Abbott Halts Houston Property Tax Increase With a $50 Million State Check

Governor reacts to claims he was turning his back on Houston hurricane relief.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, and Commissioner John Sharp, seated second from left, receive a briefing on Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts at the new FEMA Joint Field Office, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, in Austin, Texas.

On Friday, Governor Greg Abbott decided it was time to pay a ransom that he claimed was being demanded by Houston’s mayor. But with a $50 million state check passing from Abbott’s hand to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s, a city property tax increase was averted.

“Mr. Mayor, I didn’t come empty handed today,” Abbott said at a Houston news conference as he handed the check over the Turner, who happily noted that it was his birthday week. Turner immediately announced that he is dropping his effort to raise property taxes in the city.

Turner had been asking the city council to vote so the city could temporarily hike property taxes by 3.6 percent to raise money for debris removal and repairs to city government buildings. In an open letter earlier this week, Turner urged Abbott to tap the state’s $10 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund, to help Houston pay its costs and avoid the tax increase.

Abbott responded by likening Turner’s letter to one from a hostage situation. “It raises a concern that the mayor seems to be using this as hostage to raise taxes when, in reality, the city of Houston is sitting on hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that he’s not tapping into,” Abbott said. (It turned out that the money he was referencing was not available for hurricane relief.)

The following day, the Houston Chronicle ran an editorial calling Abbott out, with the memorable line: “Here’s what [Abbott is] essentially saying to Houston: ‘DROP DEAD.'”

Just last week we wrote about a Democratic poll showing Abbott as the most popular politician in Texas, and he has received kudos for his leadership during and after Hurricane Harvey. But nothing can erase that kind of good feeling from the voters faster than an image of a skinflint who cares more about his personal politics than taking care of people in a time of crisis. Refusing to spend money from the Rainy Day Fund has been a sacred cow among tea party Republicans. Although some money in the past has been spent on disasters, when the governor initially said he would not call a special session to appropriate money from the fund to Hurricane Harvey, he left the misimpression that he did not want to use the money at all.

So it was that Abbott handed over a $50 million check from the state’s disaster relief fund on Friday. Turner said $26 million of the money will be applied to debris removal in the city, while another $10 million will be spent on what is essentially the city’s deductible on insurance coverage of municipal buildings, and the rest of the money will go to other costs. Turner noted, however, that this is just the beginning. He said the city is expecting hurricane recovery will cost the city more than $260 million.

The governor also announced that he will use money from the Rainy Day Fund for disaster assistance to local governments from Rockport to Orange. Abbott said he just first wants to spend money out of the current state budget and then when the regular session next meets in January 2019 use money from the Rainy Day Fund to replenish the state accounts drained for hurricane relief.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Texas Monthly, Senator Ted Cruz would not rule out congressional hearings on the actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers related to flooding caused by the Barker and Addicks reservoirs, which the Corps manages. Numerous local homeowners have filed lawsuits against the Corps.

“There certain needs to be serious inquiry. Members of the Texas delegation were down [September 22] meeting with the Corps. I’ve got a lot of questions,” Cruz said. Houstonians have a lot of questions too. Whether those are asked formally in hearings, there are plenty of lessons to review about what went right and what went wrong.