State of Texas: Rainy day fund dispute over Harvey recovery

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – Recovery efforts for Houston in the wake of Harvey were a little tense last week after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Gov. Greg Abbott butted heads over using the Rainy Day Fund to bolster recovery efforts.

Turner solicited the governor’s office, asking for Abbott to tap into the Rainy Day fund to allocate additional funding on top of the initial funding of $100 million in taxpayer money the city has received.

Abbott refused, stating he does not intend to tap into the Rainy Day Fund until the next legislative session in 2019 to recoup fiscal losses from the Hurricane Harvey. Things smoothed out by the end of the week after the governor and Turner reached an agreement at a meeting in Houston on Friday that ended with Abbott giving Turner a $50 million check funded from a disaster fund from his office.

Although things have patched up between the two for now, this argument sparked a wider discussion into how exactly is the Rainy Day Fund, officially known as The Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, supposed to be used, should the fund be used, and what precedent is there for taking money from the fund. The Rainy Day Fund is $10.2 billion emergency fund of which withdrawals must be approved by the legislature.

“If anything, there’s enough money in the system to where they can move things around now and then make good on that money when they come back in 2019,” Texas Tribune reporter Alana Rocha told KXAN’s Josh Hinkle on Sunday morning’s State of Texas program. “Ten billion in the scope of a $180 billion disaster is a drop in the bucket.” Rocha has been covering these discussions as they played out over the week.

“If everybody started putting dibs on certain chunks of the money on the Rainy Day Fund because their area contributes more or less, then that’s gonna get a statewide fight going,” Houston Chronicle reporter Michael Ward said in regards to Turner’s proclamation that Houston contributes significantly to the fund and therefore deserves a cut.

Both Rocha and Ward weighed in that it would be better for state officials to wait until the next legislative session in 2019 to appropriate funding from the Rainy Day Fund as calling a special session now would slow down recovery efforts while state legislators deliberate. “This is still a work in progress, this recovery effort, and to bring the legislature in now to have 181 people trying to tell you how you oughta spend money is probably just gonna drag the process out,” Ward said.

While the city of Houston works out funding for their recovery efforts, Dr. Keri Stephens at the University of Texas at Austin is taking a new approach to aiding emergency responses to natural disasters — by studying how social media helped saved lives during Hurricane Harvey.

When people couldn’t get anyone to respond to their calls for help, a lot of them turned to social media where people looking to help saw their stories and rescued them.

“As soon as things started happening, we started realizing that people were posting on social media using their own personal networks to call, especially when 9-1-1 went down,” Stephens said. “Then, we saw groups started self-organizing and started rescuing people themselves. It was a pretty exciting type of rescue because so much was done and people were working together.”

After a photo of elderly people submerged waist deep in waters that had flooded their nursing home went viral on social media, Stephens and a group of researchers proposed a project to examine examine how individuals in need of emergency help use social media, and in turn, how first-responders utilized social media alongside traditional 911 calls when dispatching help. The project received $168,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and will begin Oct. 1. Stephens and her team will be on the ground interviewing people to identify specific characteristics of calls that disaster victims used when requesting help so that emergency personnel can locate and reach individuals faster for future natural disasters.

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