Houston Matters

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Discusses Voting Rights, COVID-19 On Houston Matters

During an interview on Houston Matters Tuesday, Hidalgo also discussed the Astrodome, contracts for minority and women-owned businesses, and other issues of concern for Harris County residents.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a community vaccination site on April 1, 2021.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo joined Houston Matters on Tuesday morning, in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on voting rights, the county’s response to COVID-19, and more.

In the interview, which came the same day the U.S. Senate was set to consider federal voting legislation, Hidalgo criticized state Republicans to trying to pass their own voting legislation she has characterized as suppression.

The For The People Act, which Congressional Democrats said would protect voting by setting standards for elections, was a response to legislative efforts from states like Texas.

“More than anything, I would like these attempts to make policy based on the lie that there was massive voter fraud to stop,” Hidalgo said. “I welcome legislation at the federal level that will keep these kinds of policies from passing.”

Listen to the entire interview, from Tuesday’s Houston Matters:

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Hidalgo expressed concern about Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to slash the Texas legislature’s funding after House Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the legislative session to block the passing of Senate Bill 7, which critics said would have amounted to voter suppression.

The GOP-backed bill would have targeted several election procedures enacted by Harris County, such as 24-hour voting, drive-thru voting, and mail-in voting.

Hidalgo said the governor’s decision might lead to a court battle, where she said the move would likely be found to be “illegal and unconstitutional.”

The Houston Matters interview also comes after the county received zero dollars in federal Hurricane Harvey relief funds from the state’s General Land Office last month. That decision was later reversed by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who promised $750 million would be sent to Harris County specifically.

Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion flood bond in 2018, with the expectation of receiving at least $1 billion in federal relief, Hidalgo said. She added that she was happy about the reversal, but that the amount was simply not enough — the county and city are both pushing for $1 billion in federal relief funds each.

“We just want this funding that we can use it to match our flood bonds, and that we deserve because of the impact we had from Harvey,” she said.

During the more than 25-minute interview, Hidalgo said she hoped to soon focus her attention on a number of other initiatives, including increasing competition for county contracting, with an emphasis on equity. Hidalgo acknowledged that firms owned by women or minorities obtain a disproportionately low percentage of county work.

“The county gives… hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts,” she said. “Many times, they go to the same firms.”

One caller asked if the county would tear down the Astrodome, after Harris County voters decided in 2013 to not invest more than $200 million into the aging facility.

Hidalgo said county officials invested more than $100 million into the building anyway. However, once she took office, Hidalgo said she found that the money wouldn’t do much.

“You wouldn't end up with finishes for the walls, you wouldn't have had air conditioning,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been a finished building."

The building can’t be torn down, since it was classified as a historic landmark. Instead, the county judge pointed to the work of the Astrodome Conservancy, a group that has taken the lead on the building’s conservation by using privately raised funds.

Hidalgo also gave an update on COVID-19 in the region, voicing concern about a more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that researchers fear may trigger more serious illness.

Hidalgo added that the vaccine is the best defense against the more contagious variants of the virus, and said more than 58% of Harris County residents over the age of 12 have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

While the full impact of the new variant is not yet known, Hidalgo said things were moving in the right direction as the county’s COVID-19 indicators, such as number of hospitalizations and number of active cases, have steadily decreased recently.

"We're very close to turning the corner completely on this pandemic, and the way to do it is through the vaccine,” Hidalgo said.

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