HOUSTON — After Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state in 2017, Texas counties, naturally, started asking about federal funds to help rebuild and prevent such disasters in the future.
Billions of dollars have arrived since.
But, who is receiving the money has led to controversy and outrage.
U.S. Rep. Al Green (TX-09) says the disaster relief plan has become a disaster in and of itself. And the Democrat from Houston calls it “regrettable” because people are still suffering all of these years later.
“Houston, Harris County: over a trillion gallons of water. It was the epicenter. Yet, one of the plans actually zeroed out Houston. Zeroed out Harris County,” Green said on Inside Texas Politics.
Congress allocated more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness funding to the state of Texas. Well over half of that was meant for projects in areas damaged by Harvey.
Gov. Greg Abbott gave the job of coming up with a distribution plan to the General Land Office (GLO) and Commissioner George P. Bush.
But, according to Congressman Green and an investigation by The Texas Tribune, the commissioner’s plan is sending too much of the money to inland counties far away from the coast. And the federal department of Housing and Urban Development has accused the GLO of discriminating against Black and Hispanic Texans.
Watch the segment below:
In one example, The Texas Tribune reported Coryell County would receive nearly $3.5 million under the plan. Not one home was damaged by Harvey in Coryell County. And the county itself is 220 miles from the Gulf Coast. That’s about the distance between Dallas and Houston.
The Texas Tribune also reports that after the initial round of fund distribution last year, under Commissioner Bush’s formula, the city of Houston received zero dollars. The federal government gave the General Land Office time to correct the issue.
And while Houston and Harris County received more funding during a second round of distribution, Green and The Texas Tribune investigation say the same problems exist and coastal residents who truly need the aid are being shortchanged yet again.
“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”
Bush will face Attorney General Ken Paxton in a runoff for the Republican nomination for Attorney General on May 24. And some Democrats say politics are the reason behind the funding disparity. The Texas Tribune reports that the inland counties who will benefit most from the disaster aid are “significantly whiter and more conservative” than those receiving the least amount of aid.
Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.
The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.
“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.
Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.
Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.
"If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended," Green said.
Texas Tribune investigation: New Texas plan for federal Harvey aid again diverts money away from coast | The Texas Tribune