As the one-year anniversary for Hurricane Harvey inches closer, the slow process of government is finally catching up to the flood control needs of Houston and Harris County. This week, the Harris County Commissioners court voted to send a letter to the governor asking for permission to hold a special election in August for a $2.5 billion flood control bond.

The letter is just the first step in the process; the court has not publicly discussed what the proposal would contain. Though the bond projects are yet to come, it’s the selection of August 25 as the special election date that comes across as odd.

With a general election roughly 10 weeks after that date, calling a special election at the tail end of the summer seems unnecessary and rushed. Choosing August requires approval from the governor, charges taxpayers to host an additional election, and adds another date for voters to be concerned about.

Elections held on non-uniform dates typically have a lower turnout. Yet one held at the end of summer, a week before labor day weekend, and before the largest school district in the county begins a new school year, even further limits the potential pool of voters. In a county of 4.5 million residents, it seems odd that the election would be held when there would arguably be the smallest possible turnout.

County Judge Ed Emmett says that’s not a concern. “People who care about mitigation, flood control—they’ll be motivated,” he said during the court meeting on the election. “When it comes to choosing a date for an election, there’s no right choice.” Emmett rounded out the conversation by saying that if the election were held in November, he wouldn’t campaign for reelection.

But there are at least two apparent reasons for the county choosing August: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to bust the city’s property tax cap in November, and county officials would prefer not to campaign for reelection and a tax increase simultaneously.

Only hours after the court voted, Turner announced during his State of the City address that he would be asking voters to lift the voter-imposed property tax cap in November so the city can bring in additional revenue for public safety. It’s hard to imagine that there was no coordination between the county and city’s top officials announcing major fiscal proposals only hours apart.

Also, there’s an election in November.

“Those of us who are running have to talk about our campaign and a bond at the same time,” said Emmett. Emmett believes that the argument regarding the merits of the bond will get muddled in the partisan electoral politics of the general midterm election. While that may be true, there is a case to be made that voters would be more attentive to the conversation in November than they would be in August.

By not going with a uniform election day, there’s a very real concern of voter fatigue says State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston). “While I have not seen the merits of the $2.5 billion Harris County Flood Bond proposal, I worry about voter fatigue at the polls.”

Bettencourt explained that with the upcoming May 5 election, a May 22 runoff election, a possible June tax ratification election in a Harris County school district, a special election in August, and a general election in November, people will just get tired of going to the polls for tax increases.

“Taxpayers are not in the mood for these rate increases on top of their previous astonishing value increases,” he continued. “I have never been a fan of special election on non-uniform election dates that raise tax rates.”

The most interesting aspect of the meeting is that the lone commissioner willing to vote against the August special election date is also the lone Democrat, Rodney Ellis. Ellis argued the same concerns that many conservatives across the state have voiced about holding elections on non-uniform dates: it is much harder to reach voters, and the electorate will consist primarily of special interests hoping to benefit from the debt issuance. In fairness, Commissioner Jack Morman voiced frustration over the date as well, but wasn’t willing to vote against it.

The need to campaign for reelection should not be considered when elected officials ask for debt issuances, especially not a $2.5 billion one. The only thing that should be considered is what is required for the ballot item to be as transparent and informative for the taxpayers.

Regardless of whether or not the special election date is approved, voters should be paying attention as county officials craft this massive proposal which will undoubtedly have long-term effects.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.

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