By Houston Chronicle
Texas voters of a certain age remember a time when our congressional delegation worked together for the good of our state.
Politicians from opposing parties running for jobs in the nation’s capital argued with each other until Election Day, but everything changed after Inauguration Day. Once they crossed the Potomac River and arrived in Washington, whether they were Republicans or Democrats, they behaved first and foremost like loyal Texans.
Now, if only briefly and only on one issue, some of our lawmakers in Washington brag that they’ve revived that tradition, working together to secure federal disaster assistance money in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Unfortunately, that spirit hasn’t prevailed at all levels of government. Houston’s mayor complains the General Land Office in Austin is dragging its feet and failing to consult with local authorities about how federal funds should be spent. Meanwhile, a new report from the governor’s chief operating officer bears a laundry list of bureaucratic hurdles standing between storm victims and relief money. More than six months after the floodwaters receded, Washington has made progress appropriating badly needed funds, but it’s abundantly obvious that government officials at all levels still have plenty of work cut out for them.
After months of infuriating delay, Congress finally passed the so-called “third supplemental” appropriating $89.3 billion for disaster relief. That’s more than double the Trump administration’s utterly inadequate original proposal. Texas senators and representatives from both parties pounded their fists for the increased funding, which came better late than never.
That isn’t as easy as it used to be. At one time, members of Congress could earmark spending for specific projects in their districts, but that’s no longer an option. So as committee members worked on a bill appropriating money for victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires, U.S. Rep. John Culberson, Houston’s man on the House Appropriations Committee, used tricks he learned in the state legislature to insert some important language. As a result, the finished bill gives priority to areas to that have suffered “multiple disaster declarations in recent years,” a phrase that just happens to describe greater Houston. That crafty wording puts our area at the head of the line for receiving flood control funding from this legislation.
So now, there’s a pot of federal money available for projects along waterways like White Oak Bayou, Hunting Bayou and Clear Creek. Dredging in the Houston Ship Channel with federal funds is another possibility. Congress has also appropriated funds that can be used to study new projects, like building a third reservoir.
Still, the final decision on where this money will be spent rests not with Congress, but with federal bureaucrats like officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Our representatives in Washington need to keep the pressure on to bring as much of this federal funding as possible into the Houston area.
At the same time, this appropriation from Washington throws some balls into Austin’s court. A total of $28 billion is dedicated to HUD community development grant programs, including money that could help individual homeowners. Whatever piece of this pie comes to Texas will be administered by the state’s General Land Office, headed by Commissioner George P. Bush. Unfortunately, Mayor Sylvester Turner complains the GLO has been “hogging” federal disaster funds and failing to consult with city officials about how to put that money to use.
All told, Congress has appropriated more than $100 billion to hurricane relief. But state officials say only $13.3 billion has been provided directly to Texas, where Hurricane Harvey’s estimated economic impact totals $125 billion.
Remember, any amount of time a Texas politician spends on some cable news show or whipping up a politically convenient distraction is time that could be dedicated to jawing the federal bureaucracy about Harvey recovery. Flood prevention must be the number one issue of the 2018 elections, and voters should be ready to reward and punish candidates accordingly.
More than six months have passed since Hurricane Harvey struck. Our lawmakers still have a lot of work to do, and so do elected officials in Austin, at county courthouses and at city halls throughout our area. They need to do it together, tossing aside their red shirts and blue shirts and wrapping themselves in the Texas flag.