Election holds big decisions, little interest for voters
Houston-area voters on Tuesday will decide seven state propositions, city council races in Baytown, Bellaire and Missouri City, as well as billions in city and school bonds and trustee races for school districts and community colleges.
Election Day voters must report to their precinct’s designated polling place between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and should verify that location at www.harrisvotes.com, particularly because three dozen sites typically used for voting were sidelined by Hurricane Harvey.
Harris County, home to 2.2 million registered voters, recorded just shy of 59,000 early and absentee votes, and political scientists predict a comparably anemic turnout on Election Day.
Typically, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the 16 members of City Council would appear on the ballot and drive off-year turnout, but Houston voters lengthened city officials’ terms in 2015. A court case challenging that change was not resolved in time to affect this November’s ballot.
“This is the first off-year election when we don’t have a city of Houston election,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “Normally, that’s a natural driver of turnout.”
Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the local elections administrator, added that poor turnout will be one more sign of Harvey fallout.
“People are creatures of habit,” he said. “It’s kind of disrupted the normal pattern of people in general.”
Still, Mayor Turner hopes voters will pause from Harvey recovery efforts or from replaying highlights of the Astros’ first World Series title to cast a ballot locking in his landmark pension reform deal and approving $495 million in public improvement bonds.
Turner spent much of his first year and a half seeking legislative approval of his plan to end Houston’s spiraling pension crisis, and achieved it last May. The reforms recalculate the city’s payments to erase a pension debt of more than $8 billion over three decades, cut workers’ benefits by more than $2.8 billion and include a mechanism to cap Houston’s future pension costs.
Voters must approve the $1 billion in pension bonds to lock in the reforms. If Houston Proposition A fails, the $1.1 billion in benefit cuts agreed to by the police pension fund would be rescinded; the municipal employees’ pension fund also would have the option of reversing the $770 million in benefit cuts to which it agreed.
The bonds - $750 million to the police and $250 million to the municipal employees’ plan - were used as an incentive to get those pension systems to agree to another round of cuts, and will bolster both plans’ funding levels.
Houston owes that $1 billion to its pensioners whether it pays it through the proposed bonds or through higher annual contributions to the pension funds, but the bond’s failure would be swiftly felt. City leaders would need to find an extra $23 million in the current budget, and fill a $150 million hole in the fiscal year that starts next summer, on top of the budget deficit city leaders already are projecting.
Turner also is asking voters to approve Propositions B through E, which would authorize the city to issue $159 million in public safety bonds, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries.
Those bonds, the first Houston has sought since 2012, would renovate or replace police and fire stations, libraries, community centers and health clinics and upgrade the aging police and fire department fleets.
Voters in the Spring Branch, Katy, Lamar Consolidated, Tomball, Pasadena and Stafford school districts will weight more than $2 billion in bonds for 26 new or renovated schools and hundreds of campus upgrades.
Voters in Spring Branch will vote on school bonds for the first time since 2007, a $900 million item that would be the sixth-largest in state history.
Katy voters will consider $609 million in school bonds. Fast-growing Lamar CISD is seeking a $445 million bond, its second in four years. The proposal would bring a property tax hike.
Tomball voters will weigh $275 million in bonds, including a new football stadium. Pasadena voters will consider a $135 million proposal, the district’s smallest request since 1995. The Stafford schools also are seeking a $62 million bond, which would bring a tax hike.
Houston ISD voters face no bond issue but will decide six of the board’s nine trustee seats at a crucial time for the nation’s eighth-largest district.
HISD faces a possible state takeover thanks to long-running academic struggles at 10 campuses, a $106 million budget shortfall and millions of dollars in needed repairs from Harvey.
Fifteen candidates are vying for the five seats up in the regular election cycle, and four others are competing to fill the District III seat vacated by the July death of longtime trustee Manuel Rodriguez.
The new or returning trustees will take their seats in Superintendent Richard Carranza’s second year, as the relative newcomer eyes possible changes to the district’s spending priorities, from reevaluating magnet programs to providing more equitable resources to historically underserved schools.
Many Houston area voters also must choose among eight candidates running for three Houston Community College trustee positions amid a corruption probe that has one trustee awaiting federal sentencing, fluctuating enrollment across the system, and intra-trustee lawsuits.
Also on the ballot are seven statewide propositions on such issues as approving tax breaks for the spouses of public servants killed in the line of duty and tweaking regulations on home equity loans.
Residents of the Houston Heights, which was dry when it was annexed by Houston, will vote on whether bars and restaurants in the former municipality can serve liquor without forcing patrons to join a private club.
Voters in Baytown, Bellaire and Missouri City also will consider a combined eight city council races, Missouri City voters will weigh seven changes to their city charter, and Bellaire voters will see 18 city propositions on their ballots.
Rebecca Elliott contributed to this report.