Stamping out More Dollars for Food Stamps

October 31, 2012

The City of Houston voted today to pay $159,684.96 in grant money to hire people to work at the Houston Food Bank to enroll Houstonians on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – more commonly referred to as “food stamps”). The Houston Food Bank will try to enroll about 1,400 more people in this federal program.

Many of the council members asked over and over again at the hearing today where the money came from and why they are paying for it out of the General Revenue Fund. The City of Houston was given this grant money for Katrina reimbursements. This money is currently in the Special Funds. No money can be distributed out of Special Funds to a particular group, so the money will be transferred from Special Funds to the General Revenue Fund and then to the Food Bank. It’s kind of like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account so that you can write a check.

Council Members Brown and Pennington voted against this measure. CM Pennington said that basically more research needs to be done on the matter and that there are housing improvement needs as well. Council Member Christie ultimately voted for this but inquired about people buying junk food with the Lone Star Card. This is a question I receive at work all the time, and it can be very confusing. The Lone Star Card (kind of like a debit card) may contain SNAP benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money. While the two programs are both handled by the federal government, they are separate, and it can be difficult to discern which program is being used for purchases at a store. SNAP funds are restricted to certain items. These items are usually pretty healthy with a few exceptions. What is confusing is that TANF funds have less specific restrictions. So if you see someone purchasing junk food at a store with a Lone Star Card, it might not be SNAP money. It could be TANF money. (Side note: if you want anything related to SNAP changed, contact your federal representative. SNAP is administered by the state, but any change must take place at the federal level.  The federal government regulates TANF as well).

The Food Research and Action Center released a report saying that only 60% of Houstonians who qualify for food stamp benefits actually receive them. While that may be true, I don’t believe that this number is quite as staggering as one might think. Many people who qualify for SNAP benefits don’t receive them because they choose not to. I’ve had countless people call my office and explain that they lost their job and don’t really want to go on food stamps and ask what other services are available instead. Maybe this doesn’t make up the other 40% of those not on food stamps, but it has to account for a considerable percentage. I really doubt that the majority of the 40% not receiving benefits (who qualify) don’t know that food stamps exist.  While some federal programs are obscure, I guarantee that SNAP doesn’t need a promoter.  Then when you take into account the people who the Houston Food Bank will never reach, it will be interesting to see how much they can actually increase that percentage.

A misconception about SNAP is that it is there to foot the bill for all of the recipients’ food.  Rather the program is in place to supplement the bill.  Many people who are already on food stamps go to the Food Bank to get the rest of the food that the SNAP didn’t cover.  Therefore it is likely that most people going to the Food bank are already on food stamps.

Just so everyone reading this is clear, I am completely in favor of helping people get food.  I’ve helped countless people in the Senate office with food stamps, and I will continue to help those in need.  I just believe that the money would have been better spent if they donated it to the Houston Food Bank for food purchases instead. At least that way you know for sure that your tax dollars are actually being used to feed the hungry.

Rather than questioning which account this is coming from, the question the council members should have asked is why we are spending tax dollars to get more people to spend tax dollars?  Trickle down government at its finest.

 


Results of the Budget Amendments

June 20, 2012

Here is a list of all of the budget amendments and votes on each (the final ones will be updated once the archive video is online for me to view):

Amendment List (click here)


Hobby Expansion Almost Ready for Take Off

May 23, 2012

Mayor Parker announced that Southwest Airlines (SWA) will pay for the $100 million Hobby Airport expansion, which is the first step to opening the airport up to commercial international flights.  The agreement made by Mayor Parker and SWA says that the city will own the improvements to the airport, but SWA “will have preferential scheduling rights and pay no rent for its use of four of the five new international gates, and will also pay no rent for its use of the customs facility. The fifth additional gate and the customs facility will be available for use by all other airlines at Hobby, but unlike SWA, the other airlines will pay rent.”  In addition, SWA must abide by the Hire Houston First policy to make sure that local workers get a chance at the construction jobs.   This agreement must be confirmed by City Council, likely to take place on May 30th.

With many groups, such as Greater Houston Partnership supporting the Hobby expansion, there has also been plenty of criticism. The most vocal critique was a so-called independent study that said that the expansion would add 10,000 jobs and bring $1.6 billion to the Houston economy.  Many council members said that the study was biased and should be thrown out.  United Airlines, the competitor which flies out of Bush Intercontinental, argued that the expansion would actually cost Bush Intercontinental thousands of jobs and lose $295 million in the local economy.  Of course, both competing companies have their own agendas that conflict with each other.  It seems likely that both studies are exaggerated.

There are so many different theories out there about whether having one central hub for major flights is better than having several options where essentially the city would “compete against itself” as United President and CEO Jeff Smisek says.  However, if companies want to compete, should the government really stand in the way of that?

So far council members supporting the expansion are: Helena Brown, Andrew Burks, Stephen Costello, Ed Gonzalez, Al Hoang, Melissa Noriega, Oliver Pennington, and James Rodriguez.  I would like to know whether the other members just have not made a decision yet or are actually against the proposal.  If they are against it, I am curious as to the reason, as there surely could be more items to consider.

So far it seems like this is a pretty good deal for Houston.  It requires a private company to cover the costs of something the city will have for years to come.  Ultimately even if Hobby does not see an increase in 20 more flights a day as predicted, there appears to be very little risk for the city, so I hope to see this expansion take off.


The Feeding Ordinance is Hard to Swallow

April 4, 2012

Houston City Council passed the feeding ordinance today despite the protests from many Houstonians. Although this ordinance is slightly better than the one originally proposed, Mayor Annise Parker severely failed on this one.  The ordinance that passed requires written permission from the property owner to feed five or more homeless people and gives the city parks director the authority to designate certain parks as legal feeding venues (see here).  The ordinance also asks for charitable organizations to voluntarily register with the city and agree to safety rules and the coordination of scheduling.  The penalty for violations is $500.

There are many, many things wrong with this ordinance, and I think many of the council members and others have done a great job explaining that.  So rather than reiterate the same reasons why this ordinance is so awful, here is my take on how they should fix the ordinance (IF they HAD to pass something at all – and at this point, I am not convinced of that):

The City of Houston could create a website that allows charitable organizations to sign up on a voluntary basis, similar to the current ordinance.  The website would allow charitable organizations to sign up on a calendar for a date, time, and location for where they are planning on feeding the homeless.  Owners of private land even put their location on the calendar to allow charitable organizations to sign up at their place too.  The difference between this and the current ordinance is that this plan wouldn’t prohibit other groups from feeding the homeless on the same day.  Rather, it would just allow groups to coordinate their efforts, and since the website could run on its own, it would cost very little for the city to help this coordination…. Again, only if the city really thinks that this “problem” is as necessary as they say.

Charities that feed the homeless have to work very hard for the monetary donations they receive.  I am sure that many charities would voluntarily sign up for this website to join efforts to make sure that they aren’t planning a big event to feed the homeless at the same time and place as another group.  Coordinating efforts is helpful and might be welcomed by groups.

This would completely do away with penalties and requiring written permission to feed five or more people.  Charities would be able to see many private locations that welcome their services.  If a private land owner is worried about loitering and littering, there are already laws on the books for them to follow.  We don’t need more!  Also, if a land owner has tried to remove the homeless from his or her land to no avail, they could put up a “no loitering” sign and another sign explaining that food is not allowed on the property.  Surely charities will listen and find another place to feed the homeless.  Charities aren’t here to make enemies!

There are many other cities that have similar ordinances such as Orlando, Dallas, and Las Vegas.  All of these cases ended with lawsuits and many unhappy people, and there is no concrete evidence that such ordinances have helped anyone concerned.  Mayor Parker should rethink the message this is sending to the city.  This ordinance will do little other than making Houstonians angry and criminals out of those who are here to help.

Thanks to the following council members who voted against the ordinance: Mike Sullivan, Helena Brown, Al Hoang, Oliver Pennington, C.O. Bradford and Jack Christie.

Council Members who voted in favor of the ordinance are: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Wanda Adams, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Mike Laster, Larry Green, Stephen Costello, Andrew Burks, and Melissa Noriega.


Predictions for the November 2011 Election

November 4, 2011

Now that Election Day is right around the corner, here are my guesses as to who will win.  Keep in mind that this is not a list of who I want to win.  It is a list of who I think will win.

Mayor:
Kevin Simms
Amanda Ulman
Dave Wilson
Fernando Herrera
Annise D. Parker
Jack O’Connor

I think Mayor Parker will win reelection.  Although there are many people who will gladly vote for anyone else, there are still plenty of people who are excited to continue voting for Parker.  As of November 3rd, early voting was down by 23%.   This shows that people might not be as excited to rush out to vote for Parker, but it also shows that people aren’t excited to vote against her either.

District A:
Brenda Stardig
Helena Brown
Bob Schoellkopf

CM Stardig will likely win again.  Although Brown raised more money than a challenger to an incumbent is expected to, beating an incumbent is so difficult, and I don’t think Brown did enough.

District B:
Kenneth Perkins
Kathy Blueford-Daniels
Phillip “Paul” Bryant
Alvin Byrd
Jerry Davis
Charles A. Ingram
Bryan Smart

It is really difficult to predict who the front runners are in this one.  There will be a runoff, but I don’t think anyone can predict at this point who will be in that runoff.

District C:
Randy Locke
Josh Verde
Ellen Cohen
Karen Derr
Brian Cweren

I think Cohen pretty much has this one locked up.  The only thing standing in her way is the fact that she and Derr might split votes, causing a runoff between Cohen and Cweren.  Even with a runoff, I think Cohen will win.

District D:
Wanda Adams
Larry McKinzie

CM Adams will most likely win reelection. 

District E:
Mike Sullivan

District F:
Al Hoang
Hoc Thai Nguyen (Nguyen Thai Hoc)
Peter “Lyn” René

I predict CM Hoang will win.  Even if a District F resident is incensed with Hoang’s job (which many definitely are), the presence of two other candidates to choose from will render a splitting of votes, causing Hoang to win.

District G:
Clyde Bryan
Oliver Pennington

Although CM Pennington is an incumbent, many people in District G know Bryan.  Still I don’t think that enough people are upset with Pennington’s performance to change their vote.  Let’s not forget that Pennington beat four other people in 2009 and won with 59.10% of the vote.

District H:
Patricia Rodriguez
Edward “Ed” Gonzalez 

CM Gonzalez will likely win again. 

District I:
Leticia Gutierrez Ablaza
James Rodriguez 

CM Rodriguez will likely win again.

District J:
Mike Laster
Rodrigo Canedo
Criselda Romero

Laster raised the most money.  Although this district is considered a “Hispanic-Opportunity District,” with only 17 of registered voters with Hispanic surnames, I don’t think being Hispanic automatically predicts a win here.  I think Laster will win.

District K:
Pat Frazier
Larry Green
Alex Gonik

Simply, Green has the money and the endorsements.  While that doesn’t always predict a win, I think it will in this case.

At-Large 1:
Stephen C. Costello
James Partsch-Galvan
Scott Boates
Don Cook 

This is a hard one to say.  CM Costello is the one behind the Rebuild Houston drainage fee, and I think most voters know that by now.  Although many are angry about it, let’s not forget that it did pass by the voters in the last election.  Even when you take away the number of people who originally voted for it and are now against it, there are still many who support the fee and who support Costello.  Couple that with the fact that Boates recently stated that he “‘ joined both parties this year as part of this run for office.'”  It’s fine if someone is a moderate (actually that might not be a bad thing at all), but his poor choice of words and the fact that it will be difficult to make headway with either party might cause a clear opening for Costello to win again.  I am fairly confident in many of my predictions, but I really won’t be shocked if Costello loses. 

At-Large 2:
Kristi Thibaut
Elizabeth C. Pérez
Andrew C. Burks, Jr.
Gordon R. Goss
Bolivar “Bo” Fraga
Eric B. Dick
Jenifer Rene Pool
M. “Griff” Griffin
David W. Robinson
Roslyn “Rozzy” Shorter 

This is another one where it is really difficult to predict.  I think there will be a runoff that includes Thibaut, but I am not sure who will be in it with her.  Maybe Robinson, but then again, let’s not discount the fact that for the last couple of months you couldn’t drive anywhere in Houston without seeing an Eric Dick (illegal) sign.  In the end I think Thibaut will win. 

At-Large 3:
Melissa Noriega
Chris Carmona
J. Brad Batteau 

CM Noriega will likely win.  I think those who supported her last time still support her today. 

At-Large 4:
Louis Molnar
Amy Price
C. O. “Brad” Bradford 

I don’t see CM Bradford losing his seat.  He has lots of support from both sides of the aisle and hasn’t done anything that the majority of voters would find alarming. 

At-Large 5:
Laurie Robinson
Jolanda “Jo” Jones
Jack Christie
Bob Ryan 

I really think Christie will win this time.  I think enough people are mad an CM Jones and want her out.  With Christie as the clear front runner with Jones, I think it will end up being just a battle between them with Christie winning. 

City Controller:
Ronald Green


It’s $3 Million…Can you Hear Me Now?

July 24, 2011

In a city where we’ve had to look for new ways to collect taxes, increase fees, and decrease services, we have been told that every penny counts.  Then shouldn’t $3 million count considerably?? 

Mayor Parker recently barely secured enough votes to approve a new wireless contract that would save $3 million.  AT&T is the current provider for city cell phones and emergency communications.  Parker has been trying for a while now to switch the contract over to Sprint to save $3 million.

Sure, there are a few detriments to consider: Sprint is not a Texas company like AT&T, Sprint might not have the  infrastructure and personnel support needed during disasters like hurricanes as AT&T does, and Parker’s former campaign treasurer is a registered lobbyist for Sprint.

So with all of these items to think about before approving the new contract, what was the main concern with Sprint?  They are not a union like AT&T!  $3 million is on the table here, and that is what council members are concerned with?  Council members approve contracts for the city all the time, and I can’t remember a time where members tried to go with another company based only on whether or not they are a union.  It is time for them to wake up and hear from their constituents that we need to take a serious look at our finances and cut every place we can.

How the council members voted:
FOR (approving the change from AT&T to Sprint):
Anne Clutterbuck, Stephen Costello, Sue Lovell, Oliver Pennington, James Rodriguez, Brenda Stardig, and Mike Sullivan

AGAINST (voted to keep the AT&T contract):
Ed Gonzalez, Melissa Noriega, Wanda Adams, C.O. Bradford, Jarvis Johnson, and Jolanda Jones


Update: No Change to Term Limits

August 19, 2010

Houston City Council voted against a proposed charter amendment to change term limits from three 2-year terms to two 4-year terms.  I think this was a smart move.  Council members have more to worry about than extending their own terms in office. 

More new members voted in favor of putting the amendment on the ballot, but it was not split on party lines the way some might have predicted (CM Jolanda Jones was absent for a family obligation).

Those voting in favor of putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Mayor Parker, Brenda Stardig, Jarvis Johnson, Wanda Adams, Mike Sullivan, Al Hoang and Oliver Pennington.

Those voting against putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot: Stephen Costello, Anne Clutterbuck, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, Sue Lovell, Melissa Noriega and C.O. Bradford


Water Bill Increase

April 21, 2010

Mayor Parker proposed an increase in your water bills by 12.5%, a little less than the 14% she discussed last month (see the blog I wrote about it here).  12.5% made Houstonians quite mad.  So what does Houston City Council do?  It raises water rates by nearly 30%!!  “The increases for single-family homeowners will be phased in over three years, bringing the bill of an average single-family household using 6,000 gallons of water a month from $47 to $60 after the rate hike is fully implemented” (Houston Chronicle article).

According to Michael Marcotte, the director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, “’If we do nothing, then we will find ourselves unable to meet the basic regulatory requirements’ for water and sewer systems” (Houston Chronicle).  I agree, but until we have a long-term plan for our water system, I think it is irresponsible to increase taxes.  Find a solution first and then see how much this solution is really going to cost.  I wouldn’t mind paying a little more for my water if I knew that there was a plan and that the rates wouldn’t increase more than inflation for the foreseeable future; however, there does not appear to be any plan in place.

Maybe we should put something about this increase in our city charter… oh wait, we already did!  Council Members Mike Sullivan, Oliver Pennington and C.O. Bradford voted against the plan, saying that this increase does go against our city charter.  The charter says that water rates “shall not be increased, without voter approval, in any fiscal year by an amount greater than the combined rates of inflation and population growth in the city” (see it here).

City Attorney Arturo Michel and Mayor Parker said the increases would not violate charter provisions because it allows for increases to exceed these limits when they are “required by bond covenants and rates established by contract”.  So the charter says that voters can decide whether or not to increase rates unless City Council votes for higher costs in a new contract??  Something about that doesn’t seem right.

Council Member Pennington said, and I agree, that the courts will probably have to decide this issue because it is likely that there will be a lawsuit.  With the court costs associated with a lawsuit, I guess the rate increase won’t really help get us out of debt after all.

Thanks for your efforts Council Members Sullivan, Pennington, and Bradford.


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