SENATORS CHALLENGE ASTRODOME PLAN
(AUSTIN) — Houston-area lawmakers held a press conference Tuesday to announce the filing of a bill to require a proposed renovation to the historic Astrodome be put to the voters. In September, Harris County commissioners approved a plan to spend $105 million to renovate the structure, but lawmakers today said any decision to spend that much tax revenue must be approved by county residents. "With the dire problems we have of homes flooding, too few deputies, roads are still in disrepair, no homeless shelter, mental health system that needs attention, I have to represent my constituents…and say go back and get voter approval" said Houston Senator John Whitmire.
Members of the Harris County delegation (L-to-R Senators Borris Miles, Sylvia Garcia, John Whitmire, Paul Bettencourt, Lois Kolkhorst) and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (right) announced a bill to require the county to hold a referendum on a $105 million plan to renovate the Astrodome.
Whitmire, joined by seven of his colleagues, has filed a bill to require Harris county to hold a referendum next November to decide whether to go forward with the Astrodome proposal. Whitmire said that the full cost of the proposal could rise above $200 million in the end, which is close to a $217 million renovation plan rejected by Harris county voters in 2013. As author of past legislation that restricted the funding of Harris county sports venues to non-property tax revenue, he said the county needs to honor the promises made then. "This is about respecting taxpayers' voice, and not using property taxes, which was the commitment I made publicly in 1998 and one way we won approval for our current venues" said Whitmire.
Senators were joined by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who represented part of Houston during his term in the Senate, in support of the bill. He said this isn't about the specific plan for the Astrodome, but rather the use of taxpayer dollars. "I have great memories there, from Oiler Blue to watching Nolan Ryan pitch no-hitters. We all love it," he said. "But the taxpayers have spoken, there are high priorities that we need to address, and there doesn't seem to be a clear plan of what's going to happen anyway."
Nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World" upon opening in 1965, the Astrodome was the first domed sports stadium in the world. The Texas Historical Commission named the structure a State Antiquities Landmark in January of this year. It hosted the Houston Astros, Oilers, University of Houston Cougars and even the Rockets for four years in the 1970's, but it has remained closed since 2008. The current plan would raise the floor of the stadium to street level, add 1400 new parking spaces and open the Astrodome up for major events, but if Whitmire's bill becomes law, Harris County voters would get to weigh in first.
Also Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee wrapped up the first round of budget hearings as it plans how to spend state dollars for the next two years. Representatives of every agency in the state appeared before the committee over the last three weeks to justify spending requests. The next step for the committee is to break into workgroups. Members assigned to each workgroup will take a close look at a single budget article and recommend spending levels for the 2018-2019 biennium. These panels will meet for a few weeks and then the full committee will vote on each workgroup's recommendations. If approved, they become part of the official budget bill, which will then go before the full Senate for consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 15 at 11 a.m.