Playing the percentages again
by Tom Sullivan
"Houston is the state’s beating heart," writes Christopher Hooks in the Texas Observer. It is the fourth largest city in the United States, and the largest in Texas, at roughly 2.3 million. Unlike hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Houston is not struggling. It is the state's economic powerhouse.
Yet, the sitting president's underwhelming response to the disaster in Puerto Rico must look familiar to Houston's Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner. Despite having Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and top Patrick allies such as Senator Paul Bettencourt living in the flooded Houston area, Turner has seen the same lack of urgency on hurricane recovery efforts from lawmakers in Austin.
Turner faces overseeing months or years of cleanup. Neighborhood streets are lined with sodden, rotting furniture, and ruined appliances. The situation is made worse by cleanup contractors leaving for better rates in Florida for Hurricane Irma cleanup.
Nearly a month after Harvey struck Houston, Houston's police chief called on the state legislature to support its largest city:
"Nobody's going to come and rebuild the city of Houston for free. Unless someone has a magic pill that we can just give somebody and say, 'You will build this for free, you will fix it for free,' it's got to be paid," Chief Art Acevedo said Saturday. "Maybe in the long term they can look at either the property tax or a one-cent sales tax for three years. For me, the Legislature – we shouldn't put it all on poor Sylvester Turner. The Legislature needs to step up."But helping cities aids people who tend to vote Democrat. It does not matter that Republicans have firm control of state government. Pockets of resistance must be subdued. Hurricane Harvey laid Houston lower than any preemption legislation cooked up in Austin by Abbott. Now Houston is struggling. What's the rush?
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Turner had asked that the state (fittingly) tap its over $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to aid Houston's recovery. On Monday, Turner told the Texas Tribune that lack of immediate state funding might force him to push for a property tax increase to bring in an additional $50 million to pay for immediate cleanup efforts. Houston's recovery will ultimately take billions in federal dollars.
Hooks writes in the Texas Observer:
When Turner’s hand was forced and the tax bump was proposed, state officials had two options: Reassure Houstonians about the forthcoming availability of state money, or let Turner, the Democratic mayor of a city Republicans are increasingly struggling to contest, twist in the wind.Bettencourt announced he opposes provisions allowing cities to raise taxes more easily after disasters as well as using state money for Houston's recovery. Houston should be “using the funds that are already there to avoid a tax increase.” Abbott told reporters, Turner “has all the money that he needs.” He wouldn't touch the Rainy Day Fund until the 2018 session.
You know which one they chose.
Bettencourt and Abbott are doing what state lawmakers frequently do now — putting political pressure on local governments to draw attention away from what the state is doing and gather ammo for future internecine battles in Austin. (All last session, Bettencourt was at war with local officials over property tax policy.) The difference now is that he’s doing it right after Texas’ largest city had its legs shot out from under it, at a time when you might hope Houston-area lawmakers would not only refrain from taking potshots at Turner, but find ways to affirmatively help him. But, hey, it’s just business as usual: Everything good in Texas is to the credit of the brave boys and girls of the Lege, and everything bad is the fault of county commissioners courts, city councils and school boards.But by Friday afternoon, with the news dominated by images of devastation in Puerto Rico and a press conference in which San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz angrily condemned the paucity and tardiness of federal help, Texas Governor Greg Abbott appeared at Houston City Hall with a $50 million check for Sylvester Turner.
Aren’t the different layers of government supposed to work together? In Texas, they generally do not. I’ve talked to many local officials, including Republicans in deep-red counties, who can’t for the life of them get a call returned from their GOP state representative or senator. Even big-city mayors sometimes get the stiff arm, and lawmakers seem to take pleasure in nullifying or canceling popular city ordinances, sometimes because of lobby money but sometimes, it seems, simply out of spite.
... we have a state government that sees its largest generators of economic activity — the six metropolitan areas in which more than half of the state lives — as some kind of threat, either because of their values or the demographic and political threat they represent to the Republican Party. You might hope Harvey would temper that, but don’t hold your breath.It is why Houston's story and Puerto Rico's are not unique. It is why Republicans balked at providing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, a blue state (with a Republican governor, even). And why Houston and Puerto Rico, economic clout or no, are low priorities. It is why the sitting president's cronies are actively undermining Obamacare: engineering its collapse so they can blame it on Democrats. It is why, as Chris Hayes observed, Republicans "use policy as a mechanism by which to reduce the political power of people" who oppose them. The delay in aid to Houston might hurt some Republican voters, sure, but as with photo ID laws, Republican leaders are playing percentages, sacrificing thousands of supporters, potentially, as acceptable casualties. They are less concerned where more Democrats will be harmed in the end, and the party's longer-term prospects with them.
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