Renew / Rebuild Houston: Councilmember Stephen Costello gets punked

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This past week, while Houston City Council was finalizing the City’s annual budget and capital improvement plan (CIP), Houstonians were greeted with the news that Houston City Council voted to siphon off $31 million from the Renew/Rebuild Houston program to add to the CIP. Tied into all of this was a vote to give district council members a $1 million dollar per year budget to solve small problems in their districts quickly.

This turn of events down at City Hall was not much to the liking of one Councilmember,¬†Stephen Costello. Costello, who is widely seen as the godfather of the Renew/Rebuild Houston drainage fee, issued emails and public statements telling the world in part that, “[a]t the time of debate and passage, the Mayor and City Council promised that supported projects would be prioritized based on unbiased data, not politics. Unfortunately, today’s proposed amendments retreat from those promises.” Costello also protested that voters were promised that the drainage fee would be put in a pay-as-you-go lock box.

Hmmm. Well, well, well….nobody saw any of this coming now, did they?

I was part of the coalition that opposed the Renew/Rebuild Houston drainage tax. There were several reasons why I was opposed to the new tax (and it is a tax), which I wrote about four years ago:

As a practical matter citizens have no real control – or ability to enforce – whether politicians or governments collect monies for one stated reason, but in fact allocate them for other purposes, and there’s no reason to expect otherwise that the City will in fact use all monies brought in by the new levy from Renew Houston in the manner that amendment backers are advertising. Reaffirmed State law confirms the fact that the City of Houston can in fact transfer monies collected by this new drainage levy to the City’s general fund, so any talk about monies collected by the levy going into a “lock box” is bunk.

Furthermore, Councilmember Costello, in pushing through Renew/Rebuild Houston, consistently appealed to (and indeed continues to appeal to) the tired, 100-year old, so-called Progressive Theory of Good Government argument that decisions over money seized by government from the populace need to be somehow “depoliticized,” and taken out of the hands of corrupt politicians. Instead, government decisions should be made by allegedly disinterested experts, preferably at least college-educated in various subject matters at hand, all in the name of the public welfare. However, if we have learned anything over the past 100 years since Progressives introduced this theory of government, it is that when it comes to politics, there is no such thing as someone who is disinterested! Everyone has an interest – disinterested experts included!

Effectively, Councilmember Costello seems to have hoped — having successfully led a political campaign to pinch a few dollars from every Houstonian’s pocket every month — that by running for and obtaining a seat at the Council table, he in turn could somehow keep this newly obtained stream of plunder from in turn being plundered away by other fellow plunderers and interest groups who happen to be lurking around the Houston City Council table. This past week’s vote, 15-2 against him, left that particular vision of Costello’s also going up in smoke. Furthermore, Council’s vote potentially sets a precedent that future City Councils could easily plunder Renew/Rebuild Houston monies right now, and blow away the vision that was sold to City residents at the time of the vote on the proposition of using that money over a time span of 20 years to pay off the City’s debts, and establishing upkeep of infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go basis. The short-term politics of today always wins over long-term thinking.

Oh well. Adios Renew/Rebuild Houston. It was nice knowing ‘ya!