HOUSTON — House Speaker Joe Straus blocked a bill last session that would have allowed Harris County voters to go to the polls and decide whether to keep the Astrodome or tear it down, State Sen. Paul Bettencourt said in an interview with The Texas Monitor.
Straus did so as a favor to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett who has been for years trying to find another use for the Dome, according to Bettencourt, R-Houston.
“What I and other members of the Senate have been told is that Judge Emmett has a very close association with Speaker Straus,” Bettencourt said. “He sent it to a committee and it was just going to die there.”
Straus, a San Antonio Republican, did not return a request for comment.
Emmett called Bettencourt’s assertions about Straus and his own role “goofy” and “wrong.”
Political rivals with different stories
“It was a personal slap at me,” said Emmett, also a Republican. “He sees me as his political rival in Harris County. It really comes down to that.”
The Astrodome — the Eighth Wonder of the World — has dominated the news in Houston this week after the Harris County Commissioners court approved a $105 million plan to turn the world-known Dome into an event center.
Paying for the event center would include money from the Harris County general fund, or, essentially, property tax collections. Hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenues would also be included in the tab.
“This is tone deaf to the needs of taxpayers,” Bettencourt said. “The bottom line is that these property tax monies could have been used to cut the property tax rate or give disaster reappraisal to homeowners impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”
Emmett forcefully pushed back on Bettencourt’s claims.
There is no tax hike in this proposal, Emmett said — and it’s perfectly legal, he said.
“No time in Texas history has a county or local government been told they go to the voters unless they’re asking for a bond,” he said. “We’re not asking for a bond. Voters said no to a bond issue we asked for back in 2013. And I said —and the other four county commissioners said — yes we hear you. We don’t want us to borrow money on the Astrodome. It’s like any other building that we repurpose. And we do that all the time. We do that with the jails. We do that with the juvenile facilities.”
Bettencourt claims the facility is still, technically, a sports arena.
Bettencourt serves as chairman as both Senate Select Committee on Government Reform and the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform.
“The people should vote and especially when we’re using property tax money,” he said. “The Astrodome was a sports venue. There was a promise made… when the Sports Authority was set up there would never be property tax money spent on a sports venue. Ever.”
When a $217 million proposal to refurbish the Astrodome was put before Harris County voters in 2013 it was defeated by a 53-47 percent margin.
Many in the public interpreted the vote as a mandate to demolish the stadium.
Emmett did not, because that public vote would have issued bonds, he said.
A long history
Construction on the Dome, officially known as the NRG Astrodome, began in the early 1960s and opened in 1965 with a packed stadium watching the Houston Astros.
President Lyndon B. Johnson attended that game as well. The Dome has been well-used in the past.
It was home to the Astros for almost 20 years, as as to the home to the Houston Oilers before they moved to Nashville. Tennessee.
The Astrodome was the primary venue of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well. When the grass died in the Dome, the stadium was the first major sports venue to install AstroTurf.
The Dome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000, and the Houston fire marshal’s office declared the Dome unfit for occupancy in 2009.
Emmett said that both the Houston Rodeo organization and the Houston Texans, who use the NRG stadium next door to the Astrodome are onboard with this Dome rehab plan.
“The Dome is the one thing that that generate revenue to help us do that,” Emmett said. “The Texans and the Rodeo are fully on board. They are all on board with this plan.”
Bettencourt said he’s not surprised the Harris County public were not allowed to vote.
“It’s not surprising because the country lost the last vote and lost it by seven points,” he said. “This is not a big ‘let the people vote’ outfit.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.