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Texas governor withholds Harvey recovery funds from Houston

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is sparring with Texas Governor Greg Abbott as the city struggles to rebuild following a devastating hurricane.

Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, battered southeastern Texas last month, leaving the region reeling. More than 60 people have died in connection with the storm, which also inflicted a staggering amount of damage on local infrastructure. Much of the concern over storm recovery has centered on Houston — as the largest city in Texas (and the fourth-largest city in the country), Houston’s sprawling metropolis serves as a deeply important economic hub, as well as a diverse and heavily populated urban area.

Damages from Harvey in Houston amount to more than $100 million — the city’s flood insurance limit. With Houston’s $20 million reserve already exhausted, that limit means extra funding will be needed in order to cover the cost of the city’s recovery. Raising property taxes is one way of addressing the problem, albeit an incredibly unpopular one with residents. In a letter to Abbott sent Monday, Turner, a Democrat, asked the Republican governor to tap into the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund (also known as the “Rainy Day Fund”), the $10 billion Texas savings account.

The request, Turner wrote, “is appropriate for [the] response to a natural disaster such as Harvey that wreaked significant damage and caused local governments to incur unanticipated costs far beyond their budgets.”

But a day later, Abbott swiftly rejected that plea.

“In times like these, it’s important to have fiscal responsibility as opposed to financial panic,” Abbott said during a press briefing, taking a swipe at Turner. “The mayor seems to be using [the hurricane] as hostage to raise taxes.”

Turner, who has said the city may need a $50 million tax hike if state funding is not provided, responded in kind via a spokesperson.

“Mayor Turner is asking the governor to do what other governors, such as Florida’s, are doing,” Turner’s office said. “It’s the Texas governor’s right to say no.”

Abbott’s office responded back in kind, arguing that Texas, in responding to Harvey, has exceeded Florida’s efforts in response to Hurricane Irma.

The back-and-forth is illustrative of a wider trend in the state, where Abbott has aggressively targeted cities over a range of issues, including immigration (a months-long saga over a bill cracking down on undocumented immigrants has seen Texas at war with Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, and other urban hubs embroiled in ongoing legal action). But many argue the governor has gone too far in his refusal to provide extra assistance to Houston after Harvey.

In a furious editorial piece published Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle slammed Abbott’s decision, accusing the governor of essentially telling Houston to “DROP DEAD” following pleas for assistance.

“The governor, a Houstonian himself, might think different were he to drive down residential streets still lined with debris that’s rapidly becoming a health hazard,” the editorial ran. “If he were to talk to thousands of residents whose homes have been damaged or destroyed, who are still needing a place to live. If he heard from Houston business owners still unable to reopen.”

The publication went on to call out the governor’s seemingly partisan decision, noting that other state Republicans have, like Turner, similarly called for aid, naming Steve Radack, a conservative Harris County commissioner, who told the editorial board he felt a special session was needed to address Harvey and issue additional funds. (Abbott has notably rejected a special session, something Turner cited in proposing the tax raise.)

“We can see why a governor up for reelection next year would be wary of a special session. He’s no doubt worried about giving [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick another opportunity to appease his rightwing following with wildly radical proposals. (Bathroom bills, anybody?) Still, we would like to see a little political courage on the governor’s part at a time of unprecedented need,” the editorial continued, ultimately concluding, “If 27 trillion gallons of water and 50 inches of rain at one time don’t qualify as a rainy day, we’re not sure what does.”

But Abbott is standing firm, arguing that the city has all of the funding it needs. In announcing his rejection of Turner’s request, Abbott pointed to the “hundreds of millions of dollars” held by the city’s Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, or TIRZ. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has similarly argued that upwards of $300 million exist in the TIRZ funds, which are collected by Houston as a means of subsidizing local improvement projects.

That argument isn’t working for city officials, who say the TIRZ funds can’t be used for Harvey recovery. TIRZ funds are restricted in their usage and bound to specific projects.

“We cannot raid funds that the state has indicated cannot be raided — and which are largely for drainage projects to prevent future flooding anyway,” a spokesperson for Turner told the Houston Chronicle, rejecting assertions from Abbott and Patrick.

While Texas politicians fight it out, the state’s southeastern region continues to work towards regaining some sense of normalcy, something that has proven to be a challenge. In the latest horror story to come out of Texas since the hurricane struck, one woman reportedly died several weeks after the storm from flesh-eating bacteria, which she contracted after attempting to help her son clean out his flooded home.

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