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September 21st, 2020:

Interview with Hank Gilbert

Hank Gilbert

I will have a few interviews to present for the November election. Nearly all of the people I wanted to talk to in the greater Houston area were in contested primaries, and thus I have already interviewed them, but there are several more I’ll be trying to get. Beyond that, I’m reaching out to various Congressional candidates, and will hope to have as many of those as I can. We’ll start today with an old friend, Hank Gilbert, whom I interviewed before in 2006 and 2010 when he ran for Ag Commissioner. Hank is a rancher and high school agriculture teacher who grew up near Tyler, and he’s trying to do the world a favor by sending Louie Gohmert off to retirement in CD01. It’s a tough challenge in a red district, but if anyone is up to it, it’s Hank. If you’d like to close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to have a normal, rational, compassionate human being representing this Congressional district, go ahead and give this interview a listen:

I will be presenting further interviews as I can. Please let me know what you think.

Flooding affects toll roads, too.

This makes sense to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recruiting poll workers

One good thing Facebook has ever done.

Facebook has set out to recruit poll workers, providing free ads for state election officials to help fill jobs at voting centers in a very unusual election year.

“With the election less than three months away, we’re seeing a massive shortage of poll workers to staff our voting booths across the country because we are in a global pandemic,” said Facebook spokesman Robert Traynham.

The California tech giant has partnered with the nonpartisan Fair Election Center to share data about where to apply to be a poll worker based on a user’s location. Notifications posted in Saturday’s newsfeeds for all U.S. based Facebook users over 18 directing those who clicked to information about jobs with their state’s election offices.

The local effort to fill 11,000 such vacancies is going well, according to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. He said he does not foresee a shortage, it’s just a matter of screening the flood of applicants, many of whom have worked the polls before.

“We have been very pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm for people to be election workers,” Hollins said. “We first put out the call a month and a half ago the immediate response to that was 500 to 700 applications a day.”

The office has had 9,000 applicants to date. The pay begins at $17 per hour and Hollins is hiring for multiple shifts and seven days a week during three weeks of early voting. To qualify, applicants must be 18 or older and registered to vote in Harris County, and may not be a relative or employee of a candidate or have a prior conviction for election fraud.

“People are just excited and more politically engaged than ever and want to be a part of the history that’s going to be made this year,” Hollins said. “During the time of COVID-19 and time of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the (Nicolas) Chavez news…I think people want to be a part of the change that they want to see in society and doing your civic duty and being a part of elections.”

For those of you in Harris County, go here to apply to be a poll worker. I’ve pointed this out to Olivia, the 16-year-old, and she was interested, but like her old man she’s kind of a procrastinator, so I will need to give her a nudge. If you’re in some other county, by all means check with your local election administrator. We all need to show up this year.

You may wonder, why does Harris County need this many poll workers? Here’s one reason:

Just behold all of the early voting locations here. The ones with the little car icon next to them (like Fallbrook Church, the first one listed on page 2), have curbside voting. Early voting in person starts October 13 – mail ballots will be sent out beginning later this week – so make your plan, and find a way to help someone else vote, too.

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

For the first Houston-area school districts to resume in-person classes, the early results for COVID-19 on campus are in: so far, mostly so good.

Eight districts that brought children back to schools in August are reporting sporadic known cases of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but they are avoiding the kind of outbreaks that stoked the most fear headed into the new school year.

The preliminary data offer signs of hope that many schools, under the right conditions, can hold face-to-face instruction and avoid widespread transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus within a campus.

With three to four weeks in the books, those districts reported about 80 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the roughly 112,000 students and 29,000 staff members regularly traveling to campuses. While the source of those infections is not known, none of the eight districts are reporting several active cases at a single campus.

Most districts consider a case active if an individual spent time on district premises, later tested positive for COVID-19 and remains in recovery.

[…]

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said COVID-19 spread among students and staff will become more clear in the next few weeks, though rapid outbreaks have occurred in settings with large gatherings of children.

“Particularly in high school and maybe middle school, I think you’d anticipate a relatively quick signal and fast outbreak,” Chang said. “Not too many districts have had a lot of face-to-face students for that long yet. It might be a little early, especially if we have asymptomatic kids.”

The possibility of a school-based outbreak also could increase as more districts resume in-person classes.

Several districts that serve large numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income families — who are testing positive for COVID-19 and dying from the disease at higher rates than wealthier and white families — are just starting face-to-face classes or returning to campuses in the coming weeks. Houston ISD, the region’s largest school district, is tentatively scheduled to offer in-person classes beginning Oct. 19.

Still, the lack of immediate outbreaks suggests the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing could be helping to limit the spread on campuses.

“I firmly believe we can open up schools pretty safely,” said Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Is it going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be cases? Sure. But I think the impact on the community can be minimal if we do it safely.”

I sure hope so. The potential for schools to be a huge vector for COVID spread is real, and it will only take one or two outbreaks to have a big effect. My own kids are going to be back on campus in a couple of weeks, so I’m keeping a very close eye on this. The optimistic take on this is that it may finally convince some mask skeptics that wearing the damn things really does matter. The pessimistic view is more gruesome than I care to write down. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing now is what we will continue to get.