Houston-area congressional Democrats put further pressure on the state’s General Land Office to release $750 million in federal Hurricane Harvey relief funds, at a public inquiry with city and county officials recently.
The lawmakers also pushed for what they say is Houston and Harris County’s fair share of federal relief — as much as $1 billion each.
Lawmakers said the purpose of the inquiry was to get firsthand testimony from local representatives regarding the harm residents have suffered due to Hurricane Harvey, as well as any potential future harm if the region didn’t receive what they said was an equitable amount.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush initially denied federal relief for both Houston and Harris County, but reversed his decision under pressure, saying that he’d been constrained by federal regulations, but that he would amend the GLO’s action plan that was submitted to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to direct $750 million to the region.
Present at the hearing was Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who blasted Bush’s initial decision, and stated that the $750 million should be a down payment for a much larger sum.
“It is mindboggling to understand how we as a county received zero dollars in the latest round of funding,” she said. “We recognize that more funding is necessary.”
Officials added that they extended an invitation to Bush to attend the inquiry, but no representatives from the GLO attended the hearing. Instead, the office sent a letter, which arrived in the middle of the inquiry, signed not by Bush but by his deputy.
Rep. Al Green, D-Houston called it “offensive.”
The letter stated that Bush had submitted his amendment request of $750 million on May 27. The request, however, was for Harris County specifically, with the letter stating that the county and city could then divvy up the funds between the two.
But the letter also included a copy of Bush’s amendment request to HUD, which officials said contradicted the letter itself. The attached request stated that Bush intended to send his amendment to HUD, according to officials, raising questions regarding the status of the GLO’s amendment.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner added that both he and Hidalgo had sent a letter to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge Friday, requesting a deadline for GLO to submit its amended action plan within the next 30 days.
“This begs the question: why the most populous city in the state, the state’s economic engine, home to the largest port in the United States, home to the largest medical center in the world, has been left out of this program,” he said.
Additionally, according to Turner, the GLO told the mayor that he could simply raise taxes to make up for the lack of federal relief funds.
“One of the reasons why they said Houston and Harris County didn’t need any more funding, was because people in Houston could pay more in taxes,” he said.
Turner reiterated that Houston was under a revenue cap, which limits the amount of money the city can collect from taxes.
A summary of Friday’s hearing will be sent to HUD and the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, which has jurisdiction over HUD in Congress.
The issue emerged after HUD allocated federal Hurricane Harvey relief funds to the state of Texas, which were then allocated by the GLO last month. Both the city of Houston and Harris County, which previously requested more than $1 billion in federal relief from HUD, received zero federal dollars — despite the storm costing the region more than $125 billion in total damage.
The move resulted in bipartisan backlash from local and state officials, and Bush eventually stating that he would reverse his initial decision.
An additional $1.1 billion in Harvey relief has not yet been allocated.
Towards the end of the hearing, Green urged Bush to submit his amended action plan soon. Without an approved amendment, HUD would not release any money to Texas, Green said.
“It appears to me that the commissioner, unfortunately, is playing games,” he said. “He’s playing games with the lives of people who can ill afford to have this continue for a prolonged period of time.”