Harris County could face delays in December runoffs, May 2023 elections due to the tax and budget crisis

Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum said his office is fully funded for the November elections, but it lacks the funds under the current budget to guarantee the next two elections will run smoothly.

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum speaking at Central Count inside NRG Arena, October 13, 2022
Daisy Espinoza/Houston Public Media
Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum speaking at Central Count inside NRG Arena, October 13, 2022

Harris County's tax and budget crisis may wind up impacting upcoming local elections after the midterms, as the county may run out of funds for election administration before the end of the year.

In a meeting about logistics and operations for the upcoming election, Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum told the Harris County Election Commission that his office has enough funds to run elections up through the November contests.

"(But) there was concern that if we are not reimbursed by all of the entities that we're conducting this election for, would we have enough funds to conduct the December runoff and the next May, May 2023 election?" Tatum said.

That’s because Tatum’s office may face cuts if county leaders fail to pass a new property tax rate.

Democrats on the commissioners court have been seeking to adopt a lower tax rate, but they have been unable to do so because the two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey have been boycotting court meetings for more than a month. State law requires at least four members of commissioners court be present to vote on tax-related matters. If the court is unable to take such a vote by October 28, the county's tax rate will default to one that allows no new revenue compared to the previous fiscal year.

That would force across-the-board cuts for county services. A county study of the impact of the "no new revenue rate" forecasts the Elections Administrator's office will have to cut the number of voting locations and clerks. It also projects longer wait times to calculate results, possibly causing the county to miss the state-mandated 24-hour deadline for ballot reporting.

Part of the problem, Tatum said, was that his office currently has 12 vacancies for full-time employees. "Under this existing budget," he said, "those positions are frozen, and as I understand the process, if we roll through the budget cycle with these positions frozen, then we're likely to forfeit these positions, which would be a killer for us. That would kill us."

Tatum asked, but did not receive an answer, about whether there was a mechanism for him to come back to the county government for additional funds if, as expected, his budget runs short.

"I can play in that sandbox," Tatum said, "Because I understand what you're doing and how it works, but I need the mechanism to come back if in fact this turns out not to be enough funding."