A Look at Team TAC

The Legislative Services Division

By Joel Nihlean

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The Legislative Services Division Works for Counties Year-Round 

With the 86th session of the Texas Legislature nearly upon us, TAC’s Legislative Services Division has a few new faces, but the same mission.

In May 2018, TAC Executive Director Gene Terry announced that the Association’s Legal and Legislative departments would merge under the leadership of TAC General Counsel and former Real County Judge Garry Merritt.

“This change will allow us to make better use of the resources in both departments and allow for seamless collaboration among the staff,” said Terry. “We have much to do as we prepare for the 2019 session. This new alignment will allow us to more efficiently meet the demands going forward and apply all available resources to the task.”

And, for the Legislative Services Division, that’s no small task.

But many hands make light work, and there are new hands on staff to help. The TAC Legislative Services Division recently gained the expertise of Sen. Craig Estes’ former chief of staff Noe Barrios, and two former House County Affairs Committee Director Kelsey Bernstein and Katy Reagen. Both joined TAC shortly before the annual Legislative Conference in August.

“Working twenty five years for both a House and Senate member at the Texas Capitol have taught me the best ideas to address issues in our communities come from local community leaders. Central planning did not work well for the Soviet Union and it does not work well in Austin,” Senior Legislative Manager Noe Barrios said.

Beyond producing events throughout the year like the annual Legislative Conference, Counties at the Capitol, County Government Day, the County Issues Lunch and Learn series for Capitol staffers, Tuesday Morning Breakfasts for county officials during the session, and the Legislative Exchange Regionals — a sort of listening tour where the Legislative Services Division hears from county officials about their concerns and goals for the upcoming legislative session — members of the Legislative Services Division shoulder many other duties.

They promote county interests by serving on state and federal advisory committees and workgroups, assist the Legislature and state agencies with understanding the effects of legislation and state agency rule changes on county operations, and monitor federal legislative and regulatory activities that affect Texas counties. The list goes on.

“There’s no rest for the weary,” said TAC Senior Legislative Manager Rick Thompson. “There’s a mountain of work and we approach it as a team, knowing the work we do on behlaf of counties affects every Texan.”

As each legislative session approaches, the team at TAC gets busy reading through an avalanche of bills — more than 7,000 — that are filed each session. They’ll spend months reviewing them, analyzing changes that are made, tracking them through the legislative process and providing legislators with the county perspective.

With thousands of bills, it’s no surprise that there isn’t always a unified perspective across all offices of the courthouse. TAC represents every office within the courthouse, despite not always seeing eye-to-eye on an issue. When one county officials’ association has opposing views from another, the Legislative Services Division works to find common ground, steering clear of conflict and putting the best interest of the individual associations first.

The Legislative team acts as liaisons to the associations that represent each county office. Each team member works with a specific association, immersing themselves in the issues most directly affecting that office. During session, that means walking the Capitol corridors, meeting with legislators and advocating for their association’s needs. It means being in constant contact with county officials, attending and even testifying at committee hearings, and making critical personal connections with key players at the Capitol.

In the interim, the frenetic pace from session may slow some, but the work is no less vital.

“During the interim, we’re constantly preparing for the legislative session. We travel to county official conferences, regional meetings and make other county related and legislator visits. Our team attends hearings, meets with staff and members at the Capitol and professional contacts elsewhere. We update issue briefs and reports to explain these issues – there’s something new every day said," said TAC Legislative Manager Aurora Flores.

The County Information Program (CIP) team works to provide hard numbers and data-driven analysis of the issues and bills being tracked. As a part of this effort, CIP works closely with the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) to identify the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation.

The CIP expects to provide fiscal notes on several hundred bills during the session. The analysis of the potential costs can mean the difference between a bill moving forward in the process or dying in a committee. As the session picks up speed by mid-March, CIP may only have a matter of days, or even just a few hours, to gather the requested information.

“The information we provide to LBB for fiscal notes comes almost exclusively from county officials,” said TAC CIP Senior Analyst Tim Brown. “Far more often than not, they are the only ones who have the detailed information needed to adequately estimate the financial impact of a bill. But, they provide more than just data. Not only is every county unique, they often have very unique ways of conforming to state and federal mandates. As a result, we have to rely on county officials to tell us how a bill will impact their county – because it will impact every county in a slightly different way. Without the knowledge and insight they provide about their individual counties, we could not accurately estimate the fiscal impact of these bills.”

CIP also works to gather data from numerous other state agencies, county human resource directors, election administrators, road engineers and others from across the state to assemble the mosaic of data points that paint a picture on the issues for the public, legislators and state and federal officials. They produce maps, graphs and regular reports like the TAC Salary Survey and the Unfunded Mandates Survey.

TAC’s Core Legislative Group (CLG), comprised of county officials from every office and every corner of the state, is led by former Van Zandt County Judge Rhita Koches. These county officials advocate not just on behalf of their county and their communities, but on behalf of all 254 counties.

“Our goal is for every county official to be on a first-name basis with their legislators,” said Koches. “We want members to readily take a call from their fellow elected officials back home. But, we also want legislators to think of those local county officials as their first call for information about the impact of a particular piece of legislation. No one is better qualified to explain the effects of legislation on county property taxpayers than county officials who live with those consequences every day.”

Koches travels the state, working to coordinate events with county officials and legislators to help build and strengthen relationships between the two groups.

County officials who are interested in learning more about the CLG or joining can visit www.county.org/CLG.

“We have a team that is second to none. They’re subject matter experts with good judgment and political savvy — they have extensive knowledge of the players, the process, the procedures, the rules and the calendars. Collectively, we carry message of the county officials of Texas. ‘Persistent but respectful’ is our way — the county way — of working,” Thompson said.

The 86th session of the Texas Legislature will gavel in on Jan. 8, 2019.

“We have a great team representing counties out at the Capitol this session. There’s a lot of expertise and a lot of talent,” said Legal and Legislative Services Director and General Counsel Garry Merritt. “But I mean it when I say the most important players on our team are the county officials who get engaged and stay involved in the legislative process. Our whole staff is here to support their efforts.”