AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday handed over $50 million in state funds to the city of Houston for Hurricane Harvey cleanup following criticism over his assertions that the Democratic mayor already had “all the money he needs.”
Abbott, a Republican whose political career began in Houston, handed a check to Mayor Sylvester Turner with hopes of easing tensions between them over the storm that left Houston underwater more than a month ago and could result in the costliest disaster cleanup in U.S. history.
The money amounted to something of a reversal for Abbott, who just days earlier accused Turner of sitting on hundreds of millions of local dollars and holding the state “hostage” by pushing a tax hike to pay for Harvey’s mounting expenses.
Houston officials said Abbott misunderstood city finances, and on Thursday, the Houston Chronicle blistered Abbott in an editorial for refusing to start spending from Texas’ $10 billion emergency savings fund. Wrote the editorial board: “Here’s what he’s essentially saying to Houston: DROP DEAD.”
Sitting beside Turner at a news conference in Houston on Friday, Abbott said they were on the same team.
“Mayor, I don’t come empty-handed today,” said Abbott, who said he still is not tapping the state’s rainy day fund but is instead using other sources in the state budget to provide the money.
Turner said with the money he will stop pushing for a one-time Houston property tax increase of 3.6 percent.
“We are most effective and most impactful when we are working together,” Turner said. “Quite naturally the only thing people want from us is to work together.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars will pay for most of Harvey’s cleanup. President Donald Trump earlier this month signed a $15.3 billion Harvey relief package and congressional leaders have said they will pursue more recovery spending.
But cities and counties in Texas cover anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the costs, and on Tuesday, Turner sent Abbott a letter saying Houston is accruing bills “at a scale beyond our savings.” He said the city was without flood insurance since Harvey maxed out its $100 million coverage limit, and that a new policy would cost $10 million.
Harvey killed more than 70 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes in Texas. Abbott has said the cost of the cleanup could exceed more than $150 billion.
For years Texas has socked away more than $10 billion in emergency savings — a rainy day fund now larger than any other state’s. As that money has sat untouched since the Category 4 storm made landfall Aug. 25, Texas Democrats have unleashed long-held frustrations over the fund, which Republicans let soar to record balances over calls to spend on public schools and health care.
Abbott has said for weeks that Texas will eventually use the fund for Harvey’s recovery. But he has not committed a dollar amount and is refusing to withdraw any money until 2019, when the Texas Legislature reconvenes. Abbott is up for re-election in 2018 and still has no credible challenger from either party.
He has defended keeping a lid on the fund by calling it wise until Harvey’s full price tag is known.
“He doesn’t know yet what his costs are,” Abbott said of Turner. “He’s not alone. The time to use the thrust of the rainy day fund is when the expenses are known and identified.”
It wasn’t the first time that Abbott and Turner have clashed over Harvey. Houston residents got mixed messages before landfall, with Abbott encouraging people to flee while Turner urged families to stay put and not jam flood-prone roads with a major downpour imminent.