Author Archives: Morgan Smith

Abbott presses Congress for an extra $61 billion to rebuild after Harvey

A load of evacuees in the back of Chris Ginter's monster truck in Houston on Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017. Ginter helped evacuate people from their flooded neighborhood near the Buffalo Bayou.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Greg Abbott

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott‘s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

John Sharp, who leads the commission charged with overseeing Harvey recovery efforts, said the report would evolve as the state continued to work with local official to document their needs.

“We wanted to illustrate the size of the assistance we need and the type of projects,” Sharp said. “Just because a project is on the list does not mean it will be funded and just because a project is not on the list doesn’t mean it can’t be funded if a mayor or county judge brings it to us.”

About 61 percent of the funds would go to projects aimed at flood control and 33 percent toward housing, an analysis provided with the report shows. The remaining amounts are divided among hazard mitigation, roadways, and water services projects.

In the aftermath of the storm, Sharp asked local officials in areas hit by Harvey to document their needs. The commission then reviewed their requests with a panel of experts to compile the report.

According to the report, local officials were instructed to focus on infrastructure, not housing needs, which will receive funding separately through a grant program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The projects in the report range from major flood control and mitigation projects like building a “coastal spine” storm surge barrier to proposals for rebuilding public facilities like water treatment plants and police stations, purchasing high-water rescue vehicles, and repairing streets and bridges.

Several cities — including Beaumont, Pearland, Danbury and Simonton — and counties such as Harris, Fort Bend, Liberty, Victoria, and Montgomery also requested funds to buy out homeowners who have suffered repeated flooding in recent years.

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting  coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

Abby Livingston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.

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Texas attorney general opens investigation Into Harvey debris removal companies

Myles Broussard tosses pieces of drywall into a pile of trash and storm debris outside his home in Beaumont, Texas on Sept. 4, 2017. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has opened an investigation into debris removal companies who may be “overpromising and underdelivering” their post-Harvey clean-up services.

“Texans are working hard to clean up after Hurricane Harvey and these companies should do the same,” Paxton said in a written statement. “They cannot sign contracts with local governments, and then change the price or not deliver services.”

His office announced Friday that it was “examining agreements between companies and local governments relating to professional debris removal efforts” in areas affected by Harvey. The investigation came at the request of Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who is overseeing the state’s recovery efforts as chair of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.

“I have asked General Paxton to open an investigation into some debris haulers’ activities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” Sharp said in a written statement. “While some haulers have done a remarkable job, I have serious concerns about others’ activities that I have relayed to General Paxton. It’s time to find out why some are moving too slowly, and why some are refusing help that would remove debris faster.”

So far the Texas Department of Transportation, which is working alongside local contractors, has removed more than 461,096 cubic yards of debris from areas affected by Harvey. Local officials in Houston and other cities have expressed concern with the speed of the clean-up process, which has been delayed in some areas because of prolonged waits to dump materials at landfills.

“It is unacceptable for me for this debris to be on the ground that long,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a mid-September press conference, where he noted that some subcontractors had chosen to go to Florida, hoping to find better pay there as the state recovers from Hurricane Irma’s devastation.

Public health officials have also warned of the health risks posed by the uncollected piles of garbage and debris still lining neighborhood streets in southeast Texas. Some doctors are reporting increases in patients seeking treatment for respiratory symptoms in areas hit by flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Dr. A. Cecil Walkes, Jefferson County’s public health authority, called the remaining debris a “deadly conglomerate, an incubator for bacterial growth, parasite multiplication, fungi generation, protozoan and rickettesial replication, rodent and other small animal infestation and flies breeding” in an Oct. 2 letter he wrote to county officials.

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How much has been raised for Harvey relief — and how’s it being spent?

Debris from Harvey flooding is removed from a Port Arthur neighborhood on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

After Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain on parts of southeast Texas and caused historic flooding, an outpouring of financial support and charitable contributions has flowed to Harvey-related causes.

Almost a month and a half later, floodwaters have receded, leaving Texans in 39 counties to clean up rotting debris and destroyed homes. An estimated 1,100 people remained in eight different emergency shelters around the state earlier this week, and 62,304 Texas residents are still living in FEMA-paid hotel rooms.

Two weeks after the category 4 storm made landfall, Congress approved a $15 billion federal aid package. And donors have given hundreds of millions more to the Red Cross and a host of Harvey relief funds: one started by Houston Texans star JJ Watt has pulled in $27 million, while the Rebuild Texas Fund, spearheaded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, has raised $70.7 million.

“We are in that period where everyone is saying nice things and patting everyone on the back saying we understand your pain, we understand your needs, and sooner or later that’s going to get back to dollars and how those are spent,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent legislative appropriations meeting.

So how exactly is that money being used? Here’s an overview of what’s been spent at the state and federal level — and what hasn’t.

The Tribune will be updating these numbers regularly. Are there other relief efforts we should include? What else should we know about how Harvey relief money is being spent? Get in touch here.

Federal Funding: $15 billion

While lawmakers are expected to approve more money for disaster relief — Texas leaders on Thursday requested another $18.7 billion — the state won’t getting the full $15 billion because the money will be divided among the states and territories hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

About half of the money has gone to FEMA, which generally helps disaster victims with taking care of more short-term needs like food, water, medical care and temporary housing.

So far the agency has spent $886.6 million on assistance to Texans affected by Harvey, including $683.2 million on housing-related expenses — help paying rent, essential home repairs, some personal property replacement — and $203.4 million on “other needs assistance” that includes hotel rooms and $500 stipends for displaced people.

The agency has also approved an additional $327.8 million to local governments that have requested help rebuilding infrastructure like roads, bridges and levies.

The other half of the money flows through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help finance long-term rebuilding. It’s intended to fill in the gaps after individuals or government agencies have exhausted all other sources of relief.

“We are the long haul-type responding agency, we aren’t the first responder,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the department.

None of the $7.4 billion the department has received from Congress has gotten to Texas yet, and it will be a while until it does because of a complicated process of assessing needs and developing a spending plan that must be approved by multiple layers of government.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush told state lawmakers Monday that it could take from seven to 32 months for the funds to work their way through that process.

The Small Business Administration’s disaster relief loan program, available for businesses and individuals, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food assistance program also provide aid during disasters. So far, the SBA has approved $784 million in low-interest loans in Texas, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has administered more than $209 million in USDA food assistance.

State of Texas: $103 million

Gov. Greg Abbott has awarded $103 million from the state disaster fund to pay for Harvey-related expenses, and just under half of that went to fund the Houston’s recovery efforts.

Another $43 million went toward deploying the National Guard during the storm, and the remaining $10 million went to the Department of Public Safety for costs incurred by the Texas Emergency Management Division.

Some local officials, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, have called on Abbott to tap the state’s $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to help with rebuilding and cleanup expenses, but the governor has said if that happens, it won’t be until the 2019 legislative session.

Red Cross: $300 million

Central Texas chapter spokesman Geof Sloan said the nonprofit, which partners with local governments to run shelters and provide disaster assistance, has given $148 million in direct financial aid — in the form of $400 stipends — to more than 370,000 Texas households as of Sept. 28. That number will increase as the Red Cross continues accepting applications for the stipends via its website through Oct. 10.

Sloan said the organization has deployed more than 7,300 workers to support efforts in Texas. Its emergency shelters, he said, have served more than 3.7 million meals and snacks and provided more than 421,000 overnight stays since Harvey hit. Sloan said that a cost breakdown for these services was not currently available.

A recent ProPublica investigation called the Red Cross’s role in Harvey disaster relief into question and uncovered records of local officials in several counties complaining that the organization did not provide promised support or help.

Rebuild Texas Fund: $70.7 million

A spokeswoman said the organization would be announcing the first round of recipients next week.

JJ Watt Foundation’s Harvey Relief Fund: $27 million

The Houston Texans player smashed an initial fundraising goal of $200,000. The foundation did not respond to a media inquiry asking how much of the money has been spent.

This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Disclosure: The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Texas Senate moves to fast-track special session agenda

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston,  is challenged by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as she debates Sen. Kelly Hancock on a point of order in the Texas Senate during the first day of the special session on July 18, 2017. 

On the opening day of the special session of the Texas Legislature on Tuesday, over the cries of Senate Democrats, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took a step to fast-track two bills reauthorizing the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies jeopardized by inaction during the regular session.

The Senate must first pass those bills before moving on to other items eligible for consideration, including the legislation championed by Patrick regulating bathroom use for transgender people.

After overruling objections from Democrats, the Republican lieutenant governor referred the bills to committee, which promptly — and  unanimously — approved them.  The full Senate must still vote on the bills, which is expected to happen Wednesday.

Democrats said Patrick’s move limited the public’s ability to weigh in on the legislation, without which, a letter from the Texas Medical Association sent to lawmakers Monday warned, the state’s ability to safely license and discipline physicians would be impeded.

“I would err on the side of making sure that the public did have input on every step of the legislative process,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, during debate on the floor. “We are trying to move the people’s business forward without the people’s input.”

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said the bills were too important to postpone.

“I think delaying and not expeditiously going forward to save these agencies makes little sense and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Gov. Greg Abbott was forced to call lawmakers back for up to 30 more days to avoid the shutdown of the medical board and four agencies, which became hostages in a war between the House and Senate. Also caught in the legislative crossfire were agencies that license therapists, psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Part of Patrick’s play Tuesday included a rare procedural maneuver that involved overriding state Sen. José Rodríguez’s “tag” on the bills, which would have required 48 hours’ notice for them to be considered in a committee hearing. According to Senate Democrats, it is a rule practiced in the Senate since at least 1939.

Rodriguez, D-El Paso, accused Patrick of cutting off discussion on important legislation “so that we can talk about what bathroom transgender people should use” in a fiery statement issued after the debate.

In addition to the sunset bill, Abbott also put 19 other items on the special session agenda, including the “bathroom bill,” the topic that inspired the showdown between the House and Senate in the first place.

Patrick has been the fiercest champion of proposals that would regulate bathroom use based on “biological sex,” which would keep most transgender Texans from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Procedurally, the Senate — which Patrick has promised will go “20 for 20” in approving the governor’s agenda — must first pass the sunset bills before turning to the other bills.

A House committee is scheduled to take up its version of the legislation Wednesday.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association and Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas TribuneA complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Gov. Abbott says property taxes are his top issue for special session

Gov. Greg Abbott lays out items for a special session at a press conference on June 6, 2017.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout

Gov. Greg Abbott said that he would publicly call out lawmakers who didn’t support his 20-item legislative agenda, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came out swinging against House leadership during Monday appearances on the eve of the special session.

Abbott said he would aggressively hold lawmakers accountable for their positions on his legislative agenda and encouraged others to do the same. 

“I’m going to be establishing a list,” he said in remarks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “We all need to establish lists that we publish on a daily basis to call people out — who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”

The governor was forced to call the session after lawmakers jeopardized a handful of state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, when legislation reauthorizing them fell victim to a standoff between the House and Senate over a bill that would regulate bathroom use in public buildings for transgender people.

Along with the “bathroom bill,” Abbott put 19 additional topics on their plate, including teacher pay, limits on property tax increases not approved by voters, private school vouchers for special needs students, and limits on municipal annexations.

Abbott said that while all were important, he considered addressing property taxes the “number one issue” of the special session.

 “We are hearing stories about people who are being taxed out of their homes because of rising property taxes,” he said. “You don’t really own your home, it seems like, it’s the appraisers. That must stop.”

Leading up to the special session, Abbott has urged lawmakers to go “20 for 20” and pass all of his priorities. Patrick has declared his support for the governor’s full agenda, saying last week that “his agenda is my agenda is the people’s agenda.”

The governor faces more challenges in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus has made clear he opposes the legislation restricting public bathroom use for transgender Texans.

In a speech following Abbott, Patrick spent most of his remarks detailing the education plan he unveiled at a press conference last week, but he worked in plenty of jabs at Straus, again making an accusation that the speaker was behind a push for a statewide income tax.

Patrick promised to be the governor’s “wingman,” repeatedly casting Straus as the enemy of Abbott’s priorities and saying he would not “sit back” while Straus derailed their conservative agenda.

“Gov. Abbott and I don’t want Texas to become Illinois or California,” he said. “Now the speaker? Nice guy. But he’s opposite on the issues than Gov. Abbott and I.”

Abbott also weighed in on school finance reform during his remarks, touting his plan to create a commission to study the topic. He cast doubt there would be “some genius moment in the course of the next 30 days where some brilliant legislator is going to come up with the silver bullet” to solve the persistent problem that has led multiple judges to declare the state’s system unconstitutional.

“If it has been studied aplenty that means someone would have come up with a solution,” said Abbott, responding to the criticism that the time had come for action rather than further studies on school finance. “No one has been able to galvanize behind the studies that have been done so far, so I submit to you that the studies that have been done so far have been inadequate.”

Straus has said a school finance reform study is too little, too late.

“The Texas House has been studying this for years. We already passed a bill that’s a very strong first step,” he told hundreds of school board members and superintendents in June. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

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Lawmaker urged Abbott to veto bill legalizing hot air balloon hog hunting

A Republican lawmaker trying to convince Gov. Greg Abbott to veto a bill allowing the hunting of wild pigs and coyotes from hot air balloons wrote that it could lead to “future catastrophes” because of lax regulation of commercial ballooning.

“The serious problems that currently exist with hot air balloon flights were not adequately addressed during this bill’s consideration,” state Rep. John Cyrier wrote in the May 27 letter to Abbott, obtained recently by The Texas Tribune through an open records request.

Cyrier, whose hometown of Lockhart was the site of a deadly balloon crash last summer, added that he is “especially concerned that the bill creates a false sense of safety” when it comes to hot air balloons.

Cyrier’s letter didn’t sway Abbott, who signed the legislation in early June. The new law will take effect Sept. 1.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, said in a written statement that the new law “will open a whole new industry towards eliminating the growing population of feral hogs in the State of Texas.”

Last July, 16 people died when a hot air balloon hit a power line, then crashed in a field

Investigations following the crash revealed the balloon’s pilot had a lengthy criminal record including drug and alcohol-related driving charges. He also held prescriptions for the painkiller oxycodone and the generic form of Valium, two drugs prohibited by Federal Aviation Administration medical guidelines for pilots.

The FAA did not know this because it does not require a medical certificate for balloon operators, unlike other commercial pilots. Since the accident, the federal agency has come under pressure to increase its oversight of commercial balloon tours.

Keough’s bill, which passed both chambers unanimously in May, received no testimony during its House and Senate committee hearings.

“With everything going on during session, it was something that I personally had missed, and I wish I wouldn’t have missed it because I would have said something during that time period, and at least would have asked questions,” Cyrier said.

Texas officials have explored various methods of fighting the state’s population of more than 2 million feral hogs, an invasive species that destroys crops, pastures and waterways. The latest plan from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — a warfarin-based pesticide — is currently on hold after the poison’s manufacturer withdrew its request to operate in the state after outcry from meat processors and hog hunters.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a measure allowing the hunting of feral hogs by helicopter known as the “pork-chopper bill.”

Cyrier, a licensed airplane pilot, said he had hunted hogs from helicopters on more than 10 occasions.

He said the variables at play with a balloon — including lack of control of which direction it goes — made him question whether it would even be possible to hunt from one.

“I just don’t see this being effective,” he said.

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