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.

What is a Sanctuary City?

     Today’s world of 24-hour, partisan-slaved cable networks and an ideologically re-enforcing blogosphere is dominated by catch phrases that frequently create more obfuscation than illumination.  The term “sanctuary city” is exactly such a catch phrase.
     What does it really mean to be a “sanctuary city?”  There are really only two public policy issues that are relevant to this issue.
     The first issue relates to the procedures followed when a person is taken into custody.   When that happens, most law enforcement agencies attempt to make some determination about the immigration status of the person.
     Making that determination is not as straight forward as one may think.  About 40% of the individuals in the country illegally came here under a valid visa that has expired.  Those visas are frequently extended.  Attempting to determine if a visa has been extended or not is not a simple matter.  Similarly, under the Citizenship Act of 2000, if a child has one parent that is U.S. citizen, they are automatically eligible for citizenship under certain circumstances even if they were not born in the U.S.  And, of course, under President Obama’s executive order, persons here illegally, but brought here as children are not subject to deportation under certain circumstances.  President Trump recently extended that executive order.  The result is that, in many cases, you need an immigration lawyer to figure out if a person is in the country legally or not.
     If it is determined that a person in custody is in the country illegally, that information is passed along to ICE.  Federal law prohibits cities from banning this type of communication between their police departments and ICE.
     In most cases ICE does nothing with this information because it does not have the resources to deport every person here illegally.  Normally ICE focuses only on those with a criminal record.  In that case, ICE may request that the city hold the person until ICE can pick them up.  Interestingly, there is no requirement in federal law for the city to hold a person for ICE, but most do so voluntarily.
     However, some cities, like Austin and San Francisco have refused to cooperate with ICE and detain prisoners in their custody.  Some have attempted to parse the issue by holding only prisoners who have been arrested for a serious offense.
    SB4, the immigration law recently enacted by the Texas Legislature, requires cities to honor ICE detainer requests.  It is hard for me to see the argument against this requirement.  I am surprised federal law does not already require it.  It is absurd for a city to release a person in custody that ICE has identified for deportation, requiring ICE to then track them back down.
     Some have argued that ICE is targeting individuals that pose no real threat.  I have not seen any data on the type of crimes committed by those ICE is deporting, but it seems unlikely given their limited resources ICE is wasting its time with minor offenses.  But regardless cities should not be in the business of second guessing ICE’s determinations about who should be deported.
     The second issue is more complicated and deals with the procedures for when a police officer can and should inquire about a person’s immigration status.  Many police departments, including Houston, have a policy that prohibits police officers from asking a person about their immigration status until that person is taken into custody.  Interestingly, until a few years ago, the Texas Department of Public Safety had the same policy.  SB4 prohibits cities from keeping its police officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status if that person is lawfully “detained.”
     “Detention” is different from being arrested.  When a police officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, you have been detained.  So, this controversy is really about whether police officers are going to inquire about immigration status when a person is stopped for an otherwise legitimate reason, like a taillight being out.
     The problem arises in trying to determine which individuals who have been detained, i.e., stopped, will be asked about their immigration status.  The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that police cannot discriminate during traffic stops based on race or nationality.  And, in fact, SB4 prohibits a police officer from using “race, color, religion, language or national origin” as a basis for asking about a person’s immigration status.
     So exactly how is a police officer going to decide who to ask about their immigration status without considering the person’s nationality or language?  Anytime an officer asks about immigration status, he or she is opening themselves up to a civil rights lawsuit.
     And there is another problem.  Let’s assume that an officer stops a person for speeding and during the stop that person admits that they are not in the country legally.  What then?
     If the officer arrests the person for being in the country illegally, there is literally nothing to do with the person.  The County jail will not take them.  ICE will not take them.  In fact, there is a complicated legal issue as to whether local police officers even have the lawful Constitutional authority to make arrests under federal immigration law in the first place.  So, what is the point of asking?
     The bottom line is that local police are not going to be asking detainees about their immigration status except in very extraordinary circumstances, SB4 notwithstanding.
   Immigrate advocates argue police officers asking about immigration status will chill immigrants from reporting crimes and being willing to be witnesses in criminal cases.  SB4 attempts to deal with that issue by prohibiting officers from asking crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status.
     There have been several reports that the number of crimes being reported by the immigrant community has declined recently.  Opponents of SB4 have attributed this decline to the bill’s passage which seems pretty far-fetched, considering it has not even gone into effect.  I have no doubt there is a decline, but that is more likely caused by the overall tone of the of national immigration debate, not one specific bill.
     The bottom line is that SB4 is going to have little effect either way on the immigration challenges we are facing.  Texas, like other jurisdictions, has entered the immigration fray out of frustration with Congress’ inability to act.  There is no question that allowing millions to enter the country illegally over the last three decades has caused many problems: accidents with uninsured motorists, criminal gangs slipping into the country with immigrants coming here to work, overcrowded schools and public hospitals . . . the list goes on and on.  Congress’ failure to enact comprehensive reform is an inexcusable dereliction of their duty.
     The principal elements for such reform are clear and supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans.  Secure the border.  Provide a procedure for those here illegally, but are contributing and not criminals, to get legal or get out.  Create an enforceable temporary worker program.  Set reasonable annual immigration quotas.  It is not rocket science.
     But until Congress acts expect more SB4s, more litigation, more hardship for US citizens forced to  deal with the problems caused by illegal immigration, more uncertainty for immigrants, and more acrimony over a problem that is 100% self-inflicted by our worthless, do-nothing Congress.
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Update on Social Security’s Financial Condition

     The Social Security Board of Trustees[i] recently released their annual report on the financial condition of that system.  The report showed a small improvement in the system’s performance from last year, but underscored the longer-term challenges it faces.
     With improved employment, Social Security’s total income increased from $920 billion to $957 billion. It paid $916 billion of benefits and had expenses of $6 billion.  The result was a $35 billion positive cash flow, up from $23 billion last year.  This surplus increased the fund’s reserves to $2.85 trillion.  These trust funds are invested in U.S. government bonds.
     The current projections show that Social Security will continue to have a positive cash flow through 2021.  After 2021, Social Security will have to start dipping into its reserves to pay benefits at the current level.  The negative cash flow accelerates after 2021 as the full brunt of the baby boom retirees is felt.  The reserve is projected to be completely exhausted in 2035.  After the trust fund is depleted, the ongoing income will only cover about 77% of the current benefits.
     I generally find that there is a lot of confusion over the state of Social Security’s finances and its future prospects.  Young people frequently tell me that they are assuming they will never get any Social Security benefits because the system is going broke.  That is clearly not the case.
     Some of that confusion comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works and some comes from politicians’ hyperbole about the system’s condition.
     One of the fundamental issues when analyzing any retirement system is whether it is a “pay-as-you-go” system or a “funded” system.  In a pay-as-you-go system, no money is set aside from a worker’s current income to pay for future retirement system.  Instead the benefits are paid by future workers.  In a funded system, sufficient income is set aside by each worker to fund his or her retirement.  In other words, retirement systems either rely on income transfers between generations or on savings set aside during the worker’s productive years.
     For most of our history, societies have relied on systems that were essentially pay-as-you-go, with the burden of caring for the elderly mostly being organized by families or tribes.  But as the demographic age pyramid began to steepen and there were fewer younger workers to support a growing number of retirees, we have increasingly moved to systems that rely more on savings and less on intergenerational transfers.  Defined contribution pension plans represent the ultimate expression of the savings model.
     Social Security has some elements of both, but is fundamentally an intergenerational transfer model.  Most of the money we have paid into Social Security has not gone to create a savings account for us, it has gone to pay benefits to our parents.
     However, it was also designed to have a bit of financial cushion to make sure it could weather financial downturns.  So, in most years, Social Security has collected more than it has paid out, which has created the current $2.8 trillion reserve.
     I have never been able to find a calculation of the Social Security’s “unfunded liability” as that measure is calculated for regular pension plans, i.e., the present value of future benefits that have been “earned” by workers less the current reserves.  That is probably because future Social Security benefits are subject to adjustment by Congress where we generally assume that earned benefits in pension plans are sacrosanct (although as public employees are painfully learning, less so every day).
     Social Security has estimated the amount that the present value of its benefits exceeds the present value of its future receipts and current reserves over a 75-year horizon.  The report currently estimates that shortfall at $12.5 trillion, up from just over $11 trillion last year.  In other words, if there is no change in the future to taxes or benefits, we would need to contribute $12.5 trillion to Social Security today to pay the scheduled benefits.
     Of course, making 75-year projections is folly, especially when you consider that very small changes in the assumptions can make enormous differences in the outcome.  But it is clear that we are on an unsustainable course and are either going to have to increase payroll taxes or decrease benefits at some point in the future.
     The report gives some idea of the scale of the needed changes.  It found that payroll taxes would need to be increased from the current 12.4% to 15.2% or that benefits need to be cut by about 17% (or some combination of the two) to close the $12.5 trillion gap.  Those are not inconsequential changes, but they certainly do not amount to a catastrophic burden.
     The report does make clear that the longer we wait to begin implementing changes to Social Security to make it sustainable over the long term, the more painful it will be.  But having an adult conversation with the American people about Social Security and the changes we must make to it is something that our spineless politicians from both sides of the aisle are loath to do.  Much easier to just continue to promise lower taxes and no reductions to benefits.
     You can review a summary of the new report [here] or for a deeper dive the entire report is available [here].

[i] The Board of Trustees is comprised of the Secretaries of Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services, the Social Security Commissioner and two public members appointed by the President.  The public member seats are currently vacant.
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Houston Chronicle Editorial Board Calls for Governor Abbott to Add Storm Surge Protection to the Special Session

     Kudos to my former colleagues at the Chronicle editorial board for calling on Governor Abbott to add action on a storm surge protection system to the special session.  [click here to read].
     Many of us had hoped the Legislature would make some progress on a storm surge protection system for our region this session.  But little was accomplished.. Nothing is as critical to our state than protecting our coastal region from the catastrophic storm that will inevitably show up one day.  And certainly nothing on the Governor’s call even comes close to the gravity of this issue.
     So please contact the Governors’ office and ask him to get this project moving.  If we start today, it would probably take a decade or more to have a functioning system.  Every year we go without taking action we are adding a bullet to the revolver with which we are playing Russian roulette.
     For additional background on the effects of a major hurricane making landfall just to the west of Galveston (referred to by researchers as the “Scenario 7 storm”), click [here] to view the outstanding Texas Tribune multi-media presentation and article on the consequences of a a Scenario 7 storm.
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The Tale of Two Transit Systems: The Folly of Rail in th 21st Century

     Metro is in the process of re-examining its long-term strategy and mission.  It is an examination that is overdue.  In considering where Metro goes from here, we should look carefully at the comparison between its experience and that of Dallas’ DART.
     At around six million people, METRO and DART have roughly the same population in their service areas.  However, DART’s service area is only about half the size of METRO’s (1303 sq. mi. vs. 657 sq. mi.) making its population density considerably higher, which is a significant advantage when developing a transit system.
     Shortly after their formations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, METRO and DART took very different routes to build out their transit systems.
     DART made an early commitment to rail, snagging federal grants and investing heavily with local funds, eventually building 119 miles of rail transit.  Houston, on the other hand, has been slow to commit to rail, only recently completing its 43-mile network.
     Conversely, METRO has continued a much more robust bus service, operating a fleet of nearly 1,400 buses while DART’s fleet is light less than half that number.
     By almost every objective measurement, METRO’s strategy of relying more on buses has worked out much better than DART’s reliance on rail.
Ridership
     In 2016, METRO carried about a third more riders than DART (89,000 vs. 66,000).   Both organizations have struggled to attract new riders.  Since 2000, DART’s ridership has only increased by about 10% notwithstanding its extensive investment in rail.  METRO has lost about 12% of its ridership since it began investing in rail in 2000.
     In 2012, DART completed a significant expansion of its rail system, yet its ridership has since declined almost 10%.  METRO recently opened the expansion of its light rail system and rolled out a new bus schedule.  Initially, the new light rail and revised bus schedule had little effect, but the 2017 monthly ridership so far has seen some modest improvement.  We will have to see more data to assess whether the improvement continues and whether it is the result of METRO’s changes or a firming up of the local economy.
Financial Costs
     The most dramatic difference in the agencies’ comparative strategies has been the effect on their finances.  METRO’s revenues and expenses are about 15% higher than DART’s.  But METRO has a significant advantage in the overall cost per rider at $9.27 versus DART’s $11.28.  Fares pay less than 10% of the cost of the service at both agencies.  (Why taxpayers should pay 90% of the cost of transit is another question for another day!)
     The differential on the balance sheet is stunning.  DART now carries over $4 billion in debt, more than double METRO’s.  That works out to a debt per daily rider of about $62 for DART compared to $21 for METRO.  The debt DART has incurred to build its rail system will be an albatross around the necks of Dallas taxpayers for decades.
Conclusion
     For years rail advocates have told us that if we build a robust rail system it will attract riders and reduce congestion.  They rarely discuss the costs because rail systems are so hideously expensive.
     But the DART experience clearly disproves their argument.  DART had every advantage to develop a successful rail system.  It began early when federal grants were paying a higher percentage of the costs.  Its service area is smaller and considerably denser than METRO’s.  It had local support to incur billions in debt to build out the system.  And yet, its ridership has only marginally improved since it began its massive investment of taxpayer funds and it has actually begun to decline in the last few years.
     Interestingly, transit ridership nationally also stalled out about a decade ago and has also declined for the last three years, very similar to the DART experience.
     Notwithstanding the massive investment in rail over the last two decades made throughout the country, only about 4% of the total daily trips made by Americans are on any form of transit, and less than 2% on rail.  Bus ridership has been unchanged for the last two decades.  It would be interesting, but ultimately impossible to know how bus ridership might have improved if even a fraction of the billions spent on rail had instead been invested in improving the bus service.
     With the advent of disruptive transportation technologies like ride sharing, self-driving cars and the electrification of transportation power systems, any further investment in this highly inflexible technology would be folly.  We need to be building a transportation system for the next century, not the last one.
    But there is something akin to a religious belief in rail that I have never been able to understand.  The late, great Bob Lanier best summarized it:
"First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'"
     Dallas’ multi-billion dollar experiment with rail has proved Mayor Bob right.  Sorry to all my friends that continue to believe rail is the solution to our mobility problems, but time is up.
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Fact Check before Forwarding/Sharing

     Like most of you, I regularly get emails and social media posts from friends forwarding a “news story” that turn out not to be news at all.  Two, in particular, stand out.
     Just before the election I received an email forwarding a story that then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford had resigned and written a letter to President Obama essentially accusing the President of treason.  There was just one problem.  General Dunford had not resigned and had not sent any letter.
     The second was an email forwarding a supposed story from People magazine claiming that Donald Trump in a 1998 interview had said the Republican voters were stupid and he could lie to them and they would “eat it up.”  But same problem, the interview never took place.
     Both of my friends who sent the emails are intelligent, well-read, well-intentioned individuals.  But in both cases, the emails they received fit nicely into their predisposed beliefs about Obama and Trump.  It is human nature for us to embrace validations of what we believe and to discredit facts that are at odds with our beliefs.
     Before cable news and the internet, we had a more balanced national conversation.  We were all exposed to a more or less similar set of facts from which to inform our beliefs.  But today, information outlets are highly compartmentalized.  Our outlet selections and targeting by advocacy groups make it more likely we will only hear “news” that reinforces what we already believe to be true.
     Of course, the pursuit of truth requires exactly the opposite.  Science has taught us that we validate theories by testing them objectively and actively looking for data that contradicts the theory.
    I was skeptical of both of these emails and so I ran them through www.snopes.com.  Within a few seconds, I had determined that both were hoaxes.  If you are not familiar with Snopes, it is a website devoted to debunking fake internet and email stories.  There are several other sites that perform similar research such as www.FactCheck.orgwww.TruthorFiction.com, and www.Politifact.com.
     I “replied to all” to both emails, politely pointing out that each of the stories had been debunked.  I only received two emails in reply, one from each instance.  Both asked me to never email them again!
     Here is my suggestion.  If you receive an email of see a social media post that you are inclined to share with contacts, before you hit “forward” or “share”, run the story through Snopes or one of the other fact checking website.  I think you maybe surprised how often the “news” you receive in your inbox or on your social platforms are complete hoaxes, or at least, hugely taken out of context.  Let’s all endeavor not be part of this problem.
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