By Noe Barrios, Legislative Services Director, Texas Association of Counties
The 87th Texas Legislature is underway, and that means there is much work to be done to strengthen the state’s county governments and their ability to meet the unique needs of their communities. The Texas Association of Counties is actively engaged with state and federal leaders on the pressing issues facing counties, county officials and county staff.
TAC knows firsthand the challenges county governments face. TAC prides itself on being the voice of counties and is specifically designed for and driven by member services. Association staff work tirelessly to support counties as needs arise, and this is a promise the TAC Legislative Services staff will fulfill during the 87th Legislature and future sessions.
Over the course of this year’s session, the Legislative Services staff will track thousands of bills and provide an honest analysis. Heading into one of the most challenging legislative sessions to date, the team is a county official’s most trusted resource and source of information on legislative matters relating to county government. The Legislative Services team has over a century of cumulative legislative experience.
This session, legislators will need to address a substantial budget shortfall and the many issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as redistricting. Counties definitely have a stake in all of these issues, not to mention various others. Though the 87th Legislature is slated to be busy, the only constitutional duties every Legislature has is passing a biennial balanced budget and, after the publication of each United States decennial census, apportioning state senatorial, state representative and congressional districts, commonly referred to as redistricting. County officials, especially, know the impact the pandemic has had on their budgets. Currently, the state’s economy is being hit by both the pandemic and low oil prices, and this is driving down tax revenues.
In July 2020, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar projected a $4.6 billion deficit for the state’s current two-year budget, which ends in August 2021. In his January Biennial Revenue Estimate for 2022-23, Hegar reduced this estimated deficit to $1 billion, citing underestimated gains in tax receipts from online sales.
Pushing for Local Control
At times like these, when the Legislature is convening virtually and there are some unknowns, examining past trends from the state’s political landscape provides valuable insight. When George W. Bush was governor, local control was a tenet of his conservatism. He campaigned and governed on it. When Rick Perry, the son of a former county commissioner, was governor, there were fights over local control, but counties clearly had a voice. When Perry’s school finance plan included revenue caps, counties and cities spoke up. Schools ultimately received a finance plan that relied less on the property tax, and the battles over local control quieted down for a bit.
It’s interesting how history repeats itself, but these days it’s different. Today, there’s a more constant assault on local interests, and there are constraints on how tax dollars can be used or how much revenue can be raised without triggering a local election. In addition, there are attempts to shut down counties’ ability to participate in the process.
While the session looks a little different, the trend lines are clear. The dynamic is changing, and it is changing quickly in a positive way for counties. The outlook for state control over what Texas residents can and cannot do is unfavorable. Specifically, 62% of voters believe that an emergency response should be a local decision, while 23% of voters believe it should be under the governor’s control.
This session, legislators are planning to review executive powers during an emergency and the statutory authority of the governor. Legislators who were once silent on the issue of local control, and more concerned about property taxes, now may become loud allies on orders that preempt local decision-making. More and more legislators know counties need tools to save lives in unique local communities. For example, they know that the Hidalgo County judge needed the flexibility to enforce a stay-at-home order during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak in his county. Texas is a big state with diverse needs. Local control allows decisions that matter most to a community’s law enforcement, economic and public health efforts to be made by the governing body closest to its people.
Counties are entering the session on unsettled ground, but the ground is shifting in the right direction. In addition to the need for local control, another issue that the pandemic elevated is access to broadband.
Offering a Broadband Lifeline
Broadband internet is essential for every Texan. It can serve as a lifeline connecting sick patients to medical care locally unavailable. It also allows communities to provide telehealth programs and other services for inmate populations that are cost-effective.
Noting the importance of improving access, Gov. Greg Abbot has named broadband expansion an emergency legislative item this session. According to the governor's Broadband Development Council’s 2020 report, almost 1 million Texans do not have access to broadband at home. This issue has only been exacerbated during the pandemic as connectivity has become essential to follow public health guidelines for school closures and remote work. TAC is closely monitoring developments with the council and its work to establish a state broadband office. The council will also be developing funding programs to enhance broadband access in underserved areas.
The work of counties never stops, and neither does TAC’s. There are no easy answers to the decisions we face as a state in the coming months. But as history has shown, Texans do not shy away from a challenge.
TAC recognizes that strong state policy is best created when local and state officials work together. That’s why our Legislative Services staff works with all county officials, in every respective office, preparing them to collaborate with representatives and senators on issues that truly matter to all Texans. Local leaders have been, and always will be, the best resource in determining how legislation can be carried out effectively. Together, counties are #254Strong and can be successful in shifting the debate this legislative session.