The Texas Association of Counties Celebrates 50 Years

We look back at TAC’s 50 years, beginning with the Legal and Legislative Services

By Joel Nihlean

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Like all great innovations, TAC was born of necessity. 

In 1963, an unfunded mandate from the 58th Legislature caught counties by surprise. Surprises from the Legislature were far too common back then, and at times, confusing and costly. 

The surprise was later described as a tipping point by Navarro County Judge Kenneth A. “Buck” Douglas and numerous other county officials. Their budgets were disrupted by a new requirement to supplement juvenile judge salaries to the tune of $4,000. 

In 1963 dollars, “that was a lot,” recalled Douglas in a 1994 interview with County magazine. It may not sound like much, but in today’s dollars that unfunded mandate was about $33,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“As far as my own county was concerned, it might have been okay with me, but what bothered me was that they passed it without asking the counties,” Douglas told County. “We didn’t know a damn thing about it.”

That need for better communication and partnership with the Legislature is what convinced many county officials that an association of counties, something beyond the individual associations that represented each office, was necessary.  

At the time, there was no unified voice in Texas to speak on behalf of the institution of county government or the officials that served their communities. However, independent associations representing each of the offices of the courthouse did exist. The Sheriff’s Association of Texas is the oldest, assembled in 1874 at the call of McLennan County Sheriff Sul Ross, who later became Gov. Ross. Most of the other associations formed in the early part of the 20th century.

Without a unifying structure, the voices representing each office of the courthouse were often uncoordinated. The autonomy only caused confusion “without any coming together at the top,” according a letter written by a businessman at the time in support of the legislation that created TAC  “… when our lawmakers inquire from one of the county officials’ associations as to what is needed for county government, they get one set of answers, and when they inquire from another county association, they get another set of answers,” the letter went on.

“You’ve got all these different offices with different needs and interests, and you’ve got rural and urban interests, and they don’t always line up,” former TAC Executive Director Karen Norris said who served from 2007-2009. “One of the huge successes of TAC over the years was being able to keep all the county groups aligned and together on certain issues.”  

The idea of an association to act as a voice for county government was hardly a radical idea in 1963 — 46 other states had already organized similar institutions — but the creation of TAC faced an uphill battle. 

The post-war shift towards urbanization precipitated mergers in local governments across the country. In Florida, city and county governments like Miami and Dade County were merged in the late 1950s; Connecticut outright abolished counties in 1959; and a dozen more city and county consolidations occurred across the U.S. over the next decade. 

Former Dallas County Treasurer and later State Treasurer Warren G. Harding told County magazine in a 25th anniversary retrospective that Texas Gov. John Connally stirred the Texas pot in 1965, asking the Texas Research League (TRL) to take a look into urban counties. 

Funded by business interests, TRL was a precursor to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association (TTARA). The group studied “local government structures and the services in metropolitan areas of Texas,” according to the report that was eventually issued.

This got the sometimes-rivalrous courthouse officials pointed in the same direction like iron filings to a magnet. 

Among other things, TRL’s study proposed that the state create a special category of “urban county” that would have city-like ordinance authority. It also recommended larger commissioners courts of up to nine members for urban counties, and perhaps of most interest to county officials, the report proposed holding local referenda to replace elected officials with appointed administrators.

In 1967, the TRL recommendations manifested as two proposed constitutional amendments and five bills. A small group of county officials were now regularly working the halls of the Capitol. W.D. Henson and Bill Owens spent at least two days of every week in Austin during the legislative session working on a modest but important agenda.

“Bill, a county commissioner from Gregg County at Longview, and W.D. Henson, the county judge from Dallam County at Dalhart, made the most unlikely but highly effective pair,” former TAC Executive Director Sam Seale wrote once in County magazine. Bill, a small man in size and W.D., a tall stately individual who looked remarkably like President Dwight Eisenhower, spent an enormous amount of time, talent and effort in the state capitol.”

Henson and Owens focused on three bills that session. They successfully shepherded the bill setting up the County and District Retirement System (TCDRS) through the process to passage. They also promoted a bill establishing an organization of counties, and they educated legislators about counties’ objections to a bill strengthening regional councils of government (COGs). 

Former Harris County Commissioner E.A. “Squatty” Lyons Jr. told County magazine in 1994 that the COG proposal was seen at the time as “the camel’s nose under the tent” in the context of TRL’s proposals. Henson and Owens’ opposition to the COG bill cost them.

The bill creating an association of counties in Texas was killed in retribution for opposition to the COG bill. 

“It appears rather petty and vindictive that the counties should be denied the urgent legislation necessary to establish an organization similar to the Municipal League just for the sake of revenge, but that’s the way the game is played,” Owens explained in his County Judges and Commissioners of Texas presidential address the following year. 

Owens was not deterred. During the interim, he continued to work to create an association of counties. The first issue of “Treasury Notes,” the County Treasurers Association of Texas newsletter, noted that Owens addressed the treasurers’ annual meeting in 1967, “and briefly hinted about the prevalent complexities of county government and about his unique idea of a Texas organization of counties which would be an instrument of dissolving many county problems simply by unified efforts to solve and upgrade by education and comprehensive legislative action.”

When the 1969 legislative session rolled around, county officials were ready to make another run at it. Sen. Ralph Hall, a former Rockwall County Judge and a past president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, was recruited to carry the county association bill again. It was known as Senate Bill 167.

Hall, who went on to serve more than three decades in Congress, made SB 167 a priority that session. He’d successfully carried the bill creating TCDRS, as well as measures for various associations, but creating a whole new association would be a heavy lift.

Hall assigned two of his staff to the task of passing the bill. Donna Andrews (later Andrews Conn), who worked as clerk of the Local and Uncontested Committee, was a veteran of the Legislature and knew how the sausage was made. Cay Braziel (later Braziel-House) served as clerk of the County, District and Urban Affairs Committee. She was new to the Legislature, but she came directly from the world of county government. Both her mother and father had served as Rains County judge, and she is the great-great-granddaughter of Emory Rains, namesake of Rains County.

After a relatively easy time in the Texas Senate, the bill found skeptics in the House. Hall and the House sponsors smoothed things over by agreeing to an amendment that prohibited the new association of counties from engaging in lobbying or promoting any candidate for office.

Braziel-House recalled nervously watching final passage of SB 167 from the floor of the Texas House of Representatives with Andrews Conn. “When the voting lights came on, it was so red we thought it had failed,” she told County magazine in 1994. 

But in the end, there were enough votes for it to pass. 

When the 1969 legislative session finally ended, Braziel-House and Andrews Conn stood alongside Sen. Hall, Judge Henson and Commissioner Owens, along with the House sponsors, representatives Bill Clayton, Dean Cobb and Henry Sanchez, as Gov. Preston Smith signed SB 167 into law. 

With the enabling legislation passed, county officials got to work organizing the new Association. A few weeks later, on June 19, 1969, the presidents and designated representatives of the 11 county official associations gathered at the Baker Hotel in Dallas. The bill was read aloud to all who gathered there, and Hall was introduced as a “true friend” of county government according to the meeting minutes.

“I know real work is being done to promote better government, but it is not being conveyed to the Senate.” County Progress magazine reported Hall saying, “There is lost each year some of our precious rights due to the gradual chipping away at them in Austin. I would like for you to have someone there to represent 90 percent of the government.”

The group initially called their new organization the Texas Association of County Officials, or TACO, but later dropped the O in favor of being the Texas Association of Counties.

The meeting continued with the laying out of the TAC constitution, detailing the purpose of the Association: 
• To coordinate and augment the efforts of county officials to provide a responsive form of government to the people of Texas; 
• To further the interest of local government for the people of Texas; and 
• To assist the people and the counties in accomplishing their goals toward meeting the challenge of modern society. 
The group also spelled out the new organization’s duties. Pursuant to the provisions described in SB167, the Baker Hotel meeting minutes read in part:
“The new association will try to help coordinate the activities and needs of all elected officials, do research, hold seminars and give legal help.”
“The new organization will help harmonize the relations between the counties and the state. It should be an effective instrumentality for cooperation between the state government and counties.”

“To function as intended, the organization will speak for all county officials … an organization where all association could flow to the Legislature.”

With the detail work done, the group looked for leaders. Henson and Owens had already spent two sessions working with the Legislature and appeared a natural fit. Henson was elected as TAC’s first president, and Owens was made acting executive director. 

By the time the next session rolled around in 1971, counties had official representation at the Capitol. A trailer house at the edge of Austin served as TAC’s first office, and as sleeping quarters for Henson and Owens when they were in town. Owens also maintained a “poor boy” office in his hometown of Gladewater, receiving the Association’s mail at a P.O. Box there.

A year later, TAC found a home off Interstate 35 in rented office space. It was a few minutes’ drive from the Capitol. In those early days, Henson and Owens wore a lot of different hats. They did the fledgling association’s legal and legislative work, its communications work, its membership drives and outreach, and anything else that needed doing.

In 1973, Kenneth A. “Buck” Douglas, who in 1963 was convinced by that surprise unfunded mandate of TAC’s necessity, became the Association’s first paid executive director. His tenure marked a rapid professionalization of the organization. 

“The first thing I did was to get organized to get out a weekly newsletter about the Legislature,” Douglas wrote in 25th anniversary recollections about his time with TAC, “Every bill introduced in the House and Senate was gone over by me to determine how it affected county government, if it did, directly or indirectly.”

Click timeline to enlarge.

Then, as today, TAC did not lobby the Legislature. TAC worked to connect county officials with their Legislators, helping to strengthen relationships between counties and the state. 

“Since TAC was prohibited by law from lobbying, it was necessary to use the phones to get county officials to fight the bad bills and support the good bills,” Douglas wrote.

That year, TAC also began sponsoring a legislative reception each session of the Legislature. To this day, legislative receptions provide the opportunity for county officials, TAC staff, legislators and Capitol staffers the opportunity to get acquainted, and forge and strengthen relationships.

Membership lagged in the early days. When Douglas took over, about 150 counties belonged to the Association. But by 1975, all 254 counties had joined.

Unlike today’s two-dozen-staff strong Legislative and Legal Services Division, TAC’s nascent legislative and legal staff was never more than a handful of people during the 70s and 80s. And many wore other hats, too. The lines between legislative work, education, communications and membership were blurred if there at all. But what TAC staff lacked in numbers in the early days, they made up for in a respected reputation at the Texas Legislature.

That respect at the Capitol helped TAC as an effective messenger for county government. It earned TAC legislative sponsorship on issues important to counties. Sam Clonts, TAC president 1976-77 and executive director from 1977 to 1987, told County magazine in 1989 that TAC had “gained respect from the Legislature” in their dealing with health care issues. 

The year that Douglas took over the Association, the 63rd Texas Legislature passed the Workers’ Compensation Act. The legislation was a reaction to a set of federal guidelines and recommendations about workers compensation. 

Counties and other local government entities were now required to change the way they provided workers’ compensation benefits to their employees. It added new costs for counties. They would need to purchase insurance policies or self-insure. 

The private market didn’t know what to make of cities, counties and school districts. Were counties a high risk because of the number of employees engaged in dangerous work like law enforcement, or lower risk because of the more clerical jobs? There wasn’t enough actuarial data for the private market to determine if counties were a good bet or not. 

For TAC, it was an opportunity. 

The legislation as part of the Act enabled counties to “pool” their resources. Counties could now join together to cover workers’ compensation claims, spreading out their risk. 

Moments like this were why TAC was conceived. The Association began the work of how it could best serve counties. 

According to Douglas, the executive directors of the Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of School Boards and TAC met several times the following year numerous times to determine what would be involved in setting up pools for their respective associations. They discussed the legal particulars of how their associations would handle re-insurance programs, job safety and other factors that could mitigate risk, keep claims low, and losses down to save counties and taxpayers money. 

In 1974, a board was appointed by the TAC board to assist in getting the pool up and running and encourage counties to join. The Workers’ Compensations Self-Insurance Pool was TAC’s first major expansion to meet the needs of county government. 

“There is no end to the services such an organization could render,” Judge Henson said, according to the minutes of the first meeting at the Baker Hotel in Dallas.

The lessons learned in these early days precipitated decades of growth to meet the needs of counties with health benefits and risk services, new education programs, communications products like County magazine and social media channels, so much more.

“This association can be just as strong as we make it,” Henson said as they closed the meeting that created TAC. Fifty years later, it’s still true.