City Bond Election: Pension Bonds – YES / Improvement Bonds – NO

As many of you are aware, the City will hold a bond election on November 7.  Early voting begins next Monday, October 23.  There will be five bond propositions (A-E).  The first (A) seeks approval to issue $1 billion in bonds to shore up the police and municipal pension plans.  The other four (B-E) are “improvement” bonds asking mostly for funding for the purchase of police and fire vehicles, and improvements to City parks, health clinics and libraries.  I intend to reluctantly vote for Proposition A and against Propositions B-E.

Proposition A – $1 Billion Pension Bond

Some of you will recall that during the campaign I advocated using pension bonds to refinance the City’s debt to the pension plans.  But I said bonds should only be used as part of a plan that would convert the City from defined benefit to defined contribution plans.  Notwithstanding that over 70% of Houstonians favored moving new employees to defined contribution plans, we did not get that in the bill that was passed in the Legislature.  As a result, we are destined to revisit this issue again one day.

Even though defined contribution plans are not part of the “reform,” I believe the better course is to approve these bonds.  They are part of a trade the City made with the police and municipal unions that both reduces their benefits and requires greater contributions from their members.  There is some disagreement over exactly how much the City will save, but it is substantial – roughly double the amount of the bonds.  That is a reasonable deal.  It is not a solution to our pension problems.  But when we are forced to deal with this issue again, these changes will make the problem less severe at that time.

There are many in the pension reform movement that intend to vote against the pension bonds as a matter of principle, preferring to precipitate a fiscal crisis that would result in real pension reform.  While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I have concluded that the damage that would be done to the City and to individual citizens is too great.  So, I am going to hold my nose and vote for the pension bonds.  But I certainly understand how others may have a different view.

Propositions B-E – $495 Million Improvement Bonds

Propositions B-E are a grab bag of various expenditures.  However, there is not one penny in the package for streets or flooding.  This will be the City’s second bond election (the first was in 2012) that does not include any money for streets or flooding because of the City’s misguided reliance on a “pay-as-you-go” model coming out of the 2011 drainage fee fiasco.  Since we adopted that model, our streets have continued to deteriorate.   And I don’t think I even need to say anything about the flooding since then.  Until the City gets its act together on fixing our streets and addressing our flooding problem, I am not voting to give them one more dime for anything else.

Instead the city is proposing to spend over $115 million for new vehicles and another roughly $200 million for repairs and renovations, which appear to mostly be deferred maintenance.  The itemized uses also include:

  • $7 million in “salary recovery” costs (Read: “We are going to use bond money to try and balance the general fund.”)
  • $2 million for bike plan implementation
  • $350,000 to replace TVs and lighting in City Hall
  • $1.2 million in facility assessments
  • $296,000 for park design services
  • $2 million for playground equipment and ball field lighting.

Regardless of the merits of these various expenditures, it is absurd to finance them over the 34 years that the City is proposing.  And I know you will be shocked to learn that the amortization schedule that the City plans to use back-end loads the payments, conveniently pushing off the peak of the payments until all the current elected officials will be safely out of office.  (By the way the same is true for the pension bonds.)

This is exactly the kind of financial can-kicking that has gotten the City into the fiscal mess it is in today.

Until the City puts its fiscal house in order by adopting zero-based budgeting, consolidating overlapping functions with the County, ending the diversion of drainage money to balance its budget, and reducing its per-employee compensation cost (currently $94,000 per employee), to mention but a few examples – and until the City gets it priorities in order, Houston taxpayers should go on strike.  No more bonds.  No property tax increase.

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James Baker:  The Need for Civility in an Uncivil World

The following is a speech that Secretary Baker recently gave to a group at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.  I pass it along to you without commentary other than a hearty “Amen.”
 

I have been asked to speak tonight about the need for civility in an uncivil world.

It is a complicated question, one that robustly challenges Christians because it puts us directly in the crosshairs of a critical theological question: How do we reconcile our Christian desire to confront what we consider wrongdoing in the world with Our Lord’s endorsement of tolerance toward others?

Further, it is a complicated question at a time when many of our values are being challenged by today’s culture.  Basic Judeo-Christian values that were generally accepted during the first two hundred years in America are now being questioned.  How do we deal with this situation?

As I consider my response, I want to make it clear that I’m no theologian and this question is probably above my paygrade!  But I am a former public servant, an attorney, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather who is now in my 88th year. And I suspect that the some of the same things that have become apparent to me are also apparent to many of you here tonight.

The world, it seems is going through a tectonic transformation — one that brings tremendous opportunities. And with them, great risks.

In many ways, the future looks brighter than ever.  Technology and science are marching at the fastest paces connect us with one another around the world. Mankind will be heading to Mars by 2030. And long before then, most of us will have self-driving cars.  Our health is better than ever before. Globally, we are living twice as long today as we did less than century ago. And the average life expectancy continues to rise.

Wealth, meanwhile, is spreading around the globe as more and more countries adopt America’s successful paradigms of democratic governance and free-market economics. Last year, the World Bank announced that a smaller percentage of the world’s population lived below the extreme poverty line than at any other time in recorded history.

And if you can pull your attention away from the constant deluge of negative news, you might be surprised to learn that we are living in one of the most peaceful times during the past century. The annual global death rate due to war is down from an average of 22 deaths per 100,000 people during the Cold War years to 1.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2014, the latest year with complete numbers.

Yes, there are risks in the world today. Global climate change, nuclear proliferation and radical Islamic terrorism are three, to name just a few. And violence and economic disparity remain difficult challenges around the world.  On balance, however, more people may be living in relative peace, better health and greater prosperity than during any other time in world history.

At the same time, sadly, our own country is going through a period of great civil unrest, perhaps the most toxic I have experienced in my life. The tenor of our national discourse is tinged with an aggressive anger and a virulent rhetoric that threatens our society. We seem to prefer arguing over statues and other symbols of the past rather than building projects for our future.

When you open the newspapers or watch television, it’s sometimes hard not to cringe at the bankruptcy of our public debate. We hear shrill cries for the removal of the Jefferson Monument because that Founding Father owned slaves. We are scolded that “safe places” are needed on college campuses to protect our students from discussions they don’t agree with.

America’s national ideal of e pluribus unum-“out of many, one”-threatens to become a hollow slogan as jaded Americans constantly are confronted by tidal waves of animus from their televisions and smartphones.

The practice of identity politics increasingly divided us along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity. Countless demagogues stand ready to exploit those differences. When a sports reporter of Asian heritage is removed from his assignment because his name — Robert Lee — resembles the name of Robert E. Lee,  it shows the insanity of the principal of “political correctness.”

The one thing that has united us in the past has been love of country, patriotism and respect for our flag and our national anthem. Now, it seems, some believe it is ok to disrespect those symbols in order to call attention to grievances they hold.  Obviously, they have a constitutional right to do that. But doing so risks unraveling what in the past has unified us.

Symbolic of our national anger is the partisan animosity between Republicans and Democrats that has brought Washington to a standstill. We can’t seem to get anything done because our government isn’t working for us.

These divisions are real. In our national politics, and particularly in Washington maintaining lines of civil and constructive communication seems increasingly more difficult.

There are, of course, several reasons for our hyper-partisan political environment:

First, there is a redistricting process that pushes congressional districts to the fringes of the political spectrum. As result, the reasonable center is being squeezed out of our politics. The art of compromise is now missing from our polity.

Second, there is the simple fact that we live in a fairly evenly divided red-state, blue-state country, with the two sides seeing the world through vastly different prisms. The problems confronting a Democrat on Chicago’s South Side are different than the ones facing a Texas Panhandle Republican.

Third, our rapidly developing social media lowers our national debate into an angry brawl. Through social media, people throw the wildest allegations against the wall to see which ones stick. Further, the spreading of fake news via social media undermines real news, and creates a jaundiced society that doesn’t know who or what to believe.

And fourth and finally, the press no longer objectively reports facts but rather acts as an advocate and player in our political debate. If you watch FOX, you think you’re watching the house organ of the Republican Party. And if you watch MSNBC, you know you’re watching the house organ of the Democratic Party.

So what can we do to revive the type of bipartisanship that is necessary for our  government to accomplish anything for the American people?

In Washington, it will take leadership in both parties!  Republicans and Democrats will have to, once again, work together and compromise if they want to get things done.  But all Americans must also shoulder some of the responsibility. Each of us needs to look inside our own heart.

The harshness of our political debate has been matched  It is becoming uglier and more crass.  The norms dictating decent behavior are eroding; and it seems that we’ve lost sight of the basic regard we owe our fellow men and women.  Rather than blame others for our myriad of problems, we should recognize that in a democracy, no one side gets to make all of the rules.

Our country has survived and thrived for so long, in large part, because we have learned how to work together on important issues. Compromise in a democracy is essential.  Our Founding Fathers differed on many issues, but they worked out compromises to define our core principles that still hold today.

As followers of Jesus Christ, when thinking about our role in society today, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” How did Jesus respond to the chaos of the day and the lifestyles that were antithetical to his morals?  He looked at people with hope, whoever they were. And all were invited to follow him — the good Jew AND the hated Samaritan.  He says in the book of John, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus didn’t focus on the political upheaval of the day, but on each individual’s heart. He calls us to love God with all of our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that our neighbor is not just someone we agree with. Our neighbor is everyone with whom we have contact. He teaches us NOT to judge others, but to examine our own hearts and repent of our wrongdoing.

Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, to do good for them, and to forgive those who have wronged us. He cautions that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, God can’t forgive us.

In politics, compromise is essential. But being a practicing Christian requires us to be respectful of our neighbor even when compromise is not possible.  Working hard for our political beliefs and values is very important, but it is more important to never lose sight of walking in the light of Jesus.

Thankfully, we have been given the Good News that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us, and we have also been given prayer as the way to live. We are continually told to pray in both the Old and the New Testaments.  In II Chronicles it says, “If my people who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

We have work to do in the civic arena, but we also have much work to do in our hearts if our land is to be healed.  When we look at our world in the context of our faith, we could despair if we didn’t know about God’s grace and mercy. The bottom line for us Christians, however, is that we are called to show grace and mercy–even to our philosophical opponents–just as we ourselves are shown mercy.

And so, when someone makes a point, listen to it, regardless of how incorrect it may seem to you. Don’t discount people just because you don’t agree with what they say. Or the way they look. Or where they live.  Listening is an important part of learning about one another.  And in this country, we need to do more of that, and do less of the screeching that too many people today think passes as discourse.

During the six weeks since Hurricane Harvey hammered the area, Houston has demonstrated many of the attributes I’ve been talking about. In the midst of the biggest crisis our community has ever experienced, we stopped being Democrat or Republican . . . rich or poor  . . . black, white, or brown . . .  Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

Instead, we’ve all been Houstonians — first, and foremost. With the single focus of restoring and healing our community, we’ve prayed for one another, we’ve helped one another and we’ve looked out for one another.  This dynamic and broad-gauged response by Houstonians has been simply remarkable. And it is precisely what we need nationally.

Yes, we have many differences among us here in Houston — just as we do in Texas and across the nation.  But in the end, we are all Americans living in the very finest country in the world — the country everyone wants to come to, and no one wants to leave.  Realizing and respecting that phenomenon is what unifies us when times get tough.

It SHOULD unify us ALL the time.

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Are Tropical Cyclones Getting Worse?

     Harvey has rekindled the debate between climate change advocates and deniers over whether tropical cyclones are becoming more frequent and intense.  Both sides tend to overstate their respective cases.
     Trying to get a handle on whether these storms are getting worse is not as easy as it might seem.  First, exactly how you measure the intensity of a storm is somewhat problematic.  Hurricane Sandy, which caused extensive damage to the East Coast and was frequently referred to in the media as a “superstorm,” was only a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
     The Saffir-Simpson scale is exclusively determined by wind speed.  [Click here for discussion of the scale.]  But we have learned that wind speed is just one factor in determining the severity of a storm and the resulting damage.  For example, the physical size of the storm is another important indicator of its tidal surge.  And, of course, the resulting damage from any storm is largely determined by where it makes landfall and the population and property in its path.  Had Sandy made landfall along a coastline with far less population, no one would have referred to it as a “superstorm.”
     Another problem is that the farther we go back into historical records, the less accurate the information is about the incidence and the severity of the storms.  Since the 1960s we have had reliable data from satellites.  But that is the blink of the eye on the scale of climate history.  Before that, the data is much less accurate, relying frequently on incomplete narrative accounts and spotty meteorological observations.
     Nonetheless, the National Weather Service has compiled a list of tropical cyclones that have occurred in the Atlantic basin since 1850, based on the best information they have.  They have categorized the storms into three categories: tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes.  Click here to see the table.
When you graph this table, it looks like this:
    The upward trend is pretty clear, at least, on this most global level of the data.  And the 2017 data will tilt the trend lines a bit higher since this has been such an active season.

If we look only at all the storms that reached tropical storm status since 1970, the trend line flattens out significantly, supporting the notion that there is an observational bias before 1970 that under counted storms.  The trend is still up but it is considerably less dramatic than the hyperbole we frequently hear from climate change advocates.

     Of course, history is not necessarily a predictor of the future.  But these trend lines significantly undermine those who argue that the current spike in storms is nothing more than a naturally recurring weather cycle.

Weather events, by their nature, are episodic and tend to be cyclical.  There are lots of highs and lows.  Climate change advocates cherry pick the highs to bolster their case and climate change deniers do the same with the lows.

I think there are two conclusions we can draw from the data.

First, tropical cyclones do appear to be getting somewhat worse.  You can attribute that to climate change or not, but the best bet going forward is that we need to prepare for more frequent and intense storms.  However, there is little in the historical record to support a prediction that the increase will be dramatic.[1]

     Second, storms of relatively similar strengths are causing much more damage now than in the past because there are so many more people and so much more property in their paths.
Both of these conclusions support policies that would better prepare our coastlines to withstand storms and to mitigate their impact.  That means building structural protections, improving flood control, adopting better building codes, being more careful where we build things and restoring natural features that dampen the impact of the storms, e.g., wetlands and oyster reefs.
     While pursuing policies which will reduce carbon emissions is a laudable goal, there is no evidence that policies to that end will have any short or medium term effect on reducing the frequency or severity of tropical cyclones.
     Of course, it is not an “either-or” choice.  We can work to make our coast lines more resilient and to reduce carbon emissions at the same time.  But if the goal is to reduce the impact of tropical storms in the short or medium term, we need policies primarily aimed at strengthening our coastal defenses.

[1] The issue of whether tropical cyclones are getting worse and the effect of climate change on tropical storms is a topic that is hotly debated within the meteorological community.  Ryan Maue, a well-known climate change denier, has made the case that frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones has actually declined in recent years. [Click   here to see his data and argument.]  However, the conclusion that storms are gradually getting more frequent and intense represents the consensus opinion of the meteorological community.  [Click here.]
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Uptown Bus Lanes Already $30 Million Over Budget

     One of the worst public works boondoggles in our region is about to get worse unless our elected officials step in.  In 2014, the Uptown TIRZ proposed to build dedicated bus lanes down the middle of Post Oak Boulevard.   The cost of the project at that time was estimated to be $196 million, with over half that amount coming from local property taxes and the balance coming from State and federal transportation funds.  Last week, the Uptown TIRZ went to the Transportation Policy Council asking for an additional $30 million for the project.  And trust me, this will not be the last time Uptown comes back with its hand out.
     Most of you have probably never heard of the Transportation Policy Council (TPC), but it wields enormous influence over regional mobility projects.  It is a committee of the Houston Galveston Area Council (HGAC), which is one of twenty-four regional councils of local governments that were established by the Texas Legislature.  Transportation policy councils in each of these regional organizations are made up of local officials who allocate State and federal transportation funds to various road and transit projects within their regions.
     There are 27 members on our TPC.  Most are elected officials but there are also some appointed positions (such as the Metro chair and TXDOT’s district engineer).   You can see a complete list of the members [here].
     The TPC was notified of Uptown’s request for additional State funds on September 22.  Because of the size of the request, it could not be approved until the following meeting.  Fortunately, both County Judge Ed Emmett and Commissioner Steve Radack expressed concerns about the budget overrun in the meeting.  From their comments, it appears they will likely vote against bailing out Uptown, especially since Emmett voted against the project originally.  You can watch the video of the meeting [here].  Uptown’s request is discussed in agenda item number 5.
     Personally, I am very skeptical that the proposed bus lanes will ever achieve the projected ridership or congestion mitigation Uptown claims.  We have seen time and again that ridership projections are almost always overly optimistic.  Of particular concern is that the project is based on the assumption that commuters will either drive their car or take a park-and-ride to one of the ends of the bus lanes, then switch to the buses for the final leg of their trip.  In the transit world this is known as “two-seat trip”, meaning that the commuter must change modes during trip.  Historically, commuters have been reluctant to take two-seat trips except in the most congested areas, such as Manhattan.
     And the project will undoubtedly impede the flow of vehicular traffic in the Galleria.  There is a particularly problematic proposed interchange at Post Oak and the Loop where the bus lanes will transition onto the Loop.  I cannot imagine that traffic will not be permanently snarled at that intersection.
     But regardless of the future effectiveness of the project, it is simply an idiotic use of $200 million of taxpayer money.  I could come up with a list of at least 100 other transportation projects that would represent a better value.
     This project was pushed through by TIRZ bureaucrats trying to justify their existence and special interests along Post Oak, some of whom have received multi-million dollar right-of-way payouts.  It is wildly unpopular with most of the businesses along Post Oak and residents in the Galleria.  Post Oak went from being one of our signature boulevards to a war zone.  I cannot even imagine what a nightmare the traffic is going to be during the holiday season.
     Much of the work that has been done so far is utility work and right-of-way expansion.  Almost nothing has been done to actually begin construction of the bus lanes, which means that it is not too late to scrap this project.  A good step in that direction would be for the TPC to turn down Uptown’s request for additional funding.
     So, I am encouraging everyone to first call Judge Emmett and Commissioner Radack to congratulate them on questioning the request and to encourage them to vote against it when it comes back to the TPC for final approval.  You might also consider calling Houston City Council Members David Robinson and Larry Green, who also serve on the TPC, and ask them to vote against the increase.
     Finally, it is also time for residents in the Galleria to make it clear to the Uptown board that they are opposed to this project.  You can reach the Uptown office at 713-621-2011 or you can email it [here].   You can see a list of their directors at http://www.uptown-houston.com/about/page/tirz-uda-board.  If you know any of these members, call them and let them know you are opposed to the project.
     This project is crony capitalism at its worst.  TIRZs were originally established to help “blighted” neighborhoods.  This project is using $200 million of taxpayer money to subsidize a project intended to benefit the most expensive real estate in the City.  In the meantime, there are many neighborhoods in our City going begging for basic services, like flood control projects!
It is time to put an end to this boondoggle.
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Two Flood Bills Died in Legislature

Two bills were introduced in the last Legislative session to study flooding in the Houston region.  Both died in committee.

SB1269 was authored by State Senator Boris Miles and co-sponsored by Senators John Whitmire and Sylvia Garcia.  The bill would have authorized $1.5 million to establish and fund a task force to complete a “comprehensive flood control infrastructure study.”  Not exactly bold leadership, but to the Senate’s credit SB1269 was approved unanimously.

But it never saw the light of day in the House.  When it was received by the House from the Senate it was referred to the Natural Resources Committee.  There is no one from the Houston region on that committee.  No member of the Houston delegation picked up the bill.  The committee held about a five-minute perfunctory hearing.  Representative Armando Walle appears to have been the only Houston area representative to speak in favor of the bill.  The bill was “left pending” in the committee at the end of the session.

Senator Larry Taylor introduced SB2265, which would have restructured an existing entity to give it the power to begin constructing a coastal spine system to protect the region from storm surges.  But the bill did not authorize any funds and was contingent on the federal government funding the entire project.  It, too, was approved by the Senate unanimously.

In the House, SB2265 was referred to the Special Purpose Districts Committee, which is chaired by Representative Jim Murphy.  Representative Wayne Faircloth, from Galveston, filed a companion bill, HB4308.  There are notations that these bills were heard briefly in committee, but both were also left pending at the end of the session.

These bills were utterly inadequate compared to the challenges that our region faces from flooding.  They really called for nothing more than additional studies.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, there has been so much research on this subject “it is probable that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

But the fact that our Legislature could not even pass these watered-down (excuse the pun) measures is pathetic.  Of course, the Legislature had time to argue about all manner of nonsense in this session, but when it came to actually doing something about one of the most persistent threats to our region, they took a powder.

The threat of large scale flooding from either a storm surge or massive rain events, such as what we just experienced, cannot be effectively addressed solely at the local level.  The scope of these events exceeds the jurisdictional limits of any single municipality or county.  While there is certainly a role for local entities, we also need a regional approach.

Ideally, Governor Abbott should call a special session to deal with this problem.  At a minimum, we need a robust interim study so the Legislature is prepared to immediately take action on flooding in our region when the Legislature meets again in 2019.

The time for shuffling our feet and thinking about maybe studying this problem is over.  Now is the time for action.
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Time to Tap the State Rainy Day Fund for Regional Flood Projects

The State of Texas prudently maintains a “Rainy Day” fund.  Currently the fund balance is just over $10 billion.  The technical name for the fund is the Economic Stabilization Fund.  Either of its monikers strongly suggest that it should be tapped at this time to jump start critical flood control projects in the Houston region.

Our region is subject to two types of flood risks.

The first is a storm surge from a hurricane.  A storm surge from a “Scenario 7” storm, a Category 4 or larger that makes landfall near Freeport, is an existential threat to our region.  Such a storm would flood all of Galveston County, about half of Brazoria County and about 20% of Harris County.  It would kill thousands, cause billions in property damages and inestimable ecological damage as the surge overruns sites with decades of industrial pollution.  It would also wreak havoc on the State and national economy as a large percentage of the refining and petrochemical capacity would be offline for months.

The second risk is from massive rain events which outstrip our drainage system’s ability to move the rainwater to the Bay.  Of course, the recent Harvey flooding was an extreme example of such an event.  These events are occurring more frequently because we are getting more rain than we have in the past and because we poured concrete and asphalt over soil that used to soak up some of that rainfall without making adequate provision for the resulting increased runoff.

The good news is that there are solutions to both problems.  The bad news is that the solutions are expensive. . . . and I mean really expensive.

The solution to storm surge flooding is a coastal barrier, as originally conceived by Texas A&M Galveston’s Bill Merrill, and subsequently refined by input from a variety of stakeholders.  The cost is $10-15 billion.

The solution to Harvey-type flooding is more multifaceted and probably still requires some additional study.  But it clearly must include shoring up the Barker and Addicks reservoirs, adding massive amounts of additional detention, tightening up detention regulations and building codes, and potentially building a third reservoir.  The costs for these measures is less certain but could easily be another $5 billion.

I am not suggesting we should drain the Rainy Day fund to build these projects.  Most of the tab will have to be picked up by the Federal government.  But the Federal government gives preference to projects where local and State governments are willing to pick up a share of the costs.  If our State leadership goes to the Feds with a commitment to use some of the Rainy Day fund, say $2 billion, we will stand a much better chance of getting Federal funding.

If we fail to address these risks there will be long-term adverse economic consequences for our region, the State and indeed the entire nation.  The Houston region accounts for almost 30% of the State’s total GDP.  As goes Houston so goes the State.

After a week of nonstop national news coverage about how vulnerable Houston is to flooding, what corporation is going to relocate here?  Would you schedule a convention in Houston during hurricane season?  How many companies are going to build a new plant in a place where it could be inundated by a 25-foot storm surge?

Now is the time for bold leadership, not Republican primary posturing.  There is nothing conservative about failing to make investments that we know are needed to avoid future losses.  In fact, it is grossly irresponsible not to do so.

A hundred years from now no one is going to remember anything about bathroom bills or even know what that the hell a sanctuary city was.  But, as we remember the construction of the Galveston Seawall over a century after it was built, our grandchildren will remember whether we, as a generation, stepped up and ended the threat of devastating flooding to our region and the State’s largest economic engine.

Many Questions Need to be Answered Before Raising the City’s Taxes

    Harvey was an extraordinary event and calls for an extraordinary response.  That response may include raising more revenue for flood projects in our region.  But the proposal by Sylvester Turner for City Council to immediately raise the City’s property taxes by $113 million raises a number of troubling question.

    First, let’s not kid ourselves that his money is going to be used to stem flooding.  Since 2012, the City has collected about $800 million in “drainage fees.”  A tiny fraction of that money has actually been spent on flood control projects.  Trust me, none of this $113 million will be.

     Under the property tax cap charter amendment, City Council can raise additional property tax revenue over the cap by an amount “necessitated by city expenditures related to the inclusion of the city in any declaration of an emergency or disaster.

     Therefore, the threshold question must be:  How is the $113 million going to be spent?  The only explanations we have gotten so far is that the City will have to pony up about $20 million for it share of debris removal expenses, needs to replace about 300 flooded vehicles and repair some unspecified damages to some of the City’s facilities.  But we have a $20 million “rainy day fund” (recently renamed the Budget Stabilization Fund) for exactly this purpose.  And it should not cost more than about $15 million to replace 300 vehicles.  So where is the rest of the money going?

     And were any of those losses covered by insurance?  I found a note in the 2016 Annual Report that appears to suggest that the City is covered for any flood losses over $10 million.  I do not know if that is actually the case or not.  But if we do not have any coverage, why not?  (And for that matter, why were over 300+ vehicles left where they would be flooded in the first place?)  

     How much of these expenses will be covered by donations?  Are there alternatives to raising taxes?  Can some of the TIRZ money be tapped?  City reports show there is about a $50 million fund balance in the “dedicated” drainage fund.  Can that be used?  

     City Council has an obligation under the charter to demand an accounting of what expenses are necessitated by the disaster before voting to suspend the cap.  To do otherwise raises the question of whether this whole exercise is just a pretext to accomplish what the advocates of repealing the property tax cap knew they could not do at the ballot box.

    There are two things that make me suspicious this is just such a pretext.   First, the increase is exactly (to the one-hundredth percent) the amount the tax rate has been decreased because of the property tax cap.  Are we to believe that the city expenditures necessitated by the storm just happen to come out to that exact number?  

     Second, Turner’s main surrogate for the repeal of the property tax cap, Council Member Dwight Boykins, made a telling statement.  He told the Houston Chronicle, “Anything to bust that damn rev cap, I’m in.

    I think Boykins statement reflects the true opinion of many at City Hall.  They resent that Houston taxpayers have limited the amount that they can increase the property tax and will use any device or excuse to get rid of the cap, including exploiting a natural disaster.  

     I think it is also noteworthy that no other taxing jurisdiction in our area has proposed increasing taxes in response to Harvey.  The County and HISD both had more severe damages to their facilities, as did several of our sister cities on a relative basis.  Why is the City of Houston the only jurisdiction that needs to immediately raise its taxes.

    There could also be an unintended consequence from a tax increase.  It could spark a taxpayer backlash that will show up at the polls in the November for the City’s bond election.  My guess is that the improvement bonds are already in trouble since they have no money for streets or drainage.  But this could also imperil the passage of the pension bonds, which have, at least to now, enjoyed a comfortable margin of support.  The additional revenue from this tax increase will pale in comparison to the costs if the City is forced to go back to the drawing board on pensions.  

     Many in this City are hurting right now.  True, the proposed tax increase will not make a significant difference to most.  But the optics of the City piling on to their misfortune are ugly and will do much to unravel the unity we have found through this ordeal.

    And it is $113 million that the City Council will decide how to spend instead of taxpayers.  That is $113 million less for Houstonians to repair damaged homes, replace flooded items and give to charities.  

     Every tax dollar is a precious trust and especially so under these circumstances.  There may be a case for the City increasing taxes.  But that case has yet to be made.

Not Everyone Concerned about Illegal Immigration is a Racist

     I have regular breakfast with a group of politicos that represent a cross-section of the political spectrum.  Recently we had a discussion about immigration.  I referenced a recent Texas Lyceum poll which found that 72% of Texans were either extremely or somewhat concerned about illegal immigration.  The same poll asked an open-ended question of the most serious issue Texas is facing.  Illegal immigration and border security came in first and third with a combined total of 27%, more than double education, which came in second at 13%.
     I asked my group why they thought illegal immigration was weighing so heavily on the minds of Texans.  Two of the more liberal members of my breakfast group attributed the concern purely to racism.  But there were some other findings in the poll that contradict this simplistic explanation.  Sixty plus percent:  (i) were opposed to deporting all those living here illegally; (ii) supported some pathway to citizenship; (iii) opposed building a wall; and (iv) thought immigration helped the country more than it hurt it.  When asked why illegal immigration was a problem, only 2% said because it diluted American culture.  These are not the responses of racists.
     And to completely lay the racist explanation to rest, 68% of self-identified Hispanics were either extremely or somewhat concerned about illegal immigration.  I’m pretty sure they were not motivated by racism.
     After kicking around these seemingly anomalous results, one member of our group with small children spoke up.  She said she was concerned about illegal immigration because of the effect it was having on her children’s school.  It had become significantly overcrowded because of an influx of immigrant children, most of whom spoke little or no English.  Trying to serve dozens of ESL children, including interfacing with parents who frequently spoke no English, was taxing the school’s resources and staff.  She noted cultural differences, especially as it related to the disparity in maturity regarding sexual matters.  She was also concerned about health issues.  Had these children been immunized as virtually all American children are?
     These were imminently reasonable concerns and not at all based on racial animus.  And her concerns are not isolated.  How many times have you heard someone complain about being involved in an accident with an illegal immigrant who had no insurance?  There is no doubt that dangerous criminal gang members have slipped into the country along with those coming here for a better life.  Nor is there any doubt that they are making our drug problem worse.  And while we may not be able to calculate the amount by which illegal immigrant workers are driving down wages in low-skilled jobs, the basic laws of supply and demand tell us it must be having some effect.
     Is some of the current anti-immigrant fervor based on racial bigotry?  Undoubtedly.  But, there are plenty of valid reasons to be concerned about illegal immigration other than racial hatred.  And this is where I think immigration advocates hurt their case.
     The American people are generous and caring.  We make more charitable gifts than all the other countries in the world combined.  No country has a history of accepting more immigrants and refugees than the U.S.  When immigration advocates go on a screed charging racism, they are telling those with legitimate concerns that their concerns don’t matter and thereby make badly needed immigration reform less likely.
     Like most public policy issues, immigration is complex.  But there is a broad outline of a rational policy that is obvious.  First, we must have a secure border, i.e., we must know who is coming and going in and out of country.  You cannot reform immigration without this predicate.  Second, we are not going to deport the roughly 10 million folks that are here without a valid visa.  So, let’s come up with a realistic plan about what to do with them.  Third, we must determine what is the appropriate level of immigration on an annual basis and how we should go about choosing the people we let in.
     Sure, there are those on the extremes who either want to have completely open borders or shut down immigration entirely.  But they do not represent the majority of the American people, notwithstanding that their slogans dominate the public debate on immigration.  As John McCain recently said, “To hell with them.”  It is time for reasonable people to come together to solve this problem.

The DACA Dilemma

     In Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist, when Mr. Bumble is told that the law presumes he controls his wife’s actions, declares that “the law is an ass.”  Similarly, the current law which provides that children who are brought to this country illegally by their parents should be deported back to the country where they were born is an ass.  So are the 15% of Americans who think these young people should be deported.  And there is no question that it is shameful that Congress has not already acted to fix this law.  But fixing the law through executive action, as President Obama did, pits two of our fundamental principles against each other.

     The first, of course, is fundamental fairness.  We do not hold children guilty for the sins of their parents.  Our law, in fact, does not even hold children guilty for crimes they commit.  Make no mistake: deporting a person to a country they have never seen and where they do not speak the language; ripping them from friends, family, their school or job, their community; is an unthinkably harsh punishment for a crime they did not commit.  That is why 85% of Americans oppose their deportation.

     The second principle is incorporated into Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution which provides that the president “take care of that the laws be faithfully executed.”  Most public officials are required to take an oath solemnizing the commonsense notion that executive officers are supposed to enforce the laws passed by the legislative bodies and not make up their own or decide which laws should be enforced.  To do otherwise violates our principle of the separation of powers.

     Of course, the concept of prosecutorial discretion is firmly established in our law.  In fact, the principle is mandated by the ethical rules for prosecutors to “seek justice, not merely to convict.”  The simplest example of prosecutorial discretion is when a police officer decides to issue a warning instead of a speeding citation.  I doubt many of us would accuse the officer of violating his oath of office or the separation of powers for issuing the warning; especially if we are the speeder!  But, I suspect most would feel differently if our local police chief announced he had decided that speeding laws were unnecessary and that the police force would no longer enforce them.

     I do not fault President Obama for issuing DACA in the face of Congress’ failure to act.  No, any fault for this situation must be laid directly at the feet of our worthless, cowardly Congress who will not stand up to partisan extremists to solve this problem.

     I have no doubt that President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA was a callous appeal to his base.  If he really “loved” the young people involved he would have offered and pressed for legislation to address the issue and not just pass the hot potato to Congress.  But irrespective of his motives, he is right that Congress should act.

     Even President Obama conceded DACA was a stopgap measure.  While DACA was a welcome life ring for these young people, it was never true security.  Congress needs to fix this and fix it now; and provide permanent security for those stuck in this legal limbo through no fault of their own.

     In a strange irony, President Trump is putting some of his most ardent Congressional supporters between a rock and a hard spot.  Trust me, while Republicans in Congress loved to rail against President Obama’s “usurpation” of their power by enacting DACA, they were also enormously relieved they did not have to vote on an issue strongly favored by the districts but largely opposed by their primary voters.  And they know all too well that the first of these DACA young people that is actually deported with every news outlet in the world covering it live every step of the way, will be the end of the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

     Here’s the bottom line.  85% of Americans agree that those brought here as children illegally should not be deported.  If Congress cannot act and continues to allow 15% of the country to impose its will on the other 85% of us, we need to fire the whole bunch and start over.

Initial Thoughts on Harvey

     Because of the work I did on hurricane response after Hurricane Rita, I have gotten a number of calls from the media about Harvey.
The initial calls were asking about whether Mayor Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett had made the right call by not ordering a mandatory evacuation ahead of Harvey reaching Houston.  I think some in the media assumed that since Turner and I had been opponents in the last election, I would criticize his decision to not call an evacuation
     But, in fact, Turner and Emmett followed the protocol that was established in the aftermath of the disastrous Rita evacuation to, with some very limited exceptions, only evacuate those areas threatened by storm surge.  As a general proposition, it is not prudent to evacuate areas that are only threatened by rising water from rainfall
     The reason for this is that about 90% of fatalities from a hurricane are caused by storm surge.  Only about 10% come from wind or upland flooding.  In contrast, evacuations are very dangerous.  In Rita, about 130 people died in the evacuation.  That is more people than have ever died in a hurricane in Texas, with the exception of the 1900 Galveston Storm.  While it is miserable to be sitting in your house and watch it gradually fill with water (I know because I have experienced that twice), very few people die from their house being flooded
     I made these points in an interview with the New York Times.  Some of my comments were included in this article. [click here].  I also wrote an op/ed in the Times making these points in some greater detail which was republished in the Houston Chronicle today [click here or here]. I reiterated these points in an interview on CNN’s AC360 on his August 30 broadcast.  If you have Xfinity you can watch the interview in the their “On Demand” section.  Just before my interview there is a chilling interview with a man about evacuating his family from a Ft. Bend neighborhood, which highlights the dangers associated with attempting to evacuate.
     There are certainly ways that we can improve our response to this type of upland flooding and we will learn from this experience.  But ordering a mandatory evacuation was not the answer.
     Other calls I have gotten relate to what to do to prevent this from happening again.  I discussed this is in some detail in a Houston Chronicle op/ed  yesterday [click here ] and in a podcast with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd [click here].  The bottom line is that we have been skimping on our flood control investments for years.  Most of the money City taxpayers approved for flooding has been diverted to other uses.  The current City bond proposal has zero dollars for flooding.
     If we really want to do something about flooding in our region, we are going to have to get serious.  Spend the money.  Stop diverting money earmarked for flooding.  Eliminate the jurisdictional overlap and finger-pointing.  Adopt a regional approach.  It is not rocket science.
     Harvey will be a tipping point for the Houston region.  In which direction is up to us.