New Senate bill puts hurdle in front of Harris County’s plans to repurpose Astrodome

Updated March 31

The Texas Senate unanimously approved a bill March 29 that, if signed into law, would prevent Harris County from moving forward with a new Astrodome repurposing plan without voter approval.

Senate Bill 884 was introduced Feb. 15 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. Dubbed by Whitmire’s office as the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, SB 884 would require Harris County to obtain voter approval for any improvement or redevelopment to the facility costing $10 million or more.

“Simply stated, it will require the county, before they go forward and spend over $100 million on refurbishing the Dome, that they go back and get voter approval,” Whitmire said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the legislation is an example of state government making it difficult for local government to do its job.

Last fall, Commissioners Court approved a new $105 million Astrodome renovation project, which involves raising the facility’s floor 30 feet to ground level, providing 9 acres of open space for events and adding two levels of underground parking.

County officials said the proposal—for which the architectural engineering contract was awarded in mid-February—would not involve a property tax increase; instead, it would be funded evenly through the county’s general fund, hotel occupancy tax funds and parking enterprise funds.

Although Whitmire said his legislation would respect the taxpayers’ voices, Emmett said the existing plan for the Astrodome is far different from the 2013 bond proposal.

“The county was ready to undertake a comprehensive analysis of future operation and maintenance needs at NRG Park, but that cannot go forward until we have certainty about the role of the Astrodome,” Emmett said.

Emmett said demolishing the Astrodome would cost at least $30 million, which would in turn result in taxpayers bearing more of the costs of maintaining and upgrading NRG Stadium.

“I would much rather use property taxes to fund flood control efforts, mental health initiatives, transportation improvements and other programs that improve daily life,” Emmett said. “I urge Senator Whitmire and his colleagues to focus on the real needs of Texas and allow government to do its job.”

Whitmire said the 2013 election still governs in his world.

“With the dire problems we have of homes flooding, too few deputies, roads are still in disrepair, no homeless shelter, a mental health system that needs attention, I have to represent my constituents and go back and say get voter approval,” Whitmire said. “Honor the previous election before you engage on such an endeavor.”

Additional Reporting by Shawn Arrajj