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stimulus

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 non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.

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.

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

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.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

State finally releases most federal stimulus funds for schools

About damn time.

Texas’s top state leaders announced Wednesday they are releasing $11.2 billion out of nearly $18 billion available in federal pandemic relief funding that has been dedicated for the state’s public schools.

The announcement comes as education advocates and Democratic lawmakers have been urging officials in recent weeks to release the money that was set aside by Congress for Texas’ public schools to address learning loss and cover pandemic-related education expenses.

It’s unclear how the state plans to spend the remaining $7 billion in stimulus money, which was allocated through multiple aid packages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding could not be immediately released due to federal requirements, state officials said.

[…]

State officials had previously argued the reason they hadn’t allocated the one-time funding to the schools was because they were awaiting federal government guidance about whether the state would need to increase funding for higher education to make the K-12 funding available.

Last week, the federal government weighed in and clarified the state must maintain both higher education and public education funding at the same proportion to the budget as it was in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to tap into those dollars. Effectively, that means Texas would have to increase higher education spending by $1.2 billion to unlock the K-12 stimulus dollars.

Abbott has applied for a federal waiver that would allow Texas to bypass increasing higher education spending, but no decision has been announced on whether the waiver was granted. His office did not respond to questions about what this announcement means for higher education funding or why the public school funding was released. The announcement said legislative leaders will work to address outstanding issues about distributing the rest of the federal funding by the end of the legislative session.

K-12 and higher education advocates argue increasing funding for higher education is worth it to receive the nearly $18 billion in relief funds for K-12 schools.

“The state is seeking a federal waiver to avoid this additional spending, but that is the wrong thing to do, especially at a time when our institutions of higher education need the additional funding to cover extra expenses incurred during the pandemic,” said Texas Faculty Association President Pat Heintzelman in a press release this week.

School districts also called the state to release the money because they need to know how much money schools will receive as they develop budgets for next year. While the funding can be used for a variety of resources, including extra mental health support, counselors and more staff, school leaders were growing concerned they would run out of time to hire the necessary staff without access to more money.

“This is a positive first step in getting the funds our schools need,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it took nearly two months of pushing the governor to get to this point. Many districts that have been contemplating cuts related to pandemic expenses can now implement plans to help students catch up.”

See here for the background. One reason for the increasing concern is that school districts have to be planning their budgets for next academic year, and there will surely need to be a lot of summer instruction as well. It’s so much better to have the funds in place and know what you’re getting rather than guess how much and when. The Chron adds a few details.

Houston-area district leaders have not yet detailed precise plans for stimulus money, largely because they did not know how much they will receive or when funding would arrive. However, several superintendents have identified top priorities, such as hiring more staff, extending the school day or year, upgrading ventilation systems and providing retention bonuses.

TEA officials released each district’s share of the $11 billion on Wednesday, cautioning that only two-thirds of the money will be available immediately. The remaining one-third will arrive once the U.S. Department of Education approves Texas’ written plan for the money.

The funds will flow in proportions similar to federal Title I money, meaning public school districts with a higher percentage of students from lower-income families will receive a greater share of the cash.

Houston ISD will receive about $800 million, equal to roughly 40 percent of its annual general fund operating costs. The more affluent Cy-Fair ISD will secure about $190 million, slightly less than 20 percent of its annual operating costs. The even-more affluent Katy ISD will net about $67 million, just under 10 percent of its annual operating costs.

This money will do a lot of good. It’s frustrating we had to wait as long as we did to get it, but at least it’s finally here, with more to come.

Rep. Fletcher will push for Ike Dike in the infrastructure plan

A good thing to champion.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

As congressional Democrats hash out a plan to spend more than $2 trillion on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, it’s unclear how much — if any — of that money would go toward a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

But at least one Houston Democrat is making it her mission to ensure the package includes funding for the latest version of the so-called Ike Dike, a proposed $26 billion project that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline.

“This is the time to make the case,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.

Fletcher is telling the Biden administration and Democrats on key committees drafting the infrastructure bill that the Ike Dike isn’t just a project to protect Texas. If storm surge were to head north into the Houston Ship Channel and shut down the Port of Houston — the busiest port in the country and home to much of the nation’s petrochemical industry — it would have “dire” economic consequences for the entire nation, Fletcher recently testified to a House committee.

“The potential environmental and human catastrophe that would come from that storm surge … it’s beyond anything I think our country has ever seen,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers. “People need to know and understand that.”

However, Fletcher may be facing an uphill battle even with a fellow Democrat in the White House.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan doesn’t include specific projects, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says it’s too early to say whether even some of the $50 billion that the plan earmarks to gird against storms would help fund the Ike Dike.

Meanwhile, delegations from other states are revving up efforts to secure funding for their own projects, though the White House has said it doesn’t want specific projects written into the plan and would rather set up competitive grants to dole out the funding.

“Obviously every member is going to have something in their district or state they’re going to want to bring home and show they’re doing something,” said Bill Stahlman, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on America’s Infrastructure. “Whether it’s a small, local, rural bridge that needs to be rebuilt or on the magnitude of the Ike Dike…they all have value to that community.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the Lege is taking up a bill to establish a funding source for coastal flood mitigation, that would be a long-term project and it’s not at all clear to me that it wouldn’t require federal supplement anyway. The Ike Dike is exactly the type of project that should be tackled as a big federal investment, and Rep. Fletcher makes a good case for it. Having a champion for this project in Congress is better than just having interest groups push for it, and having a champion who’s in the legislative majority with a President of the same party that wants to have a big infrastructure bill is even better. There are still no guarantees, of course, but this is the best shot we’ve had.

As the story notes, Rep. Fletcher is now working on her colleagues to get their support as well – Rep. Al Green has already signed on, and I expect most if not all of the Dem caucus will join. Getting Republicans on board is a different challenge, and it may not mean anything if they’re just going to vote against the final bill anyway, as they all did with the COVID relief bill. I’m sure Sen. Cornyn might come out in favor of a standalone Ike Dike bill, but such a thing is a much longer way away from passage, and it would need at least ten Republican Senators on board to defeat the filibuster. I wouldn’t bet a dollar on Ted Cruz being on board with this, so you can imagine the likelihood of Cornyn putting together a winning coalition to make such a separate bill worthwhile. This is the reality of it, and it’s a challenge. In the absence of any viable alternatives, you’re either with Rep. Fletcher or you’re against the Ike Dike. NBC News has more.

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

The infrastructure bill and Texas flooding

It’s more than just the Ike Dike.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to fortify states against future extreme weather events such as the droughts, floods and hurricanes that caused up to $200 billion in damage in Texas over the past decade — a tally that includes six droughts, five hurricane landfalls and five floods that each left at least $1 billion in damage behind.

Texas was hammered by 67 major weather disasters from 2010 to 2020, more than any other state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-nine of those were billion-dollar disasters — more than double the 25 costly storms the state saw in the decade prior as major weather events have become increasingly common.

The NOAA data does not include the deadly winter storm that killed nearly 200 Texans and caused billions in damage. The state was bracing for more severe weather on Monday with Gov. Greg Abbott ordering rescue boats, helicopters and other resources to stand at the ready for spring storms expected to bring heavy winds and hail.

The storm damage figures are a key piece of the White House’s efforts to sell Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which administration officials stepped up on Monday as they released breakdowns of needs in each state.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the winter storms that left millions of Texans without power for days as an example of the need to make infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe weather.

“We saw what happened in Texas — and that’s an example of a resilience problem,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not a fundamental technology problem. Natural gas plants were part of what failed not because they couldn’t conceivably work, but because there wasn’t weatherization … Things like wind power can operate in sub-zero conditions — I’ve seen it myself in Iowa — but only if you build it in a resilient way, which was not necessarily the case in Texas.”

[…]

In Texas, the Biden administration says the plan could help fix more than 800 bridges and over 19,400 miles of highway in poor condition, expand broadband to the estimated 12 percent of Texans who live in areas without access to it and increase affordable housing options for more than 1.7 million renters in Texas are who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, among other things.

It’s the most detail the administration has offered so far on what Biden’s proposal could send to Texas — and could be as much detail as the White House will offer until the plan becomes law. The administration has said its goal is to establish competitive grant programs to dole out much of the funding, meaning Texas and its cities and counties would have to make their case for projects.

No explicit discussion of the Ike Dike yet, but one has to assume it’s in scope. Preventing a hurricane from wiping out a bunch of refineries is a matter of national security (not to mention environmental protection), and it has always needed to be treated as such. We’re in the middle of a dumb debate about what counts as “infrastructure”, and of course the Republicans, led by Ted “Just get yourself on a plane to Cancun” Cruz, will reject every last penny of this because, well, I have no idea why. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Go back and look at that dollar amount for the past few years’ worth of emergencies in Texas and ask yourself why we wouldn’t want to do something about it right now. I’m sure you can think of a better reason for action than Ted Cruz can for sitting on his thumbs.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.

[…]

That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economic hardship of the freeze

We may have power and water again (mostly), but some things that were lost can’t easily be gotten back.

Last Tuesday, as Houston temperatures hovered below freezing for much of the day, Gloria Sanchez’s lights — and heat — cut off and on. For Sanchez and millions of other Texans, necessities usually taken for granted — including warmth, water and access to food — had suddenly been thrown into question. Then she got a call from her manager at one of the two jobs she works to make ends meet. Bath & Bodyworks would close because of unsafe driving conditions.

With that, 32 hours of wages disappeared.

“It broke my heart,” Sanchez said. “Because I knew my check was going to come out short.”

The winter storm will likely cost the country $50 billion in damage and economic loss, according to an estimate from forecasting company Accuweather. Much of the economic impact will be felt by hourly workers like Sanchez, economists said.

“You need to think about what’s permanently gone and what has just been delayed,” said Patrick Jankowski, an economist at the Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group.

Oil and gas production can ramp back up to meet demand. Sanchez’s 32 hours without pay are gone forever.

[…]

“It’s a kick while you’re down to all of the service industries, restaurants and others who were already battling through the pandemic,” said Peter Rodriguez, an economist and dean of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “So regrettably, it really exacerbates the pain for them, more than it creates new pains for other industries in particular.”

Last week had to have been especially tough for restaurants and retail, which have been dealing with the pandemic for a year already. Support your favorite neighborhood places, they could really use it right now. The one bit of good news for workers is that the federal COVID relief bill, which will include the additional $1,400 payments to many people, is on track to be passed soon. It may still take some time for the funds to actually get out to the recipients, though. It’s just going to be rough for a lot of folks this month.

The longer-term picture has some warning signs, too.

As for long term impacts, Rice’s Rodriguez fears employers may think twice about relocating their businesses, both to Texas generally and to Houston — no stranger to natural disasters — in particular. He said the prolonged outages could make it look like the state has unreliable infrastructure.

“It’s true that this is very rare, but that’s not the way it will play into the memories of people making investment decisions,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll wonder about just our overall ability to manage crises.”

We really need to get our act together. No one who hasn’t guzzled the Kool-Aid is still talking about Texas exceptionalism with a straight face.

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

Getting the kids caught up at school

Gonna be a big job, and hopefully we can do it in earnest beginning in August.

With students finally settling into a pandemic-altered routine and widespread vaccine access on the horizon, Texas education leaders are turning to their next great challenge: catching up potentially millions of children falling behind in school.

Faced with the possibility of devastating student learning loss, educators across the state are in the early stages of planning for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, starting to devise significant — and likely disruptive — changes to their calendars, curricula and staffing.

Several of Texas’ largest districts already have restructured their upcoming school year, adding multiple weeks of instruction or moving up their start dates to stem the so-called “summer slide.”

The adjustments will impact many of the state’s more than 5 million students, whose academic, behavioral and emotional development have been stunted by the pandemic.

The effort also will test the state’s dedication to equity, the oft-cited-but-frequently-unfulfilled principle that children with the greatest needs should receive the most resources and support. While conclusive data on the pandemic’s impact remains elusive, educators widely agree that Black and Latino children, as well as students from lower-income families and those with disabilities, are more likely to fall behind than their peers.

“We need to use this opportunity to really step back and think about what students need, and then build a system and schedule and structure that helps them get that,” said Bridget Worley, executive director of the education nonprofit Texas Impact Network. “If we start back where we left off, we’re doing them a disservice.”

[…]

In Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district, school board members voted Thursday to give staff and families at each school the option to add 10 weeks of in-person instruction spread across 2021-22 and 2022-23. District administrators are gathering feedback to determine which campuses want to adopt the revised calendar. Attendance will not be mandatory for students and staff at schools making the change.

The idea, which could cost up to $90 million to implement, marks the most ambitious proposal to date among Texas’ largest school districts.

Derek Little, Dallas’ deputy chief of academics, said administrators still are crafting plans for the 10 weeks of support, but they envision smaller classes in a lower-stress environment for children.

“We knew we had to do something really bold to help our students recover from their learning loss and pandemic challenges,” Little said. “The research here is really compelling, that when students have more time in a high-quality learning environment, that extra time makes a difference.”

The Dallas plan mirrors an initiative launched this school year in neighboring Garland ISD, home to about 54,100 students. The district added 17 days of optional instruction into its 2020-21 calendar — eight weekdays spread throughout the normal school year, plus nine weekdays tacked on in June — and plans to offer 21 more optional class days in 2021-22.

[…]

In a statement this week, Houston ISD officials said they are “in the initial stages of planning our summer program and strategic planning for the 2021-22 school year.”

“Normally, this process typically occurs during the first few months of a calendar year,” the administrators said. “Like other districts, HISD is prioritizing students who are struggling academically and socially/emotionally, beginning with making district-wide credit recovery available to our 11th and 12th graders in February 2021.”

Clearly, everyone wants students back in school, in a much lower-risk environment. When that happens, a lot of students are going to need a lot of remedial work, because distance learning has its problems, and many students had technology and Internet issues on top of that. There are lots of options for this kind of remedial work, but they all boil down to more time in the classroom and more instruction. Both of those things, along with tutors and materials and who knows what else, will cost money. Ideally, there will be federal funding to pay for this, but the Legislature will have a role as well, even if it’s just to appropriate the federal money. What the actual on-the-ground plans are will be done locally. Whoever is in charge of HISD when this all comes around will have their hands full.

Of course some anti-vaxx groups got PPP funds

Completely on brand.

Texas-based anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network was among five anti-vaccine groups that collectively received more than $850,000 in federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Washington Post reported Monday. The organization received $166,000 in May 2020, according to founder Del Bigtree.

“Vaccine hesitancy” or “vaccine skepticism” poses a significant and ongoing challenge for health authorities trying to overcome mistrust within communities of color, by the anti-vaccine crowd and general uncertainty nationwide. Doctors and scientists say the coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States are safe and effective.

“At a minimum, it’s a mixed message from the government,” said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “Those individuals who are hesitant are going to be looking to various pieces of information to help them make this decision…and if one of the key pieces of information coming out is the government funding anti-vaccine groups, it could send a signal to these individuals that maybe they shouldn’t be vaccinating,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Austin-based nonprofit has more than 43,000 followers on Facebook and regularly posts information questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. Bigtree’s online anti-vaccine talk show was penalized by Facebook and YouTube last year for violating misinformation policies and downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

As the WaPo story notes, this wasn’t just in Texas. In terms of actual dollars, it’s not that much, but boy does the principle of it rankle. And given how Greg Abbott has staked everything on getting the vaccine rolled out, it would be nice if he felt a little heat from this, since the anti-vaxxers have had more success than failure in the Legislature in recent years. You would think he’d be unhappy about this. Good luck getting him to say anything about it, though.

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

Ken Paxton’s attempted jihad against Harris County

Wow.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to get the Trump administration to revoke millions in federal COVID relief funding that Harris County budgeted for expanding mail-in voting earlier this year, newly revealed records show.

Paxton wrote in a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Harris County’s plan was an “abuse” of the county’s authority and an “egregious” violation of state law. The letter was obtained and published by the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”

The letter to Mnuchin illustrates the lengths Paxton went in his efforts to stop Harris and other counties from making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic, which included suing Harris County as it tried to send mail ballots applications to all 2.4 million of its registered voters. The mail-ballot application push was part of the county’s $27.2 million plan to expand voting options, funded in large part through CARES Act money.

[…]

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mnuchin heeded Paxton’s request to investigate how Harris County used the funding.

In a written statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the loss of the funds “would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely” during an important election held in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible,” she said. “To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party accused the attorney general of “picking fights” to distract from his personal life.

“In the middle of the biggest pandemic in American history, every Texan should have been afforded the opportunity to vote as safely as possible. Indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to try to pick fights to distract away from his personal life and his abuse of office. Paxton is a carnival barker who has made Texas a laughingstock with his ridiculous inquiries and lawsuits. To restore trust in the Attorney General’s office, we must all band together to vote him and his abuse of power out in 2022.”

I suppose if there’s one thing that the year 2020 has been good for, it’s to serve as a reminder to me that I am still capable of being shocked. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it was clear from the beginning that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins’ aggressive efforts to make voting easier, ably funded by Commissioners Court, were going to draw a heated response. I guess I had just assumed that the lawsuits filed by Paxton and others against the various things that Hollins pioneered were the response, with bills filed in the 2021 Legislature the culmination, but I had not expected this.

It is interesting that Paxton chose to fire this particular shot in secret. We would have found out about it at the time if he had succeeded, of course, but it’s strangely out of character for Paxton to do something like this under cover of darkness. Say what you will about Ken Paxton, the man does not lack confidence in the correctness of his positions. I don’t know what his motivation was for not being front and center about this – I mean, we saw the lawsuit he filed to overturn the election. Shame, or fear of being publicly dragged, are not inhibitions for him. Maybe he was afraid of spooking Secretary Mnuchin, who is generally less cartoon-y in his villainy. I’m open to suggestion on this point.

The story mentions that this letter came from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which led me to this:

CREW obtained Paxton’s letter to Mnuchin as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which remains ongoing.

The lawsuit in question is over the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. We might never have found out about this scurrilous and cowardly action otherwise.

I was going to spend more time in this post pointing out that Paxton’s allegations were 1) essentially baseless, and 2) should have been made in a lawsuit, as this would have fallen squarely under his law enforcement authority if Harris County were indeed breaking the law as he claimed, but honestly that CREW article laid it out thoroughly, so go read that for those details. The main takeaway here is that this wasn’t just a partisan dispute, which could and should have been carried out in public as so many other mostly ginned-up voting “controversies” this year were, it was 100% unadulterated bullshit from our despicable Attorney General. He’s not feeling any pressure to step down from his fellow Republicans, and do brace yourself for a pardon from our Felon in Chief, so it really is up to us to vote his sorry ass out in 2022. The Texas Tribune has more.

We still need more than the vaccines

The vaccines are great, don’t get me wrong, and they couldn’t have come at a better time, but they’re going to take awhile to be administered, and in the meantime a whole lot of people are still getting sick and dying.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday applauded the arrival of the new coronavirus vaccine, calling it a “monumental medical miracle” as he sought to boost morale amid some of the pandemic’s toughest days.

Speaking outside a UPS distribution center in Austin, the governor painted an especially rosy picture of the weeks ahead, promising a swift vaccine rollout even as national supplies are limited and the state is reporting high numbers of new daily infections. Hospitals in some cities across Texas have been overrun with COVID-19 patients.

The vaccine, which began rolling out on Monday, “is on a daily basis saving lives and beginning to restore normalcy in our community,” Abbott said.

About 90,000 doses have been distributed in Texas already, and another 150,000 were being shipped out on Thursday. The first batch is intended for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

State health officials are still determining whom to prioritize from there, including teachers, public safety employees and prisoners. The governor himself has yet to be inoculated but said he plans to at “the appropriate time.”

Texas expects to receive 1.4 million doses by the end of the year, not quite enough to treat all of the 1.6 million health care workers who would be eligible.

[…]

State and national health experts have cautioned that it will be well into 2021 before vaccines become widely available and that infections will continue to spread as long as some resist safety measures such as physically distancing and masking in public.

“It’ll still be weeks, perhaps months, before it is absolutely available to anyone who chooses to have it,” said John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “In the meantime we need to continue the kinds of things that have gotten us this successful so far.”

Abbott has so far refused to tighten the state’s mask mandate or impose other new restrictions, even as county officials have asked for them as they battle new waves of infections. On Monday the state reported nearly 18,000 new confirmed and probable cases, as well as 252 deaths. More than 24,000 Texans have died from COVID since March.

For a very sobering look at where we’re headed, read this:

What is the one thing that could mitigate this? Another lockdown, with a mask mandate alongside it. What is the one thing that could mitigate the devastating economic effect of another lockdown? A truly adequate COVID stimulus package from Congress. What are the two things Greg Abbott is never going to do? You get the picture.

There’s also this.

The start of COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers has sparked hope that the end of the pandemic crisis is within sight, but when it comes to vaccine distribution, this is still the easy part. Local and state health agencies say they will struggle to get hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccines to the general public without a huge amount of additional funding. Even if Congress does manage to pass a compromise relief bill, the amount it provides may not be enough.

The fates of the vaccine and the relief bill, both months in the making, are linked. The $900 billion proposal that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to debate has a number of provisions to mitigate the COVID economic crisis, including additional unemployment benefits and small business support. The latest available version also contains $6 billion in vaccine distribution funding for state and local health departments. But groups that represent state and local health departments say that this funding, while crucial, won’t be sufficient to distribute the vaccine on a massive scale as efficiently and widely as possible.

“We see the $6 billion that’s on the table as an important down payment to scale up staffing, develop and enact communications plans to address vaccine hesitant populations, and enroll more vaccinators,” Jasmine Berry, the communications director at the Association for Immunization Managers, says in an email. “There’s still going to be a need for additional funding for state and local health agencies.”

What’s more, the already months-long delay in getting this funding to state and local health departments may create problems down the line, as the country’s vaccination campaigns expand beyond health care workers and nursing homes.

“Where we’ll really start to see potential delays, or where we are not as successful as we could have been, may be as we move through the phases to the next group, where there’s a much larger population that would need to be served,” says Adriane Casalotti, the chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents local health departments.

How much of the vaccination tab are Greg Abbott and the Legislature willing to pick up if Mitch McConnell continues to block any COVID relief bills from passing? A miracle’s no good if you can’t access it.

Abbott is right that the vaccines will save lives and restore normality to our lives. But only if we live long enough to get vaccinated, and only if the funding is there to make sure everyone can get vaccinated. These things aren’t going to happen by themselves.

Here comes the vaccine

Houston’s first doses have arrived.

Months of waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Houston are almost — but not quite — over, as hospitals prepare to move the first doses from sealed subzero shipments and into the arms of thousands of front-line health care workers this week.

About 19,500 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive Monday at four medical centers in Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Wellness 360 at UT Health San Antonio and UT Health Austin’s Dell Medical School, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is overseeing deliveries of the first vaccine approved and shipped in the United States.

Another 75,075 doses will arrive at 19 additional sites on Tuesday, including seven in the Houston area. By midweek, 27 hospitals in the Houston region, most of them Texas Medical Center hospital system flagships or suburban campuses, will have received doses.

Officials on Sunday at some Houston hospitals compared it to waiting on an Amazon delivery: The package is confirmed, but the email with the tracking number and details hasn’t arrived. The first inoculations in Houston could happen in days, depending on when those shipments appear, said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist.

“If it arrives tomorrow, we will have a full day of vaccinations on Tuesday,” Boom said Sunday. “If it’s Tuesday, depending on what time, we could have some people come in. … I have people scheduled literally in five-minute slots.”

[…]

Under a tiered plan developed by public health leaders, the first vaccine doses will be given to front-line hospital workers. Later shipments will allow hospitals to administer doses to patients at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications, likely in January.

And after that it gets trickier. And it could get even trickier still.

Here are some basic outlines of what’s happening. As we learned last week the Trump White House skimped on actually buying enough doses of vaccine from Pfizer. But the federal government will cover the actual purchase of vaccines. The White House says the military is in charge of and has a plan to actual get the supplies to the states. And though we don’t know all the details let’s assume they have that covered. But that only appears to be getting the crates of supplies to a central staging point in each state. That’s not a negligible job. But it’s only a relatively small part of actually getting the country vaccinated. You need public health campaigns. You need staging areas and distribution from wherever the military drops it off to actual health centers and vaccination centers around each state. And finally you need a small army of medical professionals to actually administer the doses. It’s a big job and the Trump administration hasn’t funded any of that or devised any national plan.

In the absence of any federal plan or budget the CDC and HHS have cannibalized existing budgets to get some money to states for planning. But the sums are by most estimates an order of magnitude less than the amount needed.

State governments would be hard pressed to fund an operation like that during the best of times. But states and local governments around the country are already pushing massive cuts because of the dislocations caused by the pandemic. Through much of the latter part of 2020 the assumption was that this would be dealt with in a follow-up stimulus plan. But of course that never happened.

What the White House has arranged funding for is a critical but relatively small part of the vaccination effort: vaccinations for people in assisted living facilities and health care workers. Those are the two most critical populations. They should go first, and the plan is to get those people vaccinated in December and January. But that leaves the great bulk of the population unvaccinated. The plan is for that phase to end around Feb 1. Meanwhile CARES Act funding, which states can use for various purposes, has to be spent by Dec. 31.

That’s all that’s funded. It’s like a trap door set up for Biden to fall through. So as you can see, today’s excitement and anticipation over the vaccine is cued up to turn sharply to disappointment in February when people start asking where their shots are and blame the train wreck on President Biden. No plan. And no funding to implement a plan. Of course that is potentially catastrophic in human terms. But a lag in vaccination means not only more suffering and death but more delay in allowing the economy to get back on its feet, since people aren’t going to go to restaurants and participate in public life until case numbers drop dramatically.

That…would be bad. I suppose as long as there are still talks for another COVID relief bill, or if Dems win both Georgia Senate runoffs, we still have hope. But yeah, that could be a problem.

Also a problem:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is increasingly suggesting that states including Texas begin shutting down again, saying in reports sent to state leaders this month that they aren’t doing enough to slow the worst surge in COVID cases that the country has seen.

“This surge is the most rapid increase in cases; the widest spread of intense transmission, with more than 2,000 counties in COVID red zones; and the longest duration of rapid increase, now entering its 8th week, that we have experienced,” say the reports, sent to Texas and other states on Dec. 6. “Despite the severity of this surge and the threat to hospital systems, many state and local governments are not implementing the same mitigation policies that stemmed the tide of the summer surge; that must happen now.”

Texas, the report says, “must increase mitigation to prevent ongoing community spread,” including “significant reduction in capacity or closure of public and private indoor spaces, including restaurants and bars.”

The task force’s reports over the last several weeks, meanwhile, have consistently pointed to the success of European countries — many of which have shuttered restaurants, bars and other businesses — in stemming the outbreak.

“The majority of the United States is not mitigating similarly,” Dec. 6 state report says.

You know how I feel about this. Do your best to take care of yourself, because Greg Abbott isn’t going to do anything to help you. The Trib has more.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.

Even the White House thinks Texas sucks at COVID response

I mean

The White House Coronavirus Task Force says Texas is in the swing of a “full resurgence” of COVID-19 and the state’s mitigation efforts “must intensify,” while Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders decline to take some of the steps the Trump administration is recommending.

A report issued by the task force before the Thanksgiving holiday calls for Texas to significantly reduce maximum occupancy for public and private indoor spaces and to conduct weekly coronavirus testing of teachers, college students, county workers, hospital personnel and others.

“Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify,” the Nov. 22 report says. “The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing.”

The White House sends such reports to states weekly, but they are not typically made available to the public. The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Three days before the report was issued, Abbott was assuring the public that local officials had been provided with all the tools they need to slow outbreaks, including a requirement that Texans wear masks indoors in public places and when patronizing businesses.

Abbott has also enacted mandatory occupancy reductions — including closing bars — in regions where the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of capacity for seven straight days.

But Abbott has declined to go further, instead focusing his message on treatment, touting a newly approved drug as proof that “the cavalry is coming.”

There are plenty of local officials who would disagree with Abbott’s assertion that they have all the tools they need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said he agreed with the White House report’s findings and implored Abbott to take a harder line or give local officials back the powers they had in the spring.

“We determined what the occupancy limits were going to be in large part. We had the ability to say ‘no,’” said Turner, who took questions from reporters after a holiday-themed event at City Hall. “The tools that we had in March and April, we no longer have. We are not driving this car. County judges and mayors are more like passengers. The state is driving the car.”

In addition to Abbott’s May preemption of local restrictions, bars that collect less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol also can reopen as restaurants, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in August made that easier by broadening the scope of revenue they can count as not stemming from alcohol sales.

“Bars can be open. So, we’re doing what we can to limit gatherings, but that’s a big, big problem,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Commissioners Court. “Because these things have been allowed, we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing again now.”

Measures of the virus’ spread, Hidalgo noted, approximate the levels being reported when she placed the county at its worst, “red” threat level in June.

“It was soon after that that the governor pulled back a little bit, and the numbers kept climbing until finally they peaked at a level where they routinely exceeded base hospital capacity” in intensive care units, she said. “And so if we go much longer without action, we’re going to be in a bad place.”

One option the city does have is a curfew, which has been implemented in El Paso and San Antonio. Turner said he reserves the right to implement one in Houston, but views that as a “nuclear option” that punishes good actors along with the bad.

The mayor said he is trying to keep people alive for the next few months, until vaccines become available and strengthen the fight to contain the virus’ spread.

“My appeal to the governor is to join with us and do the same,” he said.

Remember how they once had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to unlock some of those tools in the first place? Boy, those were the days. The Chron story notes that while the local numbers aren’t as bad as they were in July, they are all on an upward trend. That ain’t good.

What could be done? In addition to letting the locals actually do the things they want to do, Abbott could issue a new mask mandate, with enforceable penalties attached, and take the heat from the wingnuts for it. He could order more enforcement of bar and restaurant occupancy limits, to crack down on the bad actors. It also remains true that Abbott could be exhorting our two Republican Senators to get off their asses and support a big COVID relief bill that would get affected businesses through the next few weeks. Even this wholly inadequate effort would be better than nothing. “Doing nothing while we wait for the vaccine and try out new treatments for the many people who get sick” and “completely shutting down everything with no financial relief for anyone” aren’t the only options available. The Trib has more.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

HISD also spending more money on mobile technology

Also good.

Houston ISD officials anticipate receiving a chunk of the $32 million that Harris County leaders allocated this week for helping school districts buy sought-after computers and wireless Internet hotspots.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed said early conversations with county officials suggest the district could get about $4 million for technology — an amount that the Texas Education Agency could match to lessen the district’s financial burden.

Trustees voted Thursday to approve spending an additional $31 million on computers and hotspots this fiscal year, which would help outfit students needing technology while learning from home. HISD plans to remain online-only from early September through at least mid-October, and all families have the option to continue virtual classes throughout the year.

“No one has said ($4 million) is the number that’s been agreed to, but right now, we think that’s potentially where it is,” Reed said.

[…]

HISD officials have stopped short of guaranteeing all students will have access to computers and hotspots by their Sept. 8 start date. Surveys taken in July showed about 22,750 students lacked a computer, while district officials did not receive responses for about 37,200 students. HISD expects to receive about 25,000 devices in August and another 40,000 in September or October.

Reed said the combination of county and federal funds has “allowed us to actually increase the number of devices we can purchase,” though the final tally remains in flux.

See here for the background. Given that the start of school has been pushed back to September 8, I hope that the vast majority of students who need this equipment can get it in time. It really is a shame we didn’t address this sooner, but here we are. Let’s make sure every kid has what they need to succeed.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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