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Sylvester Turner

Council adopts recycling bin fee

From last week:

Beginning in July, Houston residents will find a new $1.14 fee on their monthly water bills for leasing the city’s garbage and recycling bins.

A divided city council voted 8-6, with three members absent, to pass the new fee Wednesday after it was delayed twice at previous meetings. The fee will be in place for four years, and then it will have to return to council for consideration again because of a sunset amendment posed by Councilman Michael Kubosh.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the $5 million in new annual revenue the fee is expected to generate is needed to maintain the city’s stock of the bins, particularly in light of Houston’s budget difficulties. The dollars will be deposited in a separate account for that purpose. Turner said the city cannot afford to keep providing the bins for free.

“We have strained Solid Waste to the limit in this city,” Turner said. “The point is, we’re simply asking people to pay for the bins, just for the bins.”

Houston mayors and councils — including Turner — long have resisted the idea of monthly garbage collection fees like those imposed in every other major Texas city. As of last year, Austin charged a monthly garbage fee of between $25 and $50, San Antonio charged roughly $20, Dallas charged $27 and Fort Worth charged between $12.50 and $23.

Turner said he has resisted fees at those levels because the public would not allow them. He said he instead chose the “lowest denominator” — which he has insisted is not a garbage collection fee — amid pleas from Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes for a more robust fee to improve service.

Hayes told council Wednesday that 30-40 percent of complaints the department receives are related to missing or damaged bins.

“This is one of the lowest-hanging fruits to deal with one of the highest complaints that we get from customers,” Hayes said.

Nonetheless, the 57-cents-per-bin fee sparked a spirited debate around the council table.

You know me, I’ve long been in favor of a dedicated fee for Solid Waste. It’s never made sense to me that Houston funds this entirely out of general revenue. If I have any objection to this it’s that we didn’t go all the way and pass a fee to entirely fund the Solid Waste department. (Yes, I know, the timing for that would be lousy now, but we could have done this any time before now.) Maybe when this fee has to come up for a vote again in four years, we can finally have that debate. In the meantime, I hope this means that the Solid Waste department will be quick and responsive about replacing lost and damaged bins. The point was to improve the service, so let’s make sure that happens.

Mayor Turner and others test negative for COVID-19

They were tested following the news about CM Plummer’s infection.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and two of his top aides have tested negative for COVID-19, the mayor’s office announced Thursday.

Turner was tested for the novel coronavirus Tuesday by Kelsey-Seybold, the health care provider for most city employees. Turner’s chief of staff, Marvalette Hunter, and one of his aides also tested negative Thursday, while another aide and members of Turner’s security detail were awaiting test results.

The mayor urged Houstonians to get tested even if they are not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

“The results will help you take better control of your health during the pandemic,” Turner said. “While my test result was negative, I will continue to practice social distancing and wear a face covering to do my part to stop the virus from spreading in our community.”

Several city council members also got tested Tuesday, according to Turner’s office, a day after Councilwoman Letitia Plummer learned she had tested positive for the virus. At least two council members — Sallie Alcorn, who sits next to Plummer, and Tiffany Thomas — are quarantining and skipped Wednesday’s council meeting. Alcorn tested negative for COVID-19, one of her staffers confirmed Thursday.

Plummer’s staff members also were tested for COVID-19 earlier this week. She began quarantining at home last Thursday, one day after attending a city council meeting.

See here and here for the background. At least now we know who else had been self-quarantining; that detail was not in the previous story. I presume none of CM Plummer’s staff tested positive, though we don’t know that for sure. Not much else to say except I hope this is the extent of it.

Here come the furloughs

We said this was gonna be bad, right?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, facing an economy hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices, on Tuesday proposed to close an upcoming budget gap by furloughing about 3,000 municipal workers, deferring all police cadet classes and exhausting the city’s entire $20 million “rainy day” fund.

The proposals are in response to an estimated $169 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Emptying the rainy day fund “leaves the city in a precarious state for the upcoming hurricane season,” the mayor acknowledged in a message to city council members that accompanied his budget plan. The account holds money in reserve for emergency situations, such as cash flow shortages and major disasters.

The city had just recently replenished the fund after using all $20 million in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. It will not have that option if a storm hits Houston this year.

“The dollars from the economic stabilization fund are gone,” Turner said. “There is no rainy day fund.”

Under Turner’s plan, the city also would draw $83 million from its cash reserves to balance the budget.

The city’s tax- and fee-supported general fund, which covers most basic city operations, would spend $2.53 billion under Turner’s plan, a decrease of about 1 percent from the current budget. Despite the narrow spending cut, the city would be left with a general fund balance that dips below the amount required by city ordinance.

[…]

The proposed spending plan, which is subject to approval by city council, only says that the city would furlough “thousands of municipal employees.” At a news conference Tuesday, Turner said the number would be around 3,000 of the city’s nearly 21,000 employees. The workers would forego 10 days of pay, saving the city roughly $7 million.

Turner did not specify which departments would be required to send workers home without pay, though he said the city would not place anyone on furlough from the police, fire and solid waste management departments.

The city will not implement any cuts until the new fiscal year begins July 1, Turner said.

See here and here for some background. The story mentions the $404 million Houston received in the first cornavirus stimulus package, which it can’t spend on previously budgeted expenses. Maybe the city will be allowed some leeway in that, and maybe the next relief package, which in its current form includes money for cities and states, will arrive in a timely fashion. Mayor Turner says he’d reinstate the police cadet class and un-furlough the other employees as his first priorities if the funding becomes available. In the meantime, this is our reality. All we can do is hang on and hope for the best.

Council goes virtual

About time.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Council will go virtual beginning next week, Mayor Turner said Tuesday, a day after one of its 16 members tested positive for COVID-19.

Turner said the switch to virtual meetings would continue for at least two weeks. All visitors to City Hall will have to wear face coverings and, eventually, there will be temperature checks at entrances, the mayor said.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. She said she started experiencing symptoms last Thursday, a day after the most recent council meeting. Plummer is quarantining and recovering at home, and at least one other member has entered quarantine as a precaution.

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais, at the press tables, sometimes even in the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

Other governmental bodies have been meeting virtually for weeks. Harris County Commissioners Court has been conducting its lengthy meetings online for two months.

See here for the background. I’d be very interested to know which Council member is voluntarily self-quarantining. Be that as it may, I guess I hadn’t realized that Council had been continuing to meet in person up till now. I don’t know what the thinking behind that was, but it wasn’t a great idea, if only because they should have set a better example. Better late than never, but this really wasn’t a good look.

CM Plummer tests positive for COVID-19

Get well soon.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first elected official in the city to have a confirmed infection of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Plummer, a first-term council member and dentist, has been quarantining at home since Thursday and received her results Monday, she said. She briefly went to the emergency room on Saturday to receive fluids, but otherwise has been at home.

Her staff members will be tested for the virus Tuesday, she said. Her dental office staff have all tested negative, as have her three sons.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said the administration is working to ensure any council member or staff member who wants to get tested can do so Tuesday at City Hall, though they are still are working through the details. Mayor Sylvester Turner is scheduled to unveil his proposed budget Tuesday.

“We have to be careful. This is a great wake-up call for a lot of people,” Martin said. “We think this is over? No. For us, it’s just beginning.”

[…]

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais and at the press tables in front of the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

First things first, I wish CM Plummer all the best for a speedy recovery, and I am glad that no one in her family or office appear to have been infected. I hope that’s true for all of her colleagues and other contacts as well. This is a shock, but it’s not really a surprise. Sooner or later, this was going to happen to someone in local elected office – as we have already discussed, it has happened elsewhere, in some cases with fatal results. We all hope and pray for a better outcome here.

But look, it’s not great that Council has continued to meet in person like this, even with masks. Go back and read this link I posted in th weekend roundup. Even sufficiently distanced, and even with masks, having people in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a high-risk scenario for coronavirus. City Council, and every other elected body, needs to give very serious thought to transitioning their meetings online, like now. If the Lege isn’t working on a contingency plan for this as well, even with their next meeting not scheduled until January, they’re needlessly risking the lives of their members, their staff, their security and other support personnel, and everyone else who crowds into the Capitol every two years. If SCOTUS can handle its business over the phone, these folks can do so as well. The alternative is an outbreak that prevents a quorum or upends the elected balance of power, and that’s without considering how many of these people are in high-risk categories. Let’s not be stupid about this. Hold the meetings online, and don’t delay. I don’t want to hear any excuses.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s Climate Action Plan

We have one, with goals for 2050.

Houston’s first Climate Action Plan calls on the city’s 4,600 energy companies to lead the transition to renewable sources, while residents are asked to swap car rides for mass transit and work to cut down on the estimated seven pounds of waste each person discards every day.

The plan also calls for the city to adopt a new building code and develop a long-range plan for its waste collection system as part of a broad-based effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The 97-page plan, in the works for more than a year and published online Wednesday, is a strategy, not an ordinance, so it does not enforce any new rules. Instead, it identifies four areas to target emission reductions: transportation, energy transition, building optimization and materials management. It also identifies goals, strategies and targets for residents, businesses and the city to follow in each of those areas.

For example, the section on transportation, which accounts for nearly half of emissions here, includes a goal to shift the regional fleet to electric and low-emission vehicles. It lays out targets to get there, such as converting all non-emergency municipal vehicles by 2030, and increasing incentives and infrastructure for the private sector to do the same.

The section on energy transition includes the production of 5 million megawatt hours of solar power by 2050. It calls for the city to power municipal operations entirely with renewable sources by 2025, and it proposes training private businesses and property owners on how to adopt solar power on their rooftops.

Nearly all of the 34 million metric tons of carbon that Houston emitted in 2014, the baseline year for such calculations, came from transportation and energy that powers homes, businesses and institutions, the plan says.

Those strategies are tailored to Houston, said Lara Cottingham, the city’s chief sustainability officer and lead author of the plan. The city, she said, does not have the same tools as the state or federal governments or even other cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, to combat climate change. It has very little authority to regulate the oil and gas industry, and it does not have a city-owned electric utility.

That means the plan requires buy-in from businesses and residents to take initiative themselves, Cottingham said.

“The Climate Action Plan is a good combination of ambitious goals and common-sense solutions,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. We do know that science is behind us and technology is on our side. What is important is that every single one of us does our part.”

You can see the plan here. The story notes that there’s a broad range of support behind the plan, but also a lot of emphasis from supporters that this is just a first step. I agree with the Air Alliance Houston statement on the plan, which urges the city to collaborate with Harris County to expand this into more of a regional initiative. In the short term, I’d really like to see some action on solar power, with options to make financing for home solar panels widely available. This is very much a collective action problem, and I’m glad to see the city commit to doing its part. It’s on the rest of us to make sure they follow through.

Well, they do serve food

Presented (mostly) without comment:

A strip club in Houston has won a temporary order from federal court Friday night allowing it to resume business after a confrontation with police over the governor’s order to allow certain types of businesses to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Club Onyx opened just after midnight, claiming it was a full-service restaurant and that strippers there were merely “entertainment.” The governor’s order allowed restaurants, retail businesses, malls and movie theaters to open at 25 percent capacity Friday.

Houston police officers raided the business within an hour of it opening, saying the business did not qualify under the categories the governor laid out. The officers threatened owner Eric Langan with arrest if he didn’t close. Langan was defiant for hours but ultimately agreed to close the club around 4 a.m.

Then the business he owns, Trump, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit alleging the raid and forced closure violated his civil rights. The suit argued that his business was a restaurant and therefore able to accept customers.

Late Friday night, federal judge Vanessa Gilmore granted the club’s owner a temporary restraining order allowing it to reopen. It also prohibited Houston police from arresting employees for doing so and ordered the agency to produce all records from its investigation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the club had primarily operated and categorized itself as a sexually oriented business before the pandemic and was only claiming to be a restaurant so it could reopen.

No one ever said this was going to be easy. There was a time when strip clubs might have been Houston’s third-biggest industry, following energy and the Medical Center. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

Reopening roundup

Judge Hidalgo adjusts to the new status that has ben imposed on us from Austin.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday announced plans to significantly expand novel coronavirus case tracing, and maintain reserve hospital capacity, to prepare for a potential virus surge as businesses reopen.

Hidalgo outlined the strategy in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision a day earlier to allow restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen Friday. Harris County’s government will do its best to adjust, the county judge said.

“Frankly, I think containing this virus will be a tall order given the May 1 timeline,” Hidalgo said. “But we’re going to do everything we can, move heaven and earth to make it work.”

The county plans to recruit 300 “contact tracers” to investigate where infected people may have spread the virus and to whom. Epidemiologists will train existing county employees, volunteers and some new hires on how to track the path of a COVID-19 patient.

[…]

With a finite supply of nasal swabs, the judge warned that the county can only handle up to 100 positive cases per day. A spike would jeopardize the supply.

“If we let our foot off the gas right now, the virus will inevitably come back, and it will come back as much force, if not more force, as before,” Hidalgo said.

“For us to be safe, we need to get keep the new cases below 100 new cases a day,” she said.

I don’t know if those 300 contact tracers in Harris County are a part of the one thousand new contact tracers that Greg Abbott promised or if they are in addition to them. That would be a good question to clarify, in case Abbott meant one thing but was happy to let you believe another. In either case, we’re going to need a lot more testing. Far as I can tell, we have a lot more lip service than testing capability, at least at the state level.

Meanwhile, our local czars have their own plans.

Houston’s new recovery czar Marvin Odum says both the city and the county will eventually unveil plans for businesses in the region to reopen in a “gradual” and a “phased” approach, depending on business sectors.

Odum told Houston Public Media it’s important to first understand the risks around those various sectors returning to business

“And then making sure that we’re building — in cooperation with our medical community, and the state, and others — a monitoring program, which would involve testing strategically applied to those groups, contact tracing where necessary, and being able to bring people back to work.”

Odum says that approach is key to simultaneously getting people back to work and keeping them safe.

[…]

“Everything has to be based on data and science before we open up any businesses,” Walle said.

Odum said there will be some segments of the economy where the risks can be managed easier.

“But as you get into sectors that have more human contact — dealing with customers for example — that may require some additional tools,” Odum said.

Walle is State Rep. Armando Walle, the Harris County Recovery Czar. He will be advising Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court as Odum will be advising Mayor Turner and City Council.

And of course, various things that are now allowed to open may yet take their time in doing so. Museums, for instance:

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston isn’t ready to announce any reopening date, citing the need to establish safety precautions and to communicate with city officials.

“Our Return to Work Task Force has been actively working to determine how best to safely reopen the MFAH for our 650 staff and our visitors, but we are just now, along with many others, considering the governor’s statement,” the museum said in a statement. “We have not yet had an opportunity to connect with the mayor’s office and the county’ judge’s office to understand what the local requirements will be, as the report notes is needed.”

The Asia Society is also following a cautious path.

“We are not reopening on May 1,” an Asia Society representative said.

The Holocaust Museum Houston “might open, at the earliest, Memorial Day weekend,” said a representative who spoke with the museum’s CEO, though any opening would need “an ongoing sanitization process” to be put in place.

The Menil and the Houston Museum of Natural Science did not respond by press time. However, the Asia Society representative said all of Houston’s museums, led by the MFAH, are communicating with one another.

Movie theaters:

Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”

There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.

Your various major releases, like Black Widow, which my 13-year-old is gonna demand to see on opening weekend, have either been released on streaming or pushed back into the late summer or fall, when everyone fervently hopes this will be much more behind us. Until then, all the theaters will have to show are oldies and maybe a few small indy films. Good luck with that.

Restaurants are more likely to be available.

No sooner than Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference on reopening the Texas economy had ended, restaurateur Michael Sambrooks was on the phone making calls to servers to come back to work.

Abbott’s announcement Monday that restaurants could reopen Friday for dine-in service at 25 percent of occupancy brings the battered restaurant industry one step closer to resuming traditional operations.

“I’m ready to get 25 percent back to work,” said Sambrooks, owner of Sambrooks Management, whose restaurants include 1751 Sea and Bar, Candente and The Pit Room. “It definitely feels like a step toward getting back to normal. It feels very hopeful to getting open and start serving people again.”

[…]

While resuming dine-in service has been something Houston restaurateurs have been anticipating, 25 percent is nowhere near normal operations, said restaurateur Benjamin Berg of Berg Hospitality.

“In any other time, if you were operating at 25 percent, you’re talking about closing your doors,” said Berg, whose restaurants include B&B Butchers & Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, The Annie Café & Bar and Turner’s. “Twenty-five percent isn’t a great business model, but it’s something.”

With the glass-half-empty perspective, that means 75 percent fewer guests; 75 percent less revenue, Berg added.

Still, on Monday he found himself busy planning how to order food, train staff and retool restaurants in hopes that some of his stores could be open on May 1.

“There’s no way we can reopen everything at the same time,” Berg said. “It would be like six grand openings again.”

But for someone like Alex Au-Yeung, who owns the 80-something seat Phat Eatery in Katy, having 19 ¾ customers — as he calculates his 25 percent occupancy — is a move toward getting back to full capacity at his Malaysian street food restaurant.

“It won’t be close to normal operations, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, adding that he also will continue curbside pickup and delivery. “I know there are people who would love to go back out to eat.”

What returning to dining out will look like and feel like will mostly be dictated by guidelines the TRA association laid out weeks ago to assure worker and customer safety as the state strives to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The TRA’s measures include health checks for employees prior to each shift; indoor and outdoor seating with safe distancing guidelines; hand sanitizer or washing stations available to customers and employees; sanitizing common areas and surfaces regularly; and sanitizing dining areas after every use. Expect to see disposable menus, waiters wearing face masks and spaced-out seating in dining rooms — many of which may be operating by reservation-only in order to control the 25 percent restriction.

On Monday the TRA emphasized that no restaurant should reopen until it is ready to do so: “Texas restaurants are experts in safety, sanitation and customer satisfaction, and we know that these values will continue to drive their decision making.”

Dallas Eater lists some good reasons why restaurants shouldn’t rush to reopen, including “Many restaurants aren’t big enough for six-foot table spacing”, “There’s no such thing as social distancing in a kitchen”, and “Servers returning to their jobs will be forced to take a serious pay cut as revenues stay low”, among others. It’s a Dallas-specific list, but I daresay it would apply anywhere else.

Look, I wish them all well, I really hope every single restaurant is able to come back from this catastrophe. I don’t think I’m ready to eat in a restaurant yet, and I’m worried these half-measures won’t do much to help them in the interim. I don’t know what the best answer is. Maybe this will work out fine. I sure hope it does. There’s just no way to know.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

And so reopening begins

I have questions.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that he will let the state’s stay-at-home order expire Thursday as scheduled and allow businesses to begin reopening in phases the next day, the latest ramp-up in his push to restart the Texas economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

First to open Friday: retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls. But they will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. Museums and libraries will also be allowed to open at 25% capacity, but hands-on exhibits must remain closed.

Abbott said a second phase of business reopenings could come as soon as May 18 — as long as the state sees “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19.” That second phase would allow business to expand their occupancy to 50%, according to the governor.

Abbott made the announcement during a news conference at the Texas Capitol, which he began by saying he would let the stay-at-home order expire because it “has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” While the spread of the virus in Texas has slowed down throughout April, the number of cases is still increasing day to day, and it is unclear if the state has yet seen its peak.

“Now it’s time to set a new course, a course that responsibly opens up business in Texas,” Abbott said, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “Just as we united as one state to slow COVID-19, we must also come together to begin rebuilding the lives and the livelihoods of our fellow Texans.”

Abbott said his new order “supersedes all local orders” saying those businesses must remain closed. He also said his order overrules any local government that wants to impose a fine or penalty for not wearing a mask — something the latest statewide rules encourage but do not mandate.

Speaking shortly after Abbott in Houston, the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, told reporters that Abbott’s new order “pretty much will take these measures, the ability to [issue] stay-at-home orders and things of that nature, out of our hands locally.” He said he hoped Abbott’s plan works but offered a “cautionary note,” pointing out that there is still no vaccine and statistics show the “virus is still here,” even as local measures have slowed it down.

Abbott stressed that his order “gives permission to reopen, not a requirement,” and businesses can stay shuttered if they would like.

At the same time, Abbott said he is holding off on reopening certain businesses for the time, including barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms. He said he hopes those businesses can open “on or no later than mid-May.”

[…]

Abbott mostly focused Monday on contact tracing, or the practice of tracking down and isolating all the people someone who tested positive for the virus has come into contact with. Abbott said Texas is already in the second phase of its contact tracing plan, adding 1,000 tracers on top of the existing 1,100 and launching a statewide app and call center to improve the process.

Abbott continued to talk of a coming increase in testing and said the state soon would “easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day.” The state has been adding an average about 14,000 tests per day over the past week, according to figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Still, the total number of tests done as of Monday — 290,517 — remained about 1% of Texas’ nearly 29 million people.

See here for the background, and here for the plan, such as it is. It’s full of guidelines for various businesses and customers and nursing homes and the like, and short on details about things like how we’re going to achieve the testing goal. If you haven’t yet started wearing a face mask you don’t have to, though you really should and in some places you won’t have a choice regardless of what Abbott says.

I said I have questions, so here are a few:

– How many businesses will consider it worth the bother to reopen at 25% capacity?
– What does “confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” mean? As the story notes, the daily number of cases is continuing to rise. If two weeks from now that is still the case, but the rate of the daily increase hasn’t gone up, is that a success under the Abbott plan?
– What happens if there’s a local “flare up”, like say at another meat processing facility, or just in some random part of the state? If Montgomery County has seen an uptick in cases, do they get to re-impose a shutdown order?
– When should we expect to see that statewide app? Will it require some minimum number of people to download and install it in order to work? What metrics will there be for it – number of app downloads, number of people traced, number of infections mapped out, etc? What happens if we fail to meet those metrics?
– What medical experts advised on this? Because clearly not all medical experts are in agreement with it.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I doubt Greg Abbott knows the answer to most of them. As I said before, the word that comes to mind for this is “half-baked”. Maybe everything will be fine, maybe we’re just easing up on less-risky behavior, maybe that testing and contact tracing regimen will be more robust than I expect, maybe people will continue to take social distancing seriously enough to keep a lid on things. I hope everything does go well. I’d surely like to start going places and doing things again. I’m just concerned that we barely have a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. What will we do if this doesn’t go the way we hope? The Current, the Press, the Rivard Report, and the Chron have more.

The real problem is those uppity local officials

My God, the Republican playbook is so predictable these days.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Local governments have gone too far in issuing emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic and can expect to have those powers whittled down when the Texas Legislature meets again, key state lawmakers say.

State laws give local leaders broad power during emergencies, but state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, a leading Republican in the Texas Senate, said too many local officials have taken it too far.

“We are going to have to look at all these emergency powers and see if they have to be scrubbed down,” Bettencourt said.

In Chambers County outside of Houston, for example, 10 p.m. curfews have been imposed on adults. In other counties, it’s prohibited to have more than two people in a car. In Laredo, people were allowed to exercise, but bicycle riding was barred.

Local governments are accustomed to playing defense against the Legislature. During each of the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers have tried to curb local authority on myriad issues including tree ordinances, annexations and property tax collections.

Democrats say they’re getting used to this drumbeat of Republicans trying to take authority away from cities and suburbs as they have become more Democratic. They say the cities and counties needed to move quickly because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott waited to issue a statewide stay-home order until 30 other states had done so.

Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been a consistent target for frustrated Republicans.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said the Republicans should be thanking local leaders such as Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner. While Abbott waited to issue statewide orders closing restaurants or requiring residents to stay home, Turner and Hidalgo were moving far faster and helping keep down the spread of the virus, Wu said.

“It’s our local governments that have had to step up and done an outstanding job,” Wu said. “The reason our numbers are so low is because they took decisive action early.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott was only too happy to let local leaders do the leading, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene”? Good times. Have I mentioned that it’s really important that Democrats win the State House this election? Now you have another reason why.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Turner to ask feds for some relief

Can’t hurt to ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking the federal government to let Houston use an estimated $400 million in aid to help close its ballooning budget gap and reduce the number of expected furloughs in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Turner said the CARES Act, part of the $2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month, will give the city much-needed resources, but the rules accompanying those funds prevent the city from using the dollars where they are most needed: the budget.

“You don’t have to appropriate us more dollars, just allow us to have flexibility with regard to those dollars that have already been awarded,” Turner said he told lawmakers. The mayor said the request was made in a letter to Congress signed by 110 other Texas mayors.

There are three rules for the federal aid, according to Turner: expenditures must be directly related to COVID-19, it cannot previously have been budgeted, and it must be spent by the end of this year.

That helps, Turner said, but it would help more to use the funds as a budget stopgap. Southwestern cities like Houston have incurred fewer direct pandemic expenses than northeast cities because they took earlier social distancing actions, Turner said. The real brunt for governments here is the projected drop in sales taxes, which is expected to punch a massive hole in the Houston’s already cash-strapped budget. Sales taxes are the city’s second largest revenue stream, after property taxes.

It’s that or budget catastrophe, and there’s no good reason why we should have to have the latter. Which doesn’t actually matter, since I’m sure the Trump administration will say No, and even if somehow they say Yes or the Turner administration tries to find some clever way around the obstacles in their path, state Republicans will turn fire and fury our way. Because, obviously, being able to stave off massive cuts from a budget shortfall that was unforeseen and no one’s fault is totally irresponsible. That’s just math. Anyway, this is the process before us. May as well see where it leads.

Did we mention that the next city budget is gonna suck?

Because it is, in case we hadn’t mentioned it before.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the coronavirus crisis will impact “every facet of city governance” and require furloughs of city workers, though he declined to say how many employees would be forced to take unpaid leave.

Even before U.S. oil reached a lowpoint of minus-$40 a barrel Monday, city officials were preparing for Houston’s tightest budget ever, thanks to a precipitous drop in sales tax revenue and an already sharp plummet in oil prices.

The fresh collapse of the oil market prompted Turner for the first time to acknowledge that city employees would be furloughed, and the city would defer a number of payments, for the fiscal year that begins in July.

“It’s not any more unique than what other cities are facing across the country. But it’s real in the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I’m not trying to hide it. These are the realities. This will be the worst budget that the city will deal with in its history.”

Turner declined to provide further details about the scale of the furloughs or what level of budget cuts he expects city departments to undergo. He did say cadet classes would be deferred due to the economic crisis but did not specify whether he was referring to fire cadets, police cadets or both.

Houston Controller Chris Brown said the city’s budget situation likely will prove “equal to or worse than” the Great Recession in the late 2000s. In the fiscal year that began in July 2011, then-mayor Annise Parker laid off 764 city employees to close a $100 million budget gap.

We’ve known this is coming. We won’t have a starting point for exactly how bad it is until the Comptroller releases the March sales tax data, but I think we can all agree that it will be Very Bad. We need sufficient testing so we can begin to reopen things in a safe manner, but the only way out of the hole we’re in is going to be help from the federal government. Which, if we learned anything from the 2009 recession, should be obvious, in that the resulting deep cuts to state and local governments in the years following the initial downturn acted as a huge drag on the economic recovery, offsetting stimulus efforts to a large degree. There’s still hope for that to happen in another round of coronavirus response money, if only because keeping the economy from completely capsizing is in the Republicans’ interests in a way it wasn’t in 2009-2010. But until then, expect there to be a whole lot of doom and gloom.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

And for the city of Houston:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The local plea to reopen

I have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t think this is a great idea.

A coalition of 350 local businesses is urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo to begin May 1 to ease stay-at-home restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, warning many firms cannot survive additional weeks of forced closures.

The impromptu association, calling itself the Houston Coronavirus Business Group, said in identical letters to the leaders Wednesday that a balance must be struck between the medical community’s desire to keep cases and deaths down and the need to limit damage to the economy.

The group said business leaders should have an equal influence in extending restrictions beyond April 30 as doctors, who they said fail to grasp the severe economic damage wrought by the “draconian” stay-at-home order.

“These good folks aren’t business or economic experts, and they don’t see or understand the economic spiral that we are currently experiencing and the human toll a complete shutdown will ravage in terms of lives, mental health, physical wellbeing, crime, poverty, etc.,” the letter states.

The letter is the first organized push by members of the business community against restrictions of movement and commerce since the pandemic reached the Houston area.

The virus is expected to peak in the Houston area in late April or early May, health experts say, calling it a potentially disastrous time to permit residents to again congregate in restaurants, offices and playgrounds.

“The virus will and should dictate when we lift restrictions,” said Baylor College of Medicine CEO Dr. Paul Klotman. “It makes no sense to artificially pick a date based on what we wish to happen.”

Let me say first that however you feel about this effort, I’m glad these guys didn’t resort to crap like this or this. I don’t have a good answer for them. Ideally, the federal government would have fully stepped in to ease the burden on these businesses, but the first round of assistance is already gone, with a lot of it not going to the businesses that needed it the most, and who knows what will come next or when it may come. There are some local efforts to help restaurants, like this one Mayor Turner just launched, which I consider to be a very high priority. But ultimately, until there is sufficiently widespread testing and the ability to track the movements of those who catch the virus, anything we do to loosen restrictions now is just a huge risk. I mean, a much wider pandemic with a much higher death rate isn’t going to be good for anyone’s business, either. I wish there were something more we could do.

Are we near the peak yet?

We sure hope so, but it’s still a little soon to tell.

After weeks of grim, ever-worsening statistics, Houston medical and public health leaders say the area has begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the rate at which the disease is spreading through the community.

The start of such flattening, seen in testing and hospitalization data, represents the turning of a significant corner for an area that has been shut down for more than a month to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The virus has infected more than 2 million people globally and killed more than 33,000 in the U.S.

“We haven’t peaked yet, but we’re seeing very encouraging signs that the curve is flattening,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “The number of people testing positive has slowed and hospitalizations have also leveled off.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, added that the trend is “definitely positive — we’re getting closer to the peak.” But he noted that “the peak is not a good place to be. The only safe place is when we’re going toward the valley.”

Texas Medical Center leaders told Mayor Sylvester Turner this week that the rate of the virus’s spread, exponential early, has definitely slowed. But they were quick to warn again complacency and stressed that now, more than ever, people need to keep aggressively practicing social distancing.

[…]

Despite the measures, the Houston area’s COVID-19 numbers continued to spike — expected, experts said, because of the virus’s incubation time of two to 14 days, the sometimes slow disease progression, the lack of access to testing and the often lengthy delays in lab results.

But in recent days, public health officials said, the signs such measures are working have become evident.

According to new research by two Harvard scientists and a Baylor doctor, for instance, the rate at which the virus is spreading dropped from nearly 30 percent a week and a half ago to almost 5 percent as of Wednesday. That means the time it takes to double the size of the outbreak has gone from every three days to 20 days now.

“It’s too early to really tell — the next week or two will be crucial — but Houston’s social distancing appears to be doing enormous good,” said Dr. Mark Siedner, a Harvard professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The trend over the last week is really positive.”

The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak.

“The peak is not a good place to be”, and “The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak” are the quotes you should keep in mind when you hear people talk about “reopening the economy” and things like that. Two weeks from now is when the current stay-at-home order for Harris County expires. That order will certainly be extended, and if we’re lucky then by then we will be seeing the numbers decline. But we’re not there quite yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, we will get there.

Cities and counties are going to need their own bailout

This story is about the rough financial future that the city of Houston faces as we go through the coronavirus shutdown, but it’s not just Houston that is in this position.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration continues efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Houston, another dire challenge looms for City Hall: its budget.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic and plummeting oil prices has thrown an already cash-strapped spending plan into more arduous territory, raising the specter of the first furloughs or layoffs of city employees since 2011.

Controller Chris Brown, who recently finished a recession stress test for the city’s coffers, has said he thinks the situation is likely to rival the recession that began in 2008, approaching the test’s worst-case scenario: a budget deficit in excess of $300 million.

He told council members Tuesday they should begin dusting off the recession playbook.

“Unfortunately, they had to do some furloughs and cut some expenses and things like that, because you can’t control the revenue right now,” said Brown, the city’s independently-elected financial watchdog. “These are tough decisions that are going to have to be made, I think.”

Turner said budgeting is always difficult under a revenue cap, but the city in the past has forged its way through challenging deficits and will do so again.

The mayor would not say whether he thinks layoffs will be necessary, but he sees other actions that can help cut the deficit. Turner plans to use some of the city’s current fund balance, which is projected between $187 and $203 million. The rainy day fund, he pointed out, will also have $15 million when it comes time to adopt the budget.

Some job vacancies have already gone unfilled, he said.

“We always assume there is going to be a budget shortfall with the revenue cap,” Turner said, referring to Houston’s voter-imposed ceiling on increased property tax revenue. “There’s always some elephant in the room. The elephant here now is the coronavirus and the impact on your sales taxes.”

The city’s two largest streams of money are property and sales taxes. All eyes are on the latter, which are expected to take an unprecedented hit as most businesses have been ordered to close and the region’s residents have been told to stay home in a bid to slow the virus’ spread.

It’s not just sales tax revenue, which will hammer the state budget as well. No one’s flying into or out of the airports, no one is staying in hotels or renting cars or booking conventions. All of those things affect the enterprise fund, which is a part of the city’s budget that is largely not subject to the revenue cap. And as noted, it’s not just Houston. Every city, in Texas and elsewhere, will be facing this. Part of the solution here, very simply, needs to be a federal relief package for local and state governments, all of which would otherwise have to lay people off and drastically cut back on services, all of which would just further exacerbate the recessionary effects we are now feeling. Just as we expect business activity to more or less return to normal once everyone can leave their homes again, we should expect local tax revenues to more or less return to normal. All of that assumes that the business are still there to return to, which is why we needed the first stimulus bill, to prevent them all from suffocating in the meantime. We all want to return to normal, but we have to do everything we can to preserve what was normal until we can get back to it. That’s what the federal government can do, and what it needs to do.

But we should also recognize that forcing cities and counties and states to observe “balanced budget” requirements at a time like this is not only ridiculous, it’s self-mutilating. Mandating an artificial deadline for when one number must be shown to equal or exceed another is beyond stupid and pointless, and that’s even more so if we not-unreasonably assume that the feds will eventually come in with a check to make up for the sales taxes that did not happen. The single best thing Greg Abbott could do with his emergency powers once we’re at or near a point where we can begin to think about easing up on the stay-at-home rules is to declare that all “balanced budget” requirements are suspended for the next two budget cycles, along with the revenue cap that was passed in the last Lege. That won’t be carte blanche for cities and counties to start spending like crazy – they’ll still have to get their budgets to “balance” later on – it will just be a recognition that this was something entirely beyond their control, and they deserve a chance to recover from it. It won’t happen, of course – I’m sure Greg Abbott and the entire army of financial ghouls he has behind him are salivating at the prospect of forcing their local nemeses to slash their budgets – but it should. I will never stop beating this drum.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

Here’s hoping we won’t have to do this for too much longer.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning closing most businesses and directing residents to stay put except for groceries and errands in the latest measure aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. and expire April 3.

Workers in the energy, transportation, construction and food service industries will be among those allowed to remain on the job, she said.

The county judge said she was heeding the warnings of health experts, who for days said a mandatory order limiting public interactions was necessary to prevent Houston hospitals from being overwhelmed with cases.

“What these experts and leaders tell us is that if we keep going at the rate we are going, we will end up in the situation that New York is heading towards, that Italy is at, where we simply run out of ICU space,” Hidalgo said.

Italy has reported more than 6,000 deaths; New York is the center of the American outbreak and scrambling to find beds for coronavirus patients.

The rules are the strictest Harris County has enacted in the two whirlwind weeks since the first locally transmitted case was discovered. Thirteen days ago, local officials wondered whether shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was too drastic a step.

They since have shuttered schools and universities, canceled concerts and sporting events, closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, all in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the disease.

The new stay-at-home restrictions, which have no precedent in modern American history, mirror those in other major cities. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the order was difficult to issue, though he said local government cannot wait.

“The goal we have in the city of Houston is that we don’t have 2,400 cases or 24,000 cases,” Turner said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road and then deciding this is the time to take these steps.”

[…]

Harris County’s new rules were not met with universal acclaim. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a frequent critic of local government, said it was unnecessary and would do lasting harm to small and medium-sized businesses. He said compliance with social distancing recommendations by the public has been “quite high.”

“Taking sweeping action against… the backbone of our local economy with a shelter in place order eliminates the chance to take a targeted, measured, data-driven approach to achieve better social separation results and far less economic disruption,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

See here for the background, and you can see a copy of the order here. As of yesterday afternoon, Fort Bend County has followed suit, though Montgomery County is not going that route at this time. As for Paul Bettencourt, I invite him to swap bodily fluids with Dan Patrick and hope it all works out for him. I’ll prefer to listen to people who know what they’re talking about and care about whether people live or die.

In the meantime:

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

“It’s clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed,” Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. “That’s why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

“We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement,” Abbott added.

[…]

However, Abbott’s remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was “surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road.” (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight.)

Can’t wait to hear what Bettencourt and Patrick think about that. I mean look, this is already hard, and it will be harder before it begins to get easier. I really am worried about the restaurant scene, which now I can’t do anything to support. I’m hopeful that the stimulus bill will make a difference. (The stock market likes it, which is all that matters to Donald Trump.) But you know what else would be bad for the economy? Having two million people die over the next year. We can still do something about that, but not if we listen to people like Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

Bars and clubs to be closed

Man, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be huge even if everything goes well.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday ordered all bars and clubs countywide to close for 15 days, the most drastic step local officials have taken to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The order, which takes effect 8 a.m. Tuesday, also limits restaurants to takeout and delivery orders. The city and county leaders acknowledged the edict could force restaurateurs out of business and cost waitstaff, cooks and bartenders their jobs, but said that dreadful outcome is better than an outbreak in which local hospitals are overrun.

While Turner insisted the closures are not akin to a lockdown, Hidalgo urged residents to avoid any unnecessary contact with other people, effectively signaling a temporary end to public life for the county’s 4.7 million residents. She said the Houston area is at a pivotal moment in determining the path of the virus.

“The decisions we make, and you make, to go out in groups or to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die,” Hidalgo said. “Whether we flatten the curve sufficiently to allow our health care workers to address the influx of cases, or whether our health care system, and community at large, are overwhelmed.”

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office will enforce the temporary rules, Hidalgo said. Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said her inspectors will focus on ensuring bar and restaurants comply, and promised to issue citations for repeat offenders.

[…]

The bar closures and restaurant restrictions are “unquestionably going to cause a financial and health calamity for working people,” said Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

He said he agrees with the move because it is based on recommendations from health experts, but called on all levels of government to take “swift action” to help affected workers.

“In the bar and restaurant sector, we’re talking about low-wage workers, often uninsured, with little savings to weather the health and economic storm,” Khalil said. “And we need to make sure that they are provided for. They’re not responsible for the situation.”

After Dallas County announced similar restrictions Monday, the Texas Restaurant Association projected that up to 500,000 of the roughly 1.4 million employees in the Texas restaurant industry would lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to TRA chief revenue officer and spokeswoman Anna Tauzin.

There are some 300,000 restaurant employees in Harris County, though Tauzin said it was not clear how many could lose their job as a result of the restrictions. The job loss projections do not account for related industries, such as food suppliers and truckers, which Tauzin said also would be hit hard by the loss in restaurant demand.

The city’s press release is here. Bar and club owners are despondent, and I can’t blame them. There’s never a good time for this to happen, but for it to close down their places on Saint Patrick’s Day is an even bigger hit to their finances. I can’t even imagine what the scene is going to look like when this is over. The one thing you can do is still order takeout from your favorite restaurants, and buy gift certificates online from any place that sells them. It’s not going to be much, and everyone from the owners to the staff and the suppliers will need help from the federal government, but it’s something.

UPDATE: Austin has followed suit.

UPDATE: Galveston follows suit.

Thus endeth this year’s Rodeo

Surely not a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

Resilient Houston

It’s good to have a plan.

No traffic deaths on Houston streets, 4.6 million new trees, and no more homes in the floodway. All by 2030.

Those are some of the lofty goals set in the master resiliency plan, “Resilient Houston,” that Mayor Sylvester Turner and city officials unfurled Wednesday, a 186-page document that spells out how the city and its residents can orient themselves to best prepare for future disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

The plan addresses resiliency at five scales — people, neighborhoods, bayous, the city and the region — and sets 18 targets, along with a corresponding set of 62 actions to make those happen.

“There’s a lot in there,” said Marissa Aho, the city’s chief resilience officer, who has spearheaded the production of the plan over the last 18 months. Aho was hired from Los Angeles, where she developed a similar framework.

About a third of the actions are initiatives the city already has in the works. Another third build on existing city projects, and the remaining actions are new.

They range from the immediate term, such as the appointment of resilience officers in each city department this year, to the more distant future, such as reaching complete carbon neutrality by 2050.

As noted in the story, the Resilient Houston plan document is here. It’s 186 pages, so I hope you’ll forgive me that I’ve only skimmed the beginning of it. The eighteen goals of the plan are laid out in the table of contents on page 3, and they include items that ought to have wide consensus like “We will support Houstonians to be prepared for an uncertain future”, “We will live safely with water”, and “We will modernize Houston’s infrastructure to address the challenges of the future”. I’d encourage you to look and get a feel for what it’s about. This is part of a worldwide effort called 100 Resilient Cities, of which Houston is now a member. It’s going to take me some time to process all this, and now I feel like I want to do an interview with Marissa Aho once primaries are over. At a high level, I think this is a good and necessary thing, and I think the goals are both desirable and achievable. How we get there will very much be the tricky part.

There’s still (a little) time to affect the I-45 design

There’s stuff happening this week. After that, it gets harder.

City officials and consultants will spend the coming weeks finalizing a few ways to turn the region’s largest and most controversial freeway rebuild of recent years into an Interstate 45 for commuters and inner-city-dwellers alike.

First, however, they must weigh about three dozen ideas with their costs, be it more traffic, trouble for pedestrians or added property acquisition.

“Every one of these is a set of trade-offs,” consultant Christof Spieler told a crowd Feb. 1 at Aldine Ninth Grade School. “If you make lanes narrower, that means you need less property, but it also means you might have more crashes.”

City planners and consultants said the ideas are all viable in and of themselves, but some would require the Texas Department of Transportation to seek federal waivers, such as one calling for 11-foot freeway lanes in certain areas. Others could be a choice between different interests, such as moving the freeway away from White Oak Bayou to preserve greenspace, at the cost of a “more massive” set of ramps, planners said.

The project, expected to cost at least $7 billion, will rebuild most of the downtown freeway system along I-45, Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 and assorted ramps. North of downtown, TxDOT plans to reconstruct I-45 with two managed lanes in each direction from I-10 to Beltway 8.

TxDOT is moving ahead with plans for final environmental approvals and could begin construction within 12 months.

City officials will accept comments on their proposed changes through Friday, and forward the refined ideas to TxDOT in the coming weeks.

[…]

State officials expect to release the final environmental assessment on the project, broken into three segments, in late spring or early summer. Paul encouraged people to examine the final proposal for some of the changes TxDOT already has incorporated to address some of the concerns.

That release will kick off a comment period — though the state does not plan to hold public meetings — before TxDOT can seek federal clearance. With that approval, TxDOT can proceed with construction, which is planned to begin on the southern end near I-69 and Spur 527 and move around downtown and then along I-10 and northward.

The main thing you can do is to take the City of Houston survey about the I045 project, to give them your input and thus help shape the feedback they will give to TxDOT. There are a lot of voices out there, and they don’t all want the same thing, so make your voice heard. You have until Friday, the 14th, for your answers to be included. It has 40 questions and takes a bit of time, so plan accordingly.

And in case you were wondering, this is still in the picture.

“It is a mistake to route our traffic through downtown,” said Michael Skelly, who has organized some of the efforts to change the project over the past two years.

While saying some of the city suggestions would improve the project, Skelly said Houston does not go far enough in demanding changes. Skelly said he wants officials to consider minor changes to I-45 and focus their efforts on routing traffic out of downtown along Loop 610 or the Sam Houston Tollway, through mostly commercial and industrial areas.

“If we’re going to spend $7 billion, I’d rather spend it on a big idea like this,” Skelly said.

The idea, along with opposition by a group arguing to stop the project entirely, contradicts the mandate designers had when they settled on the plan in 2015 to widen the freeway and re-route it to the east side of downtown. For years, their goal has been to increase capacity on I-45 — not move that capacity elsewhere.

“We’re not taking that for granted,” Spieler said. “If the response we get is that reducing capacity is a goal, that requires TxDOT to not fulfill what they are trying to do. Within that, we don’t know which of these are good ideas or bad ideas, but we think there are more options for change.”

I’m not exactly sure what it will take to make that happen, but at least it’s out there.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

We’re done with the 2019 Houston election cycle, but there are still things we can learn from the January 2020 campaign finance reports that city of Houston candidates and officeholders have to file. Other finance report posts: My two-part look at the State House was here and here, Harris County offices were here, statewide races were here, and SBOE/State Senate races were here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner       359,567    780,735        0     293,503
Peck           1,075     17,435    5,000          72
Davis          4,000     14,164        0     139,068
Kamin         24,158     93,810        0      18,717
E-Shabazz     14,394     18,965        0       2,145
Martin        14,600     48,754        0     148,989
Thomas        20,263     21,642        0      11,675
Travis         9,850     70,904   21,000      51,484
Cisneros      15,050     44,687        0      24,169
Gallegos      16,850     46,055        0      76,776
Pollard        4,525     25,007   40,000       1,882
C-Tatum       16,250      8,520        0      71,747
Knox           6,900     29,075        0       4,302
Robinson      11,625     82,515        0      40,735
Kubosh        14,770     31,570  276,000      94,540
Plummer       71,168     83,491   21,900      11,068
Alcorn        21,535     76,313        0      16,374
Brown          1,650    102,340   75,000      14,128

Bailey             0      2,400    2,600          70
Jackson       43,845     18,338        0      28,343

Buzbee         1,903    460,888        0      63,531
King          29,925    161,047  420,000      11,567
Parker             0     38,750        0      26,184
Laster             0     12,579        0     162,209
Salhotra      24,010     75,837        0       9,060
Sanchez       40,056     92,678        0      10,636
Edwards          499    109,812        0      89,987

HouStrongPAC       0     10,000        0      51,717

Nominally, this period covers from the 8 day report before the November election (which would be October 27) to the end of the year, but for most of these folks it actually covers the 8 day runoff report to the end of the year, so basically just the month of December. In either case, this is the time when candidates don’t raise much but do spend down their accounts, as part of their GOTV efforts. For those who can run for re-election in 2023, they will have plenty of time to build their treasuries back up.

Mayor Turner will not be running for re-election again, but it’s not hard to imagine some uses for his existing (and future) campaign cash, such as the HERO 2.0 effort or the next round of city bonds. He can also use it to support other candidates – I’m sure he’ll contribute to legislative candidates, if nothing else – or PACs. That’s what former Mayor Parker has done with what remains of her campaign account. Nearly all of the $38,750 she spent this cycle went to the LGBTQ Victory fund, plus a couple of smaller contributionss to Sri Kulkarni, Eliz Markowitz, and one or two other campaigns. Tony Buzbee has restaurant bills to pay, and those endless emails Bill King spams out have to cost something.

Others who have campaign accounts of interest: As we know, Jerry Davis has transferred his city account to his State Rep campaign account. I’ve been assuming Mike Laster is going to run for something for years now. The change to four-year Council terms may have frozen him out of the 2018 election, when he might have run for County Clerk. I could see him challenging a Democratic incumbent in 2022 for one of the countywide offices, maybe County Clerk, maybe County Judge, who knows. It’s always a little uncomfortable to talk about primary challenges, but that’s what happens when there are no more Republicans to knock out.

Other hypothetical political futures: Dave Martin could make a run for HD129 in 2022 or 2024, or he could try to win (or win back) Commissioners Court Precinct 3 in 2024. If Sen. Carol Alvarado takes my advice and runs for Mayor in 2023, then maybe State Rep. Christina Morales will run to succeed her in SD06. If that happens, Robert Gallegos would be in a strong position to succeed Morales in HD145. Michael Kubosh wasn’t on my list of potential Mayoral candidates in 2023, but maybe that was a failure of imagination on my part. As for Orlando Sanchez, well, we know he’s going to run for something again, right?

You may be wondering, as I was, what’s in Amanda Edwards’ finance report. Her activity is from July 1, since she wasn’t in a city race and thus had no 30-day or 8-day report to file. Her single biggest expenditure was $27K to Houston Civic Events for an event expense, and there were multiple expenditures categorized as “Loan Repayment/Reimbusement” to various people. Perhaps she has transferred the balance of her account to her Senate campaign by this time, I didn’t check.

Most of the unsuccessful candidates’ reports were not interesting to me, but I did want to include Raj Salhotra here because I feel reasonably confident that he’ll be on another ballot in the short-term future. The HISD and HCC Boards of Trustees are both places I could see him turn to.

Last but not least, the Keep Houston Strong PAC, whose treasurer is former Mayor Bill White, gave $10K to Move to the Future PAC. That’s all I know about that.

Crunch time for I-45

The rubber is meeting the road, as it were.

Three Houston Planning Department meetings scheduled for this week, days prior to a key state deadline, could prove pivotal in shaping how Interstate 45 is rebuilt — with ramifications for years to come.

The meetings, which start Thursday, will be the first chances for residents opposing the $7 billion-plus project to realign and widen I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway to view the city’s proposed adjustments, which Houston will convey to the Texas Department of Transportation this spring.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner tasked Houston planning officials to develop a set of recommendations to TxDOT aiming to address community complaints and how the projects can overcome them. Those recommendations and TxDOT’s response, city officials said, will determine their next steps.

“He is prepared to say ‘thanks but no thanks if that is what the decision is,’” District H Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said of Turner.

In the meantime, TxDOT is moving ahead in its environmental process on the project, releasing 641 pages of its draft environmental report outlining community impacts along the roughly 18-mile route, including the removal of 1,079 homes — including 433 apartments and 486 units deemed low-income or public housing — 344 businesses, 58 billboards, five churches and two schools.

The two reports, available for public comment until Feb. 7, are the final two pieces of the draft environmental analysis TxDOT must complete before a final environmental report is released.

As state officials proceed, however, there is a growing sense that opponents — who have spent the past year vocally urging changes — are transitioning from improving the project to opposing it.

“I have come to the conclusion talking to TxDOT is a waste of time,” project critic Michael Skelly told the Jan. 11 gathering, encouraging people to lean on city and state officials to apply pressure.

Well, lots of people have concluded that the I-45 project is more bad than good, though the TxDOT plan is supported by Metro because of HOV capacity increases, which factor into its mobility plan. I would encourage you to review those city recommendations and try to attend one or more of these meetings – you can find the time and place information at either the city link or the story link. I still don’t think there’s any stopping this behemoth, but there’s still time to try to change it.

Who might run for Mayor in 2023?

Mayor Sylvester Turner

So Election 2019 is (modulo District B) safely in the books, and Sylvester Turner is in office for his second and final term. In years past at this time I’d be taking a look ahead at the next city election – who’s termed out, who could be vulnerable, who might be priming for a run, etc – but with the next election not until 2023 that seems like a stretch. We can start thinking about who might throw their hat into the ring for Mayor, however. The field in 2015 was quite large, and I’d expect something similar in 2023. Houston Mayor is a prime gig, and it doesn’t come open very often.

I’m going to run down a list of names that seem like potential contenders. I want to stress that this list is entirely the product of my imagination. I have no inside knowledge of anyone’s intentions, and I make no warranty on any of these claims. I’m just thinking out loud. So with that in mind…

Chris Brown – He’s the current City Controller, he’s won twice citywide (which among other things means he’ll be term-limited and thus would need to run for something else, if he wants to stay in city elected office), he’s a strong fundraiser, he’s got a long history in city politics. Annise Parker and Kathy Whitmire were both Controllers before they were Mayors. He does have a bit of baggage, and his win over Orlando Sanchez was not by much, but if there’s one person on this list who would surprise me by not running, it would be Chris Brown.

State Sen. Carol Alvarado – Served three terms as Council member in District I and was Bill White’s Mayor Pro Tem before winning election to the Lege in 2008, and continues to be involved with city issues as a legislator. If she has statewide ambitions – and as a young Senator looking at a Democratic-trending state, she should – Mayor of Houston would enable her to run from a bigger base. Legislators have been elected Mayor in various cities recently, including Dee Margo (El Paso), Eric Johnson (Dallas), and of course Mayor Turner. As an incumbent, she’d be in a strong position to build up a campaign treasury in advance of running, as Turner did in 2015. The main negative here is the old story of Latinos having a hard time winning citywide elections, but someone is going to break through, and being a veteran establishment Democratic elected official is a good way to get there.

Amanda Edwards – OK, sure, she’s running for US Senate now, but so are multiple other viable candidates, only one of whom can survive the primary, never mind the uphill battle that would follow. While she would certainly prefer to be well into her first term in Washington, it’s hardly crazy or insulting to say she might be available for this race. She was an At Large Council member, one who I thought would have been in a decent position to run for Mayor this year anyway before she changed course, with a strong fundraising history. Running statewide, especially for a federal office, is a great way to vastly expand your donor base. She may well be done with city politics regardless of what happens this year, but I’d be remiss if I left her off this list.

State Rep. Sarah Davis and State Rep. Jim Murphy – Both are incumbent Republican State Reps, and I’m lumping them together here. Davis has a decent chance of losing this year, and while Murphy will be a favorite to win in 2020, he may find himself in the House minority, and decide it’s not to his liking. Houston is a Democratic city, but as establishment, business-friendly, moderate-by-modern-GOP-standards Republicans, you could imagine one of them at least making it to a runoff in the way Bill King did in 2015, and if things broke right, they could win. As with everyone else on this list they can raise plenty of money, and if Texas is still run by Republicans in 2023 they could argue that they’re better positioned to defend our local autonomy better than any Dem running.

Abbie Kamin – I know, she was just elected to District C, and incumbent Council members don’t have a strong track record in Mayoral races (Dwight Boykins, Steve Costello, Peter Brown, Orlando Sanchez, Chris Bell, Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz…you get the point), but in both the November and December races her performance was impressive, she was one of the best fundraisers of the cycle, and having District C as your base is a pretty good jumping off point, especially in a multi-candidate field where the goal is to make it to round 2. Like I said, this is just me thinking out loud.

Orlando Sanchez – Yeah, him again. You just know he’s going to keep running for things. He has name recognition, he did better than expected in losing to Chris Brown, and hey, the third time was the charm for Sylvester Turner. Why not Orlando?

The field – Not every Mayoral contender is visible from a distance. Every recent competitive race has featured at least one wealthy non-politician type, some more successful than others (Bob Lanier, Bill White, Rob Mosbacher, Gene Locke, Ben Hall, Bill King, that guy from 2019). I’ll be surprised if 2023 is an exception, but I have no idea who that person may be at this time. Similarly, every competitive race has had at least one strong black candidate, and if Amanda Edwards sits it out, someone else will step up. One or more people that no one is thinking of now will be on the radar in 2023. Ask me again in a couple of years and we’ll see who that might be.

That’s my list. Who would you add?

Mayor Turner’s second term begins

He’s on the clock now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Freshly sworn in Thursday morning, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner promised to make significant strides in street repairs and flood control while boosting services for the city’s homeless in his second term.

He also called on private businesses and nonprofits to be more generous in their giving, saying they are crucial to helping the cash-strapped city fund his signature initiatives, including the Complete Communities neighborhood program.

“We ask financial institutions, businesses, developers, nonprofits and endowments to leverage their resources with the city and with one another to share the risks and expedite the transformation,” Turner said his inaugural speech at the Wortham Center. “Though many have stepped forward to assist, we are still missing that level of support, the investments that will serve as game-changers for those under-served communities in our city.”

Turner easily prevailed in the Dec. 14 runoff election over second-place finisher Tony Buzbee. In a post-election interview with the Chronicle, Turner promised to make transformational changes in his final term, including restructuring the fire department, accelerating the city’s permitting process and repairing streets as top priorities.

See here for some background. Turner is the first Mayor to have a four-year lame-duck term, but being in one’s last term has not been a hindrance to getting big things done in the past. Mayor Parker shepherded HERO through in 2015 (yes, that subsequently went south, but it was still passed by Council) and Mayor Brown oversaw the completion of the Main Street light rail line and the passage of the 2003 referendum that led to more light rail being built in his last year. I don’t think anyone will perceive of Mayor Turner as being in his last term until the candidates for the next Mayoral race begin to make themselves known. So barring big external events that force themselves onto the priority list (you know, like another big flood) I’d expect him to have the opportunity to get more big things done. He should have a fairly amenable Council, and at least some of the items on his list will have broad support. We’ll see how he does.

Precinct analysis: 2019 HD148 special election

I started this post while doing other precinct analysis stuff. Didn’t finish it with the others, but now that the legislative special election runoffs are next up on the calendar, I thought I’d finish it off. First, here’s how the main Mayoral candidates did in HD148:


Turner    9,631
Turner%  44.65%

Buzbee    6,280
Buzbee%  29.11%

King      2,947
King%    13.66%

Boykins   1,253
Boykins%  5.81%

Lovell      467
Lovell%   2.16%

Others      993
Others%   4.60%

Not actually all that different than how they did overall in Harris County. Mayor Turner was about 1.7 percentage points lower, while Sue Lovell gained 0.86 points. Oddly, it was the “Other” candidates who collectively gained the most, going from 3.72% overall to 4.60% in HD148, for a gain of 0.88 points. Keeping it weird, y’all.

Since I started this before the runoff, and even before the date for the HD148 runoff was set, I wondered what the effect might be of having Anna Eastman and Luis LaRotta slug it out at the same time as Mayor Turner and that other guy. I decided to zoom in on the best precincts for Eastman and LaRotta and see how the Mayorals did in them:


Eastman top 4

Eastman 1,557
LaRotta   557
Dem     1,508
GOP       547
Others  2,055

Turner  2,389
Buzbee    974
King      592
Others    370

LaRotta top 4

Eastman   242
LaRotta   600
Dem     1,006
GOP       515
Others  1,521

Turner    835
Buzbee  1,001
King      412
Others    245

Putting it another way, Anna Eastman’s best precincts were more Democratic, and more favorable to Turner, than LaRotta’s precincts were Republican and favorable to That Guy. Didn’t much matter in the end, but I was curious, and that’s what I learned.

Finally, there’s always the question of how much turnout efforts from one race can affect another. For sure, the Mayoral race was the big turnout driver in Houston in November, but as overall turnout was below thirty percent, there would still be plenty of people in HD148 who would normally vote in an even-year election, when this race is supposed to be on the ballot, but who may not vote in odd-year races. To try to get a handle on this, I looked at the undervote rate in the Mayor’s race in HD148, and compared it to the overall undervote rate for the Mayorals. In Harris County, 1.59% of the people who showed up to vote in November did not cast a ballot in the Mayor’s race. The undervote rate in the HD148 special was 5.87%, which is another way of saying it was the Mayor’s race that drove the majority of the action.

In the HD148 precincts, all of which are in the city of Houston, there were 22,001 total votes cast, according to the draft canvass sent to me by the County Clerk. That’s a smidge less than what you’ll see on the official election report, which is almost certainly a combination of cured provisional ballots (my canvass does not include provisional votes), split precincts (many voting precincts are partly in and partly not in the city of Houston, which makes all of the calculations I do that also involve non-city entities a little fuzzy), and whatever stupid errors I made with Excel. Be that as it may, of those 22,001 cast ballots, there were 387 non-votes in the Mayor’s race, for an undervote rate in the HD148 precincts of 1.76%, a hair higher than the overall undervote rate. If the voters in HD148 had skipped the Mayor’s race at the same rate as voters everywhere else in Harris County skipped it, there would have been only 350 Mayoral undervotes.

So, I’d say that the turnout effect of the HD148 special election was pretty small, since the voters in that race behaved very much like voters elsewhere. Perhaps if this had been a higher-profile race, with more money and a longer time on the ballot and a clearer partisan split – in other words, a race more like the HD28 special election – we might have seen more people who came out to vote for it and who had less interest in the other races, and thus a higher undervote rate in the Mayoral election. Sadly, we won’t know what that might look like at this time. I should note that I have no idea how many of the 1,288 non-voters in the HD148 special were also non-voters in the Mayoral race; there’s just no way to tell that from the data I have. Maybe some of those people were just there to vote for the Constitutional amendments, or the Metro referendum, or District H, or who knows what. I feel on reasonably firm ground saying that the turnout effect of the Mayor’s race was considerably higher than the turnout effect of the HD148 special election. Anything beyond that needs more study. You’re welcome.