Many pundits are still trying to figure out what happened to the Republicans in Harris County in 2016. But 2017 creates opportunities for Republicans to grow the party and build for 2018 and beyond. I will focus on opportunities unique to Harris County in a series of articles, but for now let’s take a look at Mayor Turner’s promised efforts to repeal Houston’s Revenue Cap.
It is no secret that Mayor Turner would like to undo the revenue cap, but to do so he must first get approval from Houston’s voters. In his first State of the City Address Mayor Turner spoke plainly about his intention to repeal it.
“The revenue cap works against creating one Houston with opportunity for all and the ability to address pressing needs like flooding; transportation and mobility; parks and added green space; affordable, workforce housing; and homelessness,”
Mayor Turner is, and has been for a long time, one of our area’s more savvy politicians. He will do his best to parse this issue at the most favorable time and in the most favorable terms.
His statement could hold a few clues in how he might try to sway Houston’s voters to trust the City with more of your money. We’ve heard this all before when elected officials want to raise your taxes. They make promises to “fix the flooding” and our streets, they offer better and more “public transportation,” and of course there’s the never-ending promise for more improvements to city parks.
But this gives Republicans a chance to mimic the Mayor’s claim that all these problems are going to be fixed with more revenue. We should be asking a few questions, frequently, publicly and with lots of volume. Wasn’t the so called “drainage fee” supposed to fix the flooding? What is Metro doing with half of the City’s sales tax revenue? Is Metro not providing quality transportation? Do we need more empty double busses running all hours of the day? Aren’t we already using $100 million of TIRZ revenues, that had had their revenue cap lifted years ago, to “fix” Memorial Park?
And are we going to pay enough taxes to fix problems with “affordable, workforce housing” and the “homeless”. Building “affordable” housing in Tanglewood at $250,000 per unit isn’t “affordable”, it’s crazy. And by-the-way, we have an ordinance that prohibits me from feeding the homeless. Why don’t we lift that rule instead? (But that’s another issue/article altogether.)
As for the timing of his efforts, Mayor Turner is highly motivated to have the Revenue Cap repeal voted on early in 2017 for several reasons.
- He has to set the 2017-2018 budget by June 30th. It helps Turner’s budget and spending agenda if there is, at least in theory, more money to spend in fiscal year 2017-2018 and beyond.
- The “Term Limits” lawsuit hangs like a dark cloud over all City Hall incumbents. He will not want to have the Revenue Cap issue on the same ballot as a potential general election. And,
- The Rain Tax lawsuit, which the City has already lost in the courtroom, might be returned to the voters. Mayor Turner cannot afford to ask the voters to approve lifting the Revenue Cap AND re-vote on the very unpopular Rain Tax at the same time.
For these reasons Mayor Turner will most likely put the Revenue Cap repeal on the ballot this May.
Turnout of conservative voters would likely be lower in May than in a November election when State Constitutional issues, such as the statewide limitation on increases in property taxes, are likely to be voted on. Those opposed to repeal of the Revenue Cap will have less time to organize if a vote were held in May. And a vote in May could take advantage of the positive press the Mayor is likely to get if his Pension Reform package passes.
The Mayor does have powerful and influential friends in Austin and they will be highly motivated to help the Houston Mayor solve this pressing issue. One big supporter of Turner’s efforts, Senator John Whitmire, was shown on a Dallas TV newscast telling Dallas police and fire officials that “…most Texas legislators don’t know three things about pensions.”
If we assume that Turner is successful with his pension proposal we need to be prepared for a May revenue cap election. And even if it does not happen ‘til November you can never be prepared too soon.
When the revenue cap repeal is placed on the ballot we should expect the Mayor to promise:
- An increase in the homestead exemption for all homeowners and for those 65 and older. This will decrease their property taxes or offset increases from the higher rates necessary to raise more revenue.
- Higher property taxes will be aimed mostly at commercial property owners and the wealthy.
Increases in city property taxes will be aimed at “greedy corporations and large businesses,” not private citizens and homeowners. The homeowners that will be affected are rich and live in places like River Oaks, The Heights, Garden Oaks, Tanglewood, or the Museum Dist. They won’t mention that multifamily properties and small to medium sized commercial properties will be most affected.
But everyone knows that commercial and apartment property owners don’t pay property taxes. Their tenants do.
Most of us know that “taxes” are simply a cost of doing business that is either passed along to the consumer/renter. Or, as in the case with companies like ExxonMobil, business elect to relocate outside of the City and pay lower taxes to a government entity that is significantly more efficient than the City of Houston.
Opportunity #1 for Harris County Republicans
Republicans can get out in front of this issue NOW. We don’t have to wait until the Mayor decides when this issue will go on the ballot, we can start organizing to send the message NOW.
Send the message to all voters that increases in property taxes hurt all small family businesses. Tell them that medium sized businesses will cut payrolls or new jobs to pay the new taxes. Tell anyone who is living in an apartment or a rent house not covered by a homestead exemption to expect to pay higher rent when the landlord passes the full amount of property tax increases to the tenant.
If we make this argument early and often we can help defeat the Mayor’s Revenue Cap repeal efforts and we can also begin to build a relationship with voters who have a “built in” and very high interest opposing repeal of the Revenue Cap.
By taking advantage of early communication we can further expose Democrats as working against the voting base they often take for granted. We can show the residents of neighborhoods in places like Acres Homes and Sunnyside that the Mayor’s proposal will hurt renters and small businesses, as well as jobs.
We can remind all residents of the promised “lockbox” for drainage fee revenues. This ploy was used to ensure voters that rain tax revenues would be used exclusively to rebuild streets and improve drainage. We can ask “Who has the key to that lockbox, and where did all that money go?”
This is one opportunity for Republicans to show all voters that we’re all on the same side of this issue.
Opportunity #2 for Harris County Republicans
Many of the homeowners and renters in these fast-growing parts of town are not established voters. They are often independents and have very little background on City of Houston political issues. I do not believe that this group of voters has been a traditional target for support by HCRP. These parts of town have increasingly voted for conservative candidates in most cases. District C is another area that will be weary of lifting the Revenue Cap. Frazer won District C in 2013 and 2015 and King won in 2015. This is a part of town that agrees with us, we need to let them know we are behind them on limiting property taxes.
Opportunity #3 for Harris County Republicans
Small business owners will be the first hurt and the ones hurt the most by more increases in city property taxes. They will not need to be convinced our efforts are worthwhile. Over-regulation, taxes, rising fees have already done a lot of damage to this group. These small business owners will be happy to have an advocate for their concerns. And it just so happens that many of these small businesses are minority owned. This is another chance to demonstrate that true conservative groups can and will work hard to promote responsible limited government to help small businesses.
Regardless of whether the Revenue Cap appears on a May ballot or the City’s struggle with Pensions and the Legislature push it to November it’s a good bet that it will appear somewhere on a ballot near you in 2017 and the best way to take advantage of an opportunity is to be prepared for it.
Visit the Keep the Cap – Houston Facebook page and spread the word!