Bettencourt: Straus blocked chance for Harris County public to vote on Astrodome fate

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(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan,)

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.

44 COMMENTS

  1. Bettencourt blocked any and all help for public education. Harming public education and the people who spend their lives serving the state’s children is worse than contributing to some minor decision about an ancient sporting venue in ONE city.

  2. I distinctly remember voting on this issue years ago. The voting public said No to the Astrodome. Apparently, this was not the result the county wanted as we’ve all heard proposals about what to do with it. Why would we have another vote if the county refuses to accept the vote? Doesn’t seem like spite from a political opponent, sounds like refusal to accept the will of the people. We do not want to pay for any renovations. Why keep pushing this?

  3. All for 1400 covered and exclusive parking spaces…

    The math worked out to about $75K per spot…Back when the plan was first floated out there…

    We keep hearing that the public will not be paying for this renovation…

    That sound you hear is me NOT holding my breath…

    Hope someone pressure washes the outside of that structure…Looking kinda gnarly…

    HLSR folks will be parking in a really nice place when it’s all done…Talk to them of you wanna park in there…I bet there’s a shuttle service thatll git you where you need to go…door to door and back again…

    Either that or a valet service…

    Nice!!!

    • U mad bro? If you want to be genuinely mad, be angry it took them twenty years to approve this plan which was originally pitched before they ever laid a brick for Reliant Stadium back in the late 90’s.

  4. Houston voted to tear it down several years ago but Ed Emmett didn’t like the results of the people so he just ignored the citizens, the will of the people mean nothing to these clowns.

    • Absolutely false. No such vote ever occurred. Voters rejected a bond issue with tax increase in 2013. At no point was anything about demolition ever on the ballot. These lies have to stop.

    • Show me where in this ballot language it says ANYTHING about demolition: “FOR OR AGAINST: THE ISSUANCE OF $217,000,000.00 HARRIS COUNTY ASTRODOME REDEVELOPMENT BONDS AND THE LEVYING OF AN ADDITIONAL SEPARATE AD VALOREM TAX IN PAYMENT THEREOF WHICH IS ANTICIPATED TO INCREASE TAX RATES WITHIN SAID COUNTY.”

    • Joe Stinebaker I could of sworn M. Berry had talked about it but maybe not, but regardless we as tax payers keep throwing money at something that needs to be torn down, Houston has plenty of convention venues without spending a bunch of taxpayers money just to satisfy Ed Emmett’s obsession with this outdated eye sore.

    • In fact you said that yourself right after the election:

      From CNN (it won’t let me post the link without marking the comment as spam):

      “Harris County Judge Ed Emmett “said that with voters rejecting the only viable public option and no viable private option on the table, there’s little choice but to demolish the dome,” the judge’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said.

      However, nothing can happen until the county commission meets and votes to go ahead with the demolition. The item has not been added to the commission’s agenda, but it could happen as early as next Tuesday.

      A majority of the commissioners had said that if the proposition failed, that they would favor demolition.”

  5. He helped saved our treasure just like Judge Emmett. We are glad they understand and helped us keep the Eight Wonder of The World and preserve our History for all time. Sorry you do not care.

  6. If Paul Bettencourt cares so much about the voters, why did he run for re-election as tax assessor in 2008 and then quit a month later? Where is the money from the state Rainy Day Fund he promised for the third reservoir. Why doesn’t he do HIS job instead of criticizing everyone else’s?

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