9 to submit your comments, and there’s an online public engagement on August 2. See the Skelly email for all the details. I have no idea what might happen here, but you should make your voice heard while you can.

Council will decide when charter amendment votes will be

Fine, but they should be this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday promised to bring a charter amendment petition to City Council before a key August deadline to order an election for this year.

A diverse coalition of groups, including the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341 and the Harris County Republican Party, delivered the petition in April, and the city secretary confirmed the signatures earlier this month. The measure would allow any three council members to place an item on the council agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under the city’s strong-mayor format.

The council can put the charter amendment on the ballot this November or during the next city elections, which are in November 2023. Turner said he was not sure the city would order an election this year, prompting concern among petition organizers and supporters, who have sought an election in November. The last day to order an election for this year is Aug. 16.

“It will come before you, and this council will decide whether it goes on this year’s ballot or on the next city ballot,” Turner told his colleagues at the City Council meeting Wednesday. “I won’t be making that decision, we will be making that decision.”

The fire union is pushing a separate charter petition, which it delivered to City Hall last week, that would make binding arbitration the automatic resolution to contract impasses. The city and union have been in a deadlock since 2017, and have contested the contract talks in court battles.

[…]

The mayor said the city has to decide if it is going to take each charter petition individually, or if it would be smarter to lump them together in a single election, “which, from a cost perspective, would be quite wise,” he said.

“What we will have to decide is whether or not you do these one at a time, and every time you put it out there it’s a cost to the city (to run the election),” Turner said. “Now, there’s another one that was just delivered to the city secretary (last) week… Let’s say that gets the requisite signatures, do we do another election on that one?”

The fate of the most recent petition from the fire union is less clear. Turner said it takes the city secretary an average of three months to count the signatures, even with added personnel the mayor says he has approved for their office. That would mean workers likely will not finish verifying them before the Aug. 16 deadline to order an election.

The union has alleged the city is slow-walking the count for the second petition. The Texas Election Code allows the city to use statistical sampling to verify the signatures, instead of vetting them individually, as the city is doing now.

See here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, but I don’t think it is commonly used. Not sure what the objections are to that. I say do them both in the same election, and it should be this election. I’d rather just get them done, if only from a cost perspective.

Charter amendment referendum likely #2 on its way

Pending signature verification.

The Houston firefighters’ union says it has collected enough signatures on a petition to make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration.

The city secretary now must verify at least 20,000 signatures, the minimum threshold for getting a petition-driven initiative on the ballot. The petition drive is one of two the Houston Professional Fire Fighters is pushing for this November, along with one that would give council members more power to place items on the City Council agenda.

The city secretary verified signatures for the first petition, filed in April, last week. A broader coalition is advocating for that proposal, as well.

The union has said it hopes to place both items on the November ballot, although Mayor Sylvester Turner has signaled the city may not comply with those wishes. The mayor said last week a required council vote to place the items on the ballot may not happen this year.

“There is no obligation, I think, on our part to put anything on the ballot for this year,” Turner said then.

State law does not lay out a specific timeline for when council must take that vote, though it does require it to do so. The last day to order an election for November would be Aug. 16.

When the council does vote, it has two options for selecting the date: the next uniform election date, which would be November 2021; or the next municipal or presidential election, whichever is earlier. That would be the November 2023 in this case.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, said it does not matter whether the city is allowed to push off the election; it should respect the will of the petitioners and place the initiative on the November ballot. He said the union is prepared to go to court to get the charter amendments on the ballot this year.

See here for more about the other charter amendment referendum. I’m inclined to support this one, but I haven’t paid much attention to it yet so I’ll want to hear more before I make a final decision.

As for when to have the referendum, I’ll just say this much: Baseline turnout in 2021, a non-municipal election year, where the only items that will be on everyone’s ballot are the constitutional amendments (none of which are exactly well known at this point) and only some people will have actual candidates to vote for, is about 50K. Baseline turnout in 2023, when there will be an open seat Mayoral race, is at least 200K, probably at least 250K. Turnout in 2015, with HERO repeal also on the ballot, was over 270K, and in 2019, with the Metro referendum also on there, it was over 250K.

Point being, in 2021 you start with the hardcore voters, who have probably heard something about your issue and whose support you hope to earn, and seek to get lesser-engaged folks who agree with you to show up. In 2023, you have to put a lot more effort into persuasion, just because so many more people will be casting ballots, and many of them will start out knowing nothing about the issue. A lot of those less-engaged voters from scenario #1 are more likely to show up because of the Mayor’s race. Your message here is one part about introducing them to your issue, and one part about voting all the way down the ballot, because the charter amendments are at the bottom and you want to make sure they don’t miss them.

Given that, it’s a reasonable question to ask which environment you’d rather be in for the purpose of passing your referendum. It’s not clear that one is inherently more advantageous than the other, but the strategy for each is different. Needless to say, the 2023 scenario is more expensive, though a sufficiently funded referendum effort can have a significant effect on turnout, even in a 2023-type situation. The platonic ideal is for higher turnout since that is a truer reflection of the will of the people, but you want your item to pass, and you play the hand you’re dealt.

Now having said all that, I think if the petition signatures are collected and certified in time for the item to be on the next ballot, that’s when it should be voted on. I don’t know what Mayor Turner’s motivation may be for preferring to wait until 2023, which he is allowed to do. I just think we should have the votes this year.

We will have that charter election

For that thing I still don’t have a pithy name for. Someone form a PAC and throw me a bone here.

A petition filed in April by a group seeking to give City Council members the ability to place items on their weekly meeting agenda contained enough valid signatures to trigger a charter referendum in November, the city secretary reported Friday.

In a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner and council members, City Secretary Pat Daniel said her office verified that 20,482 petition signatures — above the threshold of 20,000 — contained the name, signature and other required information of registered voters who live in Houston. The city secretary’s office counted 31,448 of the nearly 40,000 signatures submitted by the Houston Charter Amendment Petition Coalition, the group behind the petition drive, according to Daniel.

The referendum, if approved by voters, would amend Houston’s charter to allow any three council members to place an item on the council’s weekly agenda. For now, the mayor wields almost full control of the agenda, including the ability to block any measures, under the city’s strong-mayor form of government.

Three council members already are allowed to call a special meeting and set the agenda, but the maneuver rarely attracts a required quorum of council members.

The charter amendment coalition — a politically diverse mix of groups that includes the Houston fire union, the Harris County Republican Party, the conservative group Urban Reform, Indivisible Houston and the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — has said it intends to place the measure on this year’s November ballot. City Council has until Aug. 16 to approve the referendum ahead of the Nov. 2 election.

See here, here, and here for the background. City Council has until August 16 to put the item on the November ballot. I expect this to pass, but I don’t plan to vote for it, for reasons I have already explained. I hope I’m wrong about the sideshow effect of this.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

Hemmed between a request for a pause by federal highway officials and an outcry from opponents, planners of a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 in Houston are taking their plans back to the public in what may be a last effort to keep the project on pace.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Wednesday said more public scrutiny is needed of the plan for remaking I-45 north from downtown Houston to Beltway 8.

“Basically, let’s take this project and put it back out for public comment … then we will see where we go from there,” Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

Additional public input on the I-45 project — at least the seventh time state officials have asked for comments — will be accepted via the month-long comment process for the Texas Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan, set to start July 7. The decision to seek more public comment, should it lead to the project being delayed or removed from the plan, was viewed as a necessary but unfortunate step by commissioners.

“I think it is very sad that we are at the point we are at with this particular project with regard to the amount of work and the amount of public engagement,” said Commissioner Laura Ryan, who lives in Houston.

Tying the project to the long-range plan is significant because as costs increased to a current estimate of $9 billion for the work, it represents about $1 of every $8 Texas will spend on highways during the next decade.

Officials estimate TxDOT has spent $503 million developing the project to this point. Delaying or significantly redesigning the project could make it the costliest highway hiccup in Texas history, far exceeding the $15 million spent on the Trans-Texas Corridor more than a decade ago before the planned tollway got the heave-ho.

[…]

The Federal Highway Administration in March asked TxDOT to pause development activities on the project. That was clarified in a June 14 letter to include any property acquisition and final design efforts after opponents found people still were receiving property offers.

“We’re frustrated that it’s taken the federal government stepping in to get TxDOT to do the right thing,” said Molly Cook, a Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer.

The right thing, however, is what remains in dispute. Supporters have increased their pressure in recent years, as local elected officials have changed. For more than 15 years to the present, Bugg noted there has been strong regional support for the project because I-45 is a crucial travel corridor for all of southeast Texas. Sixteen times, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the local regional planning agency made up of various elected and appointed officials, unanimously backed the project.

Many local officials still do, including state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, who urged transportation officials meeting Wednesday in Austin to charge ahead.

“I do firmly believe this corridor needs to be completed and if TxDOT can push on that they ought to,” Thompson said.

Citing the importance of I-45 to trucking and evacuation of the Gulf Coast in case of disaster, Thompson said delays in construction come with consequences opponents might not recognize.

“I do understand their concerns, but this is also vital to our entire region,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there are competing interests here, as the city of Houston and Harris County and a bunch of neighborhoods and residents have serious concerns about the many effects of the project, while people who are mostly from far outside of Houston and the affected area want this built yesterday. It’s on TxDOT to balance those interests, and the opponents are not going to meekly roll over. It’s not my problem that TxDOT has spent a ton of money on this project without being able to deliver something that is acceptable to those who will be the most directly affected by it.

City victory in water rights lawsuit upheld

Some good news.

A split Texas appeals court ruled Wednesday that a state law that would have stripped Houston of its interest in an unbuilt water reservoir was unconstitutionally retroactive, siding with a lower court that protected the city’s interests.

Two justices on a three justice panel upheld Houston’s 70% interest in water rights at an unbuilt reservoir on Allens Creek, which has suffered numerous setbacks since permits were first issued decades ago to the city and its partner, the Brazos River Authority. The court said that a law passed by the Texas Legislaturein 2019 to transfer the city’s interests to that partner would have impaired the city’s long-term plans related to the water project and that the partner hasn’t shown an overriding public interest in finishing the project that would overcome those concerns.

Just because the city wasn’t acting with urgency to develop the project doesn’t mean the Legislature had shown an overriding interest in upending previously granted rights through the passage of HB 2846, the court said. For instance, while the Legislature was seemingly acting in the public interest when it moved to strip the city of its rights and force a transfer of interest to the BRA, the justices said that decision failed to show how the beleaguered project would necessarily be completed faster since it had already undergone repeated setbacks and was facing years of work before ground could be broken anyway.

[…]

The city described the majority’s decision as a win with bigger implications for municipalities in the Lone Star State and said the ruling allows the city to avoid the forced sale of its “irreplaceable” surface water rights to the BRA without the option to replace the water.

“This a very important victory for Houston and all Texas cities and towns. Fresh water is an irreplaceable resource and the city has for years carefully planned and acquired scarce and very valuable water rights to ensure that the city, its residents and businesses have sufficient water resources to enable the city to grow and prosper in this century and beyond,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “House Bill 2846 punished the city’s foresight and endangered Houston’s and all Texas cities’ water supplies and future growth. No city would have been safe had the bill been allowed to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The city will continue to fight to protect the city’s irreplaceable resources.”

The permits for the project were first granted in 2000, when the Legislature gave the project a deadline for construction to begin by 2018. After Houston and the BRA received a $20 million loan to take on the project together, it was hit with numerous setbacks, leading to an extension of that 2018 deadline by the Legislature that gave them until 2025 to finish the project.

When no progress was made by 2019, lawmakers held legislative hearings and ultimately passed HB 2846.

Houston sued that same year, and the district court granted declaratory relief that the law was unconstitutional, void and unenforceable.

A Brazos River Authority spokesperson said it plans to appeal the appeals court decision.

See here and here for the background. The majority opinion is here, the dissent is here, and the case history is here. Not much for me to add except I hope the city wins the next appeal, too.

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

In two letters released Wednesday — one to the Texas Department of Transportation and another to Harris County leaders — the Federal Highway Administration said it expected Texas officials to halt work [on I-45], including the purchase of needed property, on the $7 billion-plus rebuild of the freeway until more scrutiny of the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll can be completed.

“This is an incredibly rare step, but it is a rare set of circumstances,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said of the federal decision, noting how TxDOT, in his opinion, cut corners on its environmental assessment.

In a statement, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the decision to slow development by FHWA “indefinitely suspends key steps” on a project state and local officials have sought for more than 15 years.

“It’s unfortunate there is an expanded delay on this project, but TxDOT remains fully committed to working with FHWA and local officials on an appropriate path forward ,” Kaufman said. “We know that many in the community are anxious to see this project advance.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Menefee said Wednesday the county remains committed to redesigning the proposal.

“We do need and our community deserves an I-45 project, Hidalgo said. “We also need a project that respects the wishes of the community.”

She said TxDOT for the past two years has ignored suggestions from local officials and groups to make the project more transit-focused and displace fewer people.

“You can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input,” Hidalgo said. “You cannot bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act.”

[…]

The letters reaffirm a request from federal officials in March that work on the controversial project halt until the concerns over equity and the freeway’s design are addressed. Federal officials sent TxDOT the letter after Hidalgo raised objections in May that the highway agency was acquiring property through purchases and eminent domain.

“We share the concerns raised by your recent letter suggesting that TxDOT is not engaging in the pause and may be proceeding with other aspects of the I-45 project,” wrote Achille Alonzi, FHWA’s division director for Texas.

In a letter to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams, FHWA officials said any pause applies to “right-of-way acquisition, including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain, and final design activities.”

Further, federal officials said they are reviewing its agreement with TxDOT signed in December 2019, that allowed the state transportation agency to approve its own environmental impact study and move forward on the project. Texas and California have authority to approve their own projects, provided they show they complied with federal law. The review, which critics have called an audit, means federal officials will double-check Texas’ process, which could take months.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letters. I’ve been wondering lately if we’re going to see the likes of Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton get involved in this. I mean, we have local Democratic officials brazenly telling TxDOT that they can’t do their job and build their highway like they’re supposed to, and surely this cannot stand. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been some pushback from the “only Republican governance is legitimate” crowd before now. And I hope I’m wrong to be worried about this. We’ll see how this goes. The Press has more.

City appeals firefighter collective bargaining case to Supreme Court

Here we go.

The city of Houston on Monday asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on a recent appellate court ruling that rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law governing how firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits.

The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which claims Turner’s administration did not negotiate in good faith during failed contract talks between the city and fire union that year.

As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers without firmer guidelines for doing so.

In an appeal filed Monday, attorneys representing the city asked Texas’ highest civil court to reverse a ruling last month by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, in which a panel of justices found the provision challenged by the city does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers clause, which prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

Under state law, public employers must provide firefighters and police officers with “compensation and other conditions of employment” that are “substantially the same” as those of “comparable private sector employment.”

In the Supreme Court filing, the city contended that provision does not provide specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighter pay, an argument that was rejected by the appeals court in May. Still, city attorneys wrote in the latest filing that the law governing police and firefighter compensation has “existed under a legal cloud with respect to the unconstitutional delegation of legislative power accomplished by this judicial enforcement mechanism.”

See here and here for the background. This is too technical for me to have an opinion about the merits, but as I said before it would not have bothered me if the city had accepted the ruling and gone ahead with the judge setting the firefighters’ pay. I recognize that the downside risk of this for the city is getting a number they would not like, and if nothing else the appeal buys them some time. We’ll see how long it takes SCOTX to handle this.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, firefighters are collecting signatures for a charter amendment that would make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration. Union officials say they are aiming to place the measure on this year’s November ballot.

Insert your favorite GIF of someone shrugging their shoulders here.

The HPD transparency portal

This is good.

Traffic stops. Discipline. Use of force. Following widespread calls for police accountability, Houston residents now can use the city’s “Police Transparency Hub” to get far more detailed, accessible information about some of police’s most controversial topics than has ever been available previously.

The online tool — compiled in a series of dashboards — provides information about the work and conduct of Houston police officers, including how often they use force, how often they are disciplined, statistics on the department’s diversity, information on traffic stops, and information on the department’s implementation of “cite-and-release,” in which officers issue citations for some misdemeanor offenses instead of arresting people.

Since the start of the year, police officers conducted 88,301 traffic stops, used force 4,203 times, and issued 152 citations instead of arrests.

In a news release that accompanied the launch of the tool earlier this month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was “a significant step toward increasing transparency and accountability while building trust between the public and the police department.”

The website also tells residents how to file complaints about police officers and shares information about other controversial policing topics, including the city’s contract with its officers, the police department’s general orders, the city’s new Office of Police Reform and Accountability, and the Independent Police Oversight Board.

[…]

Criminal justice reform advocates called the dashboard a “critical step” toward keeping HPD accountable but said it needs more work.

“Data transparency is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of policing,” said Julia Montiel, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We hope city leaders will collaborate with advocates to further refine the dashboard.”

See here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The portal looks pretty useful, and the key here is just that the data is publicly available, in easy to view form. That will help answer a lot of questions, and will be a force for accountability just because people will be able to see how the data trends over time. I don’t know what specifically could be done to make this better, but the suggestion that the city work with activists and get their feedback makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of work done under Mayor Parker to make a bunch of city data available in raw form for developers and other folks who might want to make use of it, and I hope that is the case with this data as well. Take a look at what’s there and see what you think.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

Supreme Court upholds Houston historic preservation ordinance

Blast from the past.

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld Houston’s ordinance regulating the preservation of historic districts, after residents argued it was an illegal zoning measure.

Two homeowners in the Heights challenged the law, arguing that it constituted zoning and therefore required a ballot measure approved by voters to take effect. Houston, the largest city in the country without zoning, requires voter approval to implement it.

Supreme Court justices declined on Friday to back that argument, though, affirming lower court rulings that the ordinance is not extensive enough to be considered a zoning regulation, and it does not regulate how people use properties.

“In sum, the Ordinance does not regulate the purposes for which land can be used, lacks geographic comprehensiveness, impacts each site differently in order to preserve and ensure the historic character of building exteriors, and does not adopt the enforcement and penalty provisions characteristic of a zoning ordinance,” Justice J. Brett Busby wrote in the opinion.

[…]

Houston adopted the ordinance in 1995, allowing the city to establish historic districts and requiring owners there to get approval to modify, redevelop or raze properties. If a city board declined a property owner’s application, though, the owner could wait 90 days and get a waiver to proceed with the desired changes, a gaping loophole that rendered the ordinance toothless.

The city revamped the ordinance in 2010 under then-Mayor Annise Parker, ending the waivers and making the regulations more enforceable. It allows only for modifications that are compatible with the area’s architecture, as defined by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Some backers of the ordinance since have argued the board does not uniformly apply its rules.

The lawsuit over this was filed in 2012. I confess, I had not given it a moment’s thought since then. For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, now you know how it turned out.

Pity the poor GHP

Or don’t. I lean heavily towards “don’t”.

You’d have to be a serious sourpuss not to feel just a little sorry for Bob Harvey, the amiable, bespectacled Aggie and Harvard MBA who heads the Greater Houston Partnership. The last month has been grim for the city’s thousand-member chamber of commerce-like organization. In April, as some big companies came out in opposition to a spate of legislation around the country making it harder to vote, the question of how to respond to Texas’s “election integrity” bills tore the traditionally congenial group that Harvey helms into something bitterly fractious. Some members wanted to go along to get along with the Lege; others wanted the organization to come out firmly against what they saw as a dangerous intention to subvert voting rights, especially for people of color.

Harvey has been left in the middle, trying to protect the GHP’s legislative agenda in Austin while preserving an uneasy peace among his members in Houston. The fallout has offered a vivid demonstration that diversity and inclusivity are not just buzzwords organizations can affix to their websites and not act on; business leaders now have to learn to work with those—women and minorities, for instance—who may not share their establishment views. As Harvey said to me, with profound understatement, “It’s a lot harder today to establish a consensus than it was in the past.”

The trouble started at the partnership’s regular monthly meeting on April 21. Members of the Lege were debating Senate Bill 7, which, in its form at the time, would have limited early voting hours, restricted the number of voting machines in cities, and emboldened partisan poll watchers to harass those casting ballots. (Versions of the bill would eventually pass both the House and Senate, but the Lege would be unable to pass a reconciled version when Democrats staged a walkout blocking its passage hours before the session ended.) Several members of the GHP, including Kevin Hourican, the white CEO of Sysco, and Mia Mends, a Black woman who is the chief administrative officer of Sodexo North America, a food service company, called on the organization to make a public statement against the bills and in favor of voting rights. To them, it seemed a reasonable ask of an organization of business leaders in a city that touts its reputation as the most diverse in the nation—and one that is specifically targeted by provisions in the bill.

What follows is an account of the debate about what the GHP should do (they do not cover themselves in glory) and why their response was so tepid and flimsy (short answer, too many GHP members who were fully on board with the Big Lie bullshit, and also a fear of Dan Patrick). You will also learn, if you didn’t already know, that Heidi Cruz is as terrible a person as her husband is. We have covered this topic before, but Mimi Swartz’s behind the scenes look adds a lot of detail and is worth your time to read.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

The Chron debunks P Bush

You love to see it.

In recent days, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said his office is not to blame for failing to award Houston or Harris County a single penny of $1 billion in flood mitigation funding last week.

Bush and his spokeswoman alternately blamed the snub on criteria Texas was forced to use by President Donald Trump’s housing department, complex regulations by the Biden administration and the failure of the city and county to submit better applications.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of the Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation program revealed a different reality: Not only does the federal government grant states significant discretion to decide how to spend their funds, but the criteria Bush’s General Land Office developed discriminated against populous areas.

The state agency ignored advice from the city of Houston, which warned in a January 2020 letter that its rules effectively would penalize urban areas for having large populations. And several scoring metrics the GLO designed drew criticism from engineers, who said they do a poor job evaluating the merits of a particular flood protection project.

“To miss it in the development of the criteria is one thing,” said Melvin Spinks, a past president of Houston’s American Council of Engineering Companies. “But then to receive the applications and not let it dawn on you how flawed they are is the other part that we go on scratching our heads. Who could be that senseless?”

After heavy criticism from local Republican and Democratic elected officials, whose constituents rank flood protection as among their top issues, Bush on Wednesday said he had “heard the overwhelming concerns” and would ask HUD to allocate $750 million directly to Harris County. He provided no clarity, however, on how long that would take nor where that money would come from. HUD officials in Washington said they could not comment on a proposal Texas had yet to formally make.

For now, the funding landscape remains the same: Despite Harris County having a greater population than the other 48 eligible recipient counties combined, GLO last week awarded just 9 percent of its $1 billion here, for projects in the municipalities of Pasadena, Galena Park, Jacinto City and Baytown.

“Right now, the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” said Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background. At a high level, there’s nothing here we didn’t already know. The metrics were designed to screw Houston and Harris County, the GLO was warned about it, they failed to take any opportunity to correct course even though they would have seen the results before releasing them, and their excuses are a steaming pile of crap. This story goes into the details, and for that it’s worth your time. It also gave us this lovely tweet thread from reporter Zach Despart:

That thread is a good summary of this story if you don’t want to read the whole story. But you should, it’s good and you will feel a burning desire to vote against George P. Bush at your next opportunity. Check it out.

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

What are P Bush’s pledges worth?

Something less than $750 million would be my guess.

When Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday evening that he would ask federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid, he told Houstonians the move was a response to their “overwhelming concerns” over his agency’s decision to deny the city and county any relief days earlier.

Bush’s announcement, however, raised new questions about where the money would come from and how it would affect future rounds of funding. Local leaders, who are not guaranteed any money until federal housing officials sign off on Bush’s plan, said the amount remained well short of the $1.3 billion they had sought from the Texas General Land Office for a range of projects intended to mitigate future floods.

County officials are particularly worried that in accepting the $750 million, they would be disqualified from future funding competitions. And Mayor Sylvester Turner questioned why Bush would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the payment, effectively ensuring the money will not arrive for months, instead of allocating it himself.

Houston, meanwhile, remains shut out. A GLO spokeswoman said the county could consider sharing its allotment, if it arrives. But Harris County may be reluctant to do so because it is trying to close a $700 million gap in its flood bond program without raising taxes.

“I see this as a failed attempt on (Bush’s) part to try to pit the city and county against each other,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Turner called it “foolishness” for Bush to not request any mitigation aid for the city. The mayor’s appointed chief recovery officer, Steve Costello, said city officials would continue to seek funding for the city that aligns with their share of the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

“Right now the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” Costello said.

See here for the previous entry. If this is taken seriously and pursued, it would take up to 90 days for the money to come through. It’s hard to see why Harris County and especially Houston would take this seriously, with there being so many unanswered questions. This has the feel to me of Bush just scrambling to find something that will take the heat off. It doesn’t look like Houston or Harris will take the bait, so either Bush figures out a way to undo the colossal mess he created or it remains awfully awkward for the foreseeable future.

P Bush tries to make amends

What a joker.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said Wednesday he would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to directly send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid related to Hurricane Harvey, days after his agency declined to award the county any money for their proposed projects.

The snub sparked an intense and immediate backlash from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans, who demanded that Bush revise the General Land Office’s metrics for doling out $2.1 billion in federal relief for flood projects. The officials noted that Houston bore the brunt of the historic hurricane, yet had failed to secure one cent from the initial $1 billion round of funding.

In a statement, Bush blamed the situation on federal “red tape requirements and complex regulations” that he described as a “hallmark” of the Biden administration. He said the Land Office, which administers Texas’ federal disaster relief, had been delayed in distributing the Harvey funds by the U.S. Housing Department, which did not publish rules regulating the use of the money until two years after Harvey. That happened under the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Bush said he had directed GLO officials to “work around the federal government’s regulations” by seeking the direct allocation, though he did not say which regulations had prevented the agency from awarding the money to Harris County itself.

A GLO spokeswoman said the $750 million, if approved by HUD, would go directly to Harris County. The county could then decide to send some of the money to the city for its own mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Bush’s plan would still leave the city with only a fraction of the $4.3 billion approved by Congress in 2018 to help Texas prevent future flooding. Turner and other local officials have long insisted Houston and Harris County should receive roughly half of that amount, which they say would align with their initial share of Texas’ housing recovery aid and the proportion of damage taken on by the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey.

“Harris County should receive $1 billion and the City of Houston should receive $1 billion,” Turner said. “All Commissioner Bush has to do is amend his state plan to provide that direct allocation to the city of Houston and to Harris County.”

[…]

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disputed the Land Office’s account, saying state officials have “full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money.” While HUD must sign off on the GLO’s plan for distributing the funds, there did not appear to be any HUD guidance that required the state to use the criteria opposed by the city and county.

See here, here, and here for the background. A succinct summary of this saga:

Also, too, the $750 million is a bit more than half of the $1.34 billion Houston and Harris County had asked for, and the GLO did not say if this would be the total amount Houston and Harris would get or if this would somehow be carved out of the initial $2.1 billion allocation, and if so what would happen to the grants that had been made. But other than that, great job, Bushie! The Trib and Campos, who knows what the “P” in “P Bush” stands for, have more.

P Bush tries to deflect blame on flood funding fiasco

You can run, but you can’t hide, George P. Bush.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush blamed local leaders Friday for Houston and Harris County’s failure to secure a single penny of roughly $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, though a county commissioner said Bush privately pledged his support for giving Harris County future aid directly rather than forcing it to compete for the money.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for allocating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation dollars, told city and county officials Thursday they would receive nothing of the more than $1.3 billion they had sought for 14 mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo blamed the result on certain project scoring criteria that disadvantaged urban areas.

A General Land Office spokeswoman said the agency was required to use the criteria developed by federal officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

HUD disputed that Friday evening, laying the blame squarely on Bush’s team.

“HUD has not prevented Texas from awarding CDBG-MIT funds to Houston or Harris County,” agency spokesman Michael Burns said in a statement. “The formula for allocation was created by the state of Texas. They have full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money that was allocated to the state for flood mitigation.”

Burns did not say whether HUD would intervene. The agency’s comments capped a whirlwind two days where Bush visited areas that received awards. In all, the GLO awarded about $1 billion for 81 different projects across 40 counties, including $179 million in Galveston County.

See here for the background. The embedded image is a statement from Republican County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, so this isn’t just Democratic carping. (UPDATE: Commissioner Jack Cagle calls the GLO’s decision “shocking” and says it “mocks common sense”.) This isn’t and shouldn’t be just about formulas and algorithms. It also has to be about the goals, which should then be reflected by the formulas. As I said last time, it should be obvious that the city of Houston and Harris County need and deserve a significant portion of this funding. We suffered the most from Harvey, we have the greatest amount of current and future need, and this was the intent of Congress when that money was appropriated. There’s no world in which giving zero dollars to Houston and Harris County is rational, efficient, or just. The GLO was given the responsibility to distribute these funds – over the objections of the city and the county, by the way – and so it is entirely on them to ensure an outcome that made sense. Which is the opposite of what we got.

Bush, who on Friday toured those areas and others to announce award recipients, said “constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications, and are they being effective in representing their constituents,” according to KTRK-13.

He did not specify what errors the city and county made that prevented them from receiving any funds. City and county officials said GLO staff never informed them of any mistakes on their applications nor asked for any additional information during the scoring process.

GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said she could not confirm nor deny Bush’s comment that cast blame on local leaders for Houston’s lack of mitigation funds, but suggested the city and county should have acted more strategically by submitting fewer projects, perhaps even offering a joint application to strengthen their chances for approval by increasing the number of people who would benefit.

GLO had capped the maximum award application at $300 million, however, regardless of the applicant’s population. That discouraged the city and county from submitting mega-projects for consideration.

[…]

Turner said the snub was just the latest attack by Republican state officials on the Democrats who run the state’s largest cities and counties.

He said while politicians may be the intended targets, the lack of flood protection funding hurts average residents.

“This is not about some paperwork; this is not about not scoring as high,” Turner said. “This is about state leaders intentionally deciding not to allocate one single dime to local communities that were substantially impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Steve Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, said GLO staff failed to understand “the difference between urban drainage and regional drainage” when setting their scoring criteria.

“Our projects were neighborhood revitalization projects,” Costello said. “If you think about urban drainage, we were servicing 100 percent of the people in the service area of the urban drainage project. And yet, when you divide it by 2.2 million people in the city, you get this detrimental impact on the fact that it’s not enough people being served.”

In January 2020, Turner emailed Bush, recommending the GLO revise the metric that considered the share of residents who would benefit from the project for that very reason.

“The system is flawed. The evaluation was flawed,” Costello said. “Commissioner Bush should have read his email.”

This was a screw job, but it wasn’t a screw up. This was the intended outcome. Any assurances from Bush that he’ll personally help us out with the next distribution are extremely hollow. Just look at what he did to us this time around.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

GHP finally says something about voter suppression

Weak.

After days of external pressure from Harris County politicians and internal calls from board members to speak out against voting bills in the Texas Legislature, the Greater Houston Partnership on Thursday evening issued a broad condemnation of efforts to restrict ballot access.

It made no mention of the legislation.

Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president, said the statement came out of a listening session Thursday morning with more than 80 board members to discuss the bills. The two main proposals, Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, would limit early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, lessen restrictions on poll watchers and streamline the process to purge voters from rolls.

[…]

Harvey said 15 members spoke during the one-hour discussion, and “it remains clear there is no consensus on our board to take a formal position on the legislation itself.”

He said a clear consensus did support the new statement, which acknowledges that Texas and the United States have historically suppressed the vote of certain groups, including women, the poor, residents of color and those with disabilities. The partnership, the statement reads in part:

“Believes voter suppression is wrong and stands firmly against it in any form.

“Believes impediments to voting should be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

“Believes the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and that all citizens should have ready and easy access to vote.”

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner and [County Judge Lina] Hidalgo said Friday the partnership’s new statement would not change their decision. The mayor said he was disappointed the House had advanced its version of SB 7 overnight.

“More than 350 of these voter restriction, suppression bills have been filed across the country, trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Turner said. “These bills were filed because a lot of people voted in the last presidential election, and specifically more people of color.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the full statement. I’m trying to understand what it is that allows the GHP to (finally, at long last) make these very basic statements about the core tenets of democracy, but forbids them from connecting them in any way to the legislation that is on a glide path to Greg Abbott’s desk. What, other than a critical mass of Republican members who accept at face value the ludicrous and widely disputed claims by Republican legislators that SB7 and HB6 and the various other smaller bills won’t contradict these things they say they believe, is stopping them? Does Bob Harvey not understand why so many people are mad at the GHP for not taking a stand, or is he gritting his teeth and picturing himself in one of those “wanna get away?” Southwest Airlines ads? I have no idea. All I know is that this is the equivalent of turning in a term paper that’s two days late and that you wrote in an hour having done no research before handing it to the professor and hoping it’s enough to keep you from flunking the class.

Firefighters score a win in court

I confess, I had forgotten about this.

A panel of appellate court judges on Thursday rejected the city’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law that governs how police and firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits, dealing a blow to Mayor Sylvester Turner in his long-running dispute with the Houston fire union.

Barring a city appeal, the ruling clears the way for a judge to set Houston firefighters’ pay for up to a year and compensate them for “past losses.”

Firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent since 2011, after rejecting offers they say included too many concessions. Voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure granting firefighters pay “parity” to police of similar rank and seniority, but a district judge ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Thursday’s ruling came in a case that arose in June 2017 after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association failed to agree on a new contract through collective bargaining.

The union sued the city, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith. As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers.

Justices Ken Wise, Charles A. Spain and Meagan Hassan of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals sided against the city, ruling the provision does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution separation of powers clause that prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

The justices also rejected the city’s argument that state lawmakers did not set specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighters’ compensation. Texas law requires public employers to give firefighters pay that is “substantially equal” to “comparable employment in the private sector.”

“The Legislature chose sufficiently detailed but not too confining language to account for the many different circumstances affecting compensation and other conditions of employment,” the justices wrote in their opinion, in which they also ordered the city to cover the fire union’s legal fees.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. In the story, the city said it hadn’t decided whether or not to appeal this ruling. It would be fine by me if the next step were for the city and the firefighters to try the bargaining table again. Or I guess they could roll the dice and let a judge decide the firefighters’ salaries, as they had tried to make happen. Who knows how that might turn out?

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Thursday the county will not consider becoming a member of the Greater Houston Partnership following the group’s silence on bills in the state Legislature that he called “suppressive pieces of legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow era tactics prior to the Civil Rights era.”

George’s statement came a day after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced they no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership due to the group’s silence. George said he supported the pair’s rebuke; all three are Democrats.

“The implications of silence on this issue are too consequential and that Hidalgo and Turner have decided to make that clear is admirable,” George said. “Our County had been considering joining the Greater Houston Partnership for some time now, but following their silence on this, we will no longer consider becoming a member organization. Now is the time to take a stand, the eyes of history are indeed upon us now.”

In his statement, George noted the changes that the county made to make voting more accessible ahead of the 2020 election, including the extension of voting hours, making the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land a mega-voting site and creating drive-thru voting for individuals unable to walk into a center.

See here, here, and here for some background. The GHP had a simple test before it, to affirm the basic principle that our democracy works best when voting is easy and accessible to all and that the bills being pushed in the Legislature are antithetical to that, as well as based on a lie. It failed. There should be consequences for that, and there are. Any diminution of their stature is on them.

Turner and Hidalgo rebuke GHP over voting rights failure

Good.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership because of the chamber group’s silence on bills in the Texas Legislature that the pair say will add unacceptable obstacles to voting.

The move, which the pair announced at a news conference, was a rare public rebuke of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, which typically has enjoyed a close relationship with Houston-area politicians. Hidalgo’s comments amounted to an accusation of cowardice, echoing comments a prominent Black member of the partnership board made a day earlier.

“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” Hidalgo said. “We do not feel comfortable letting them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time.”

Hidalgo said she would announce a new venue for her annual address at a later date. Turner said he would instead have Houston First Corporation host his state of the city speech.

“I think it’s important this year for me to find that venue that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values we hold so dear,” Turner said.

[…]

The partnership issued a statement saying it regretted Hidalgo and Turner had canceled the annual events, which its members “greatly enjoy.” The statement said there is no consensus among members on the voting bills, which prevents the group from taking a stance on the legislation.

Board members told the Chronicle, however, that GHP leadership had declined to hold a special meeting at which a consensus could be reached.

Hidalgo also questioned the partnership’s commitment to fighting racial injustice the group made after the killing of Houston native George Floyd last summer, given its inaction on the voting bills.

“The blunt truth is, you cannot stand for that and at the same time say silent on voter suppression,” Hidalgo said. “The right to vote is at the core of all of those rights.”

See here and here for some background. This is entirely appropriate and justified, and I hope it leaves a mark. You can’t proclaim yourself an icon of good government and civic engagement while sitting this out, and Judge Hidalgo is exactly right to question their self-proclaimed commitment to racial justice. (If you need a better understanding of why, read this Texas Civil Rights Project report on the sordid and racist history of poll watchers, which SB7 and HB6 and other bills are set to unleash.) This is an attack on democracy for partisan gain and based on a brazen lie, and if the GHP can’t or won’t recognize that then it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Good for Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner, and shame on the GHP. The Press has more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board piles on.