The Bonds, The Bonds – Don’t forget the Bonds!

Yes, it is true. Those bonds need your votes too. However you decide to vote on them, just please vote.

For those of you have early voted, you know that it is a very long ballot and requires much “spinning” of the dial. Of course, if you vote straight ticket, you are done quickly.

However, it is my great hope that voters are truly studying the candidates and watching out for the few unfortunate and unqualified candidates, even if you are voting straight ticket.

It’s actually those straight ticket voters that are less likely to vote in the bond elections.

The bonds are at the very end of the long ballot and your finger may be sore from spinning the dial. Still, please take another minute to read them and cast your vote accordingly.

Today is the last day to early vote and polls are open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Take advantage if you can and go ahead and get the job done.

Tuesday is Election Day!

The Metro Referendum

For months now, we have been posting about the bond elections on the ballot. Today, we focus on the confusing Metro referendum. What is it exactly that you are being ask to vote on regarding Metro?

This ballot item is probably the most “insider” game question as well. Many years ago, Metro was asked to take .25 cents of the one cent sales tax it collects and refund it to cities in its service area and Harris County. This money, the General Mobility Payment (GMP), is to be used to repair wear and tear on roads that are damaged by bus travel and to ease traffic in congested corridors. It actually made sense.

If anyone has driven down Westheimer (inside the loop portion) or Richmond Avenue or Hillcroft, you know the road damage caused by buses as well as the traffic jams they create as they start and stop to unload passengers. Yet, you also know that this is a necessity.

The recipients of these funds are not obligated to repair specific intersections or to even guarantee that the funds will be used on bus routes. Their dollars are allocated and may be used on road repairs of their choosing.

As a result of the 2003 Metro referendum that authorized the expansion of rail lines, it was promised that the GMP policy would be revisited. Thus, Metro was forced to add the issue to the ballot.

Voters basically have a very clear choice. A “yes” vote indicates that you want the cities and Harris County to continue receiving their .25 cent share of the Metro sales tax for road repair and any future increases that Metro receives will primarily support bus operations.

A “no” vote means that you want the money to revert back to Metro and to be used for transit, without any strings attached.

The negotiations on this ballot language have been an intense political process. The Metro Board originally submitted different language. Harris County leaders were not happy with it and negotiated revised language that would keep the GMP dollars flowing to them and the cities in the region. Why would the Metro Board change their minds?

It mostly has to do with the Texas Legislature. Metro is created through enabling legislation at the state level. Harris County leadership is primarily Republican as is the incoming Texas Legislature. There could be an aggressive effort to change legislation if they are not happy with the outcome of the referendum.

This is all so complicated because every local government entity is scrambling for funds and trying to avoid tax increases. If they lose the GMP dollars from Metro, there will be severe consequences to their budgets.

As a voter, you need to decide if you want to keep the money flowing to the cities and having Metro operate on .75 cents of their sales tax or if you want Metro to have their whole penny. It really is a fairly simple choice, once you understand the issue.

Bonds, Bonds & Referendum, too

We’ve been writing about potential bond elections on this Blog since early this year. While we were on vacation, 3 entities adopted ballot language asking the voters to approve bonds.

Houston ISD is seeking the most with a bond request of $1.9 billion. Gulp. That is a lot of money, any way you describe it. The HISD bond will require a property tax increase. Meanwhile, Houston Community College passed a bond issue of $425 million to place before the voters that will also require a tax increase. The City of Houston is asking the voters to agree with a $410 million bond issue that will NOT require a tax increase. However, specifics on the usage of bond money is somewhat vague.

That brings us to a total of $2.7 billion in bond requests to Houston area voters this year with guaranteed property tax increases for at least two of the entities.

Additionally, METRO will be asking the voters to approve a compromise plan on long-term management of .25% of their 1 cent sales tax collection in the METRO service area. This issue is so complicated that even seasoned politicos have trouble parsing it out and explaining it. I do not envy these campaign consultants as they have to educate voters on the most basic of details regarding the proposal.

More importantly, the METRO issue complicates things for conservative voters. If the conservative voters just wanted to run a “Vote NO on Bonds” campaign urging everyone to vote against HISD, HCC and the City, that is great. However, they are left with saying “Vote Yes” on the METRO referendum. It is confusing to voters.

And, the poor City of Houston loses out completely because their bond request doesn’t require a tax increase but gets taken down by the others that do. It’s not likely that someone will run a campaign that urges voters to “Vote No, Yes, No, Yes” or something of the sort.

Each issue will have an independently run campaign with their own messaging. That’s 4 independent groups raising funds from the region’s engineers, contractors, lawyers and others that will stand to benefit from the results of the elections. $2.7 billion in new work dollars is certainly encouraging enough to donate to these efforts. They will be trying to distinguish themselves from each other. “Vote for us because…… you need better schools, better work-force preparedness, better parks, better buses”, etc. I’m sure you can hear the ads already.

To add further challenge to these issues, they will be at the end of a very long ballot. Most people that show up to vote in November will be focused on casting their ballot in the longest of American traditions, for the United States President. Some will work their way down the ballot to District Attorney and Sheriff but even fewer will keep voting to the bond issues.

Personally, I’m confused by all these referendums and will look to learn and share more information in the next few weeks.

Bonds, Bonds, Everywhere Bonds – Part II

During the spring, this blogger let you know that bonds were high on the agenda for multiple local governmental entities. Now, we are moving closer to reality.

HISD publicly floated their bond consideration in the news this week while Metro has truly stepped up their game.

HISD reported on what they have been able to do with their last bonds, talking about how many schools have been renovated and how much more needs to be done. Their bond package would result in “just a small tax increase”. Voters may be willing to invest in education but voting for anything that indicates we might have to pay more is always challenging. We’ll watch this one closely and keep you posted. Board action has not yet been taken.

METRO, however, is in a very different place. In 2003, we voted that by 2012 we would evaluate the General Mobility Payments (GMP) that are paid to cities and the county as a percentage of the METRO tax collection. These monies are supposedly dedicated to road maintenance to improve mobility.

When the writers of that referendum posed the question and considered the deadline, they presumed that 5 new light rail lines would be built by now or well under way. Unfortunately, that has not happened for a complexity of reasons. Now, those who support METRO keeping the GMP monies have to make the case that the dollars are needed for more transit when voters have yet to see a single line expansion from what they approved in 2003. Granted, three lines are well under construction but they are in the peak pain period of causing great inconvenience to commuters.

The additional two lines that were approved by voters in 2003 are currently off the table for funding reasons.

The METRO board has yet to adopt language for the ballot but METRO staff and a few Board members are proposing a compromise that will allow voters to decide to keep the payments flowing at current levels frozen in 2014. Anything above the 2014 levels would go to METRO’s transit goals.

Both rail and anti-rail supporters seem dissatisfied with the solution. The GMP recipients are unhappy and so are strong rail supporters.

This one will continue to be discussed and we’ll watch it closely.

Meanwhile, rumor still holds that the City plans to propose a bond election as well as Houston Community College. Once the City completes their budget process, we will likely hear more about their plans.

Bonds, bonds everywhere a bond on the 2012 ballot.

Regionalism

Lots of discussion centers around how to make the Houston “region” better and more cohesive. Any one unit of the region standing alone is not as strong as the cumulative area.

We do have some government operations that function regionally. The Port of Houston and Metro are two examples. The City appoints the majority of Metro Board members with representation from Harris County and smaller cities in the region. The Port has an even number of appointees from the County and the City with a Chairman who must be jointly appointed by both entities.

This begs the question. Why don’t we do more of these types of entities? For example, do we really need two state of the art, brand-new crime labs? One for the city and one for the county? Really? What about a regional transportation authority that even crosses county lines? Wouldn’t that be an amazing concept? There are some entities that are trying to fill these roles.

The Center for Houston’s Future, the Greater Houston Partnership and other regional leadership organizations are focusing on the entire region and recognizing the economic dependence of one upon the other. They are making recommendations for ways to work together, through collaboration and discussion. They are at least serving as entities that convene people for discussion.

Many will claim this is the job of the Houston-Galveston Area Council and it basically does fall within their realm. They do their best to have everyone at the table and try to make plans for an ever-growing region.

Still, let’s encourage our elected leadership to work together in the best interest of the region’s taxpayers!

Bonds, Bonds, Everywhere a Bond

Last week, we pondered the national effect of a Obama/Romney Presidential election and how voter turnout might respond.

Civic leaders in the Houston region seem to think voter turnout will be higher and that makes for a good time to put bonds on the ballot.

Metro, the City of Houston, Houston ISD and Houston Community College are all considering placing bonds on this 2012 ballot. Most of these entities have been cautious about asking more from the voters over the last three years and have put many projects on hold.

They now need to move forward. In the case of Metro, it is essential that they go back to the voters based upon looming deadlines. The others are hoping to gain bond approval for capital expenditures.

We would provide more info but all of these discussions are still in the formative stage. No one of these entities has yet voted on bond language or approved it for the ballot.

Bonds are always tricky. If a public truly believes that the bond will provide tangible benefit, they will approve it. They often try to determine if they see potential benefit for themselves or their neighborhoods. For example, “will my neighborhood have a new school built?” If they do not see tangible benefit or the ballot wording is not clear, they will reject the bonds.

Our region is well-versed in bonds and has used them to transform our city. Minute Maid Park, Reliant, the George R. Brown, many renovated and new schools, expanded HCC campuses and of course, rail lines have been built with authorization of bonds by our citizens.

But is it too much for all of these entities to request support all at once? It’s not as if the governing bodies are plotting together to place a list of bond options on the ballot. They are each assessing their own needs and voter appetite.

In recent weeks, formative groups have begun raising funds for potential campaigns to support the discussed bond issues. And donors have woken up. After the fourth request for dollars, they have begun to recognize the overall issue.

Who will ultimately have their bond issues on the ballot? Definitely Metro, most likely the City of Houston and potentially HISD and HCC.

Hang in there voters. There will be plenty to ponder on your local ballot in 2012.

What have you people been doing?

I’m back from my sojourn to the cool, misty island of Ireland and I am a bit befuddled.

What has been up with you people while I’ve been gone? I come home to find the Governor really is running for President, the head of Metro did what?, and the red light cameras are soon to be turned-off again?

I’m so confused. It took me all weekend to wade through some of these issues and try to get a handle on what has been happening. I’m not sure that I achieved my goal but I still have a few thoughts.

Perry for President is real! I admit that I thought he was positioning but it seems that when he tested the waters, lots of people responded positively. I watched a portion of his announcement speech through jet-lagged eyes on Saturday and was honestly impressed. It seems that he has made a grand entrance onto the national stage. As well, his team deployed brilliant strategy by taking the focus of the Iowa straw poll and shifting the focus to a “Perry as formidable fundraiser” concept.

I will tell you that no one in Europe has heard of him. The Irish love to talk politics and they were curious about Obama’s chances in the upcoming election. Obama had recently been to Ireland and celebrated his Irish roots (on his Mother’s side). He had a Guinness in a small village and this increased his popularity there. We would mention that our Governor was considering a run for the Republican nomination and they would politely smile and say “another Texan?” with a lilt in their voices, careful not to offend.

At least this will make the Republican nomination contest much more interesting.

Meanwhile, what happened at Metro? I viewed the whole event from a post event perspective. Honestly, I saw the apology Mr. Greanias posted on Facebook. The question I asked myself is how this situation would have been handled if it was some engineer in a Metro department that had been caught doing the same thing. Well, this one is past and done and I don’t really have any thoughts to add.

And then, red-light cameras have me completely confused. Just prior to my leaving town, Mayor Parker had stared down all of the “turn-off” forces and abided by the Court decision to turn the cameras back on. I return to find her defiantly presenting a plan to turn them off for good. It seems that she has laid out a plan that City Council will vote on this week. By the way, all over Ireland, they have cameras. Stop lights are not their concern. They have random cameras posted on roads that will take your picture and record your speed. I could never drive fast enough to worry about it but found the concept interesting. Both in London and Ireland, there are signs posted every where that you are on “CCTV”. Security cameras and traffic cameras are standard operating procedure.

Much to ponder in the days ahead…………

Metro and Redistricting

The Houston Chronicle has an article about potential expansion of the Board of Directors of Metro due to population changes.

This is another discussion related to redistricting. Population changes brought about by the 2010 Census will affect so much of our governing structures that we are only beginning to grasp the magnitude of change.

If control of the Metro Board shifts from the City of Houston to the broader county, will we ever build rail?

Here’s a lingering question that I have – in 2003, the voters of the Metro service area (including the suburbs) passed a referendum to expand the rail line. It is now 2011 and we still do not have an expanded rail line, though people are working on portions of it.

Will it ever get built?