More than 500 county officials and staff members from across Texas gathered in Austin Sept. 1-3 to catch up, celebrate and network during the Texas Association of Counties' (TAC) 2021 Legislative Conference. Nearly 300 others participated online as the hybrid event — a first in conference history — delved into actions taken by the 87th Texas Legislature and how they affect county government and local taxpayers.
Attendees mingled camaraderie with serious business.Vendors filled the conference's exhibit hall, county officials took advantage of a rotating series of tutorials on building and maintaining relationships with local media, and TAC's Legislative Consultants moderated informative sessions with county officials, state lawmakers and subject-area experts who focused on elections, redistricting, property tax reform, broadband expansion and several other topics of importance to counties. Comal County Treasurer and TAC President Renee Couch and TAC Executive Director Susan Redford presided over the conference's opening general session. Redford introduced National Association of Counties (NACo) President Larry Johnson, a commissioner in DeKalb County, Georgia, to his Texas counterparts. Johnson praised the partnership between TAC and NACo that Couch and Redford have fostered. "NACo is with you, for you," he told the assembled crowd.
‘Be loud and clear in Austin’
TAC Legislative Director Noe Barrios followed and presented Couch with a resolution from the Texas Senate honoring her service as TAC president. Singling out the state's continuing scrutiny over local government as an example of how this year's legislative session was one of the most challenging he's experienced, Barrios compared county officials to Theodore Roosevelt's "man in the arena" to reinforce the central role county government plays in the lives of Texas taxpayers.
Barrios called on county officials to "be loud and clear in Austin." The voters who elect county officials are the same voters who elect state representatives and senators, he said, and there is nothing more effective than when a legislator hears from a county official.
The conference's keynote speaker, Evan Smith, the CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune and former editor and vice president of Texas Monthly, offered an energetic, occasionally provocative perspective on Texas lawmaking informed by his deep experience covering the Legislature. Saying that he has never seen the partisan divide at the Capitol as wide as it now is, Smith traced the path state politics have taken over the past five years to give context to this year's regular and special sessions "in which Republicans not only were in charge, they were metaphysically in charge." The rancor between parties — and in some cases within parties — has put the future of our Legislature and how legislators get along with each other up in the air, Smith said.
Smith also described rural Texas as "the difference maker" in statewide elections, bemoaned the politicization of the pandemic and quickly surveyed the results of the 2020 census, noting that "the era of demographic inevitability is upon us." And he delivered one of the biggest laughs of the conference when he noted that Texas lawmakers had refused to take any step toward legalizing marijuana use despite polls showing popular support for doing so — and despite recent moves by other conservative states such as Oklahoma to loosen their own marijuana laws.
"Oklahoma is now Tokelahoma!" Smith joked. As the laughter subsided, Smith wryly noted how that line has yet to fail him with Texas audiences no matter how many times he's repeated it.
The state remains in the shadow of COVID-19, and the pandemic's imprint on many of the session topics throughout the three-day conference often popped up in ways large and small. During the panel discussion on criminal justice reforms, for example, state Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Kerrville) pointed to the pandemic-induced trial backlog facing counties and the strain it has placed on resources. “That bubble is going to take up to five years to pass through the system,” he said.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was a topic of intense interest. The act established the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, out of which Texas counties are eligible to receive a total of $5.7 billion in direct payments from the U.S. Treasury Department. TAC dedicated two sessions to helping counties untangle ARPA. In one, Brett Mattson, NACo’s associate legislative director for justice and public safety, decoded some of the rules and guidance that Treasury has issued thus far and offered examples of recommended best practices. His slide presentation is available for download on TAC's American Rescue Plan Information & Resources page on www.county.org.
In the other ARPA session, held on the conference's final day, Barrios moderated a panel of four county officials who shared their ARPA experiences and plans. Wise County Judge J.D. Clark encouraged officials to approach their use of ARPA money in a thoughtful, impactful way. "The reason the money was sent to us directly was because we were seen as officials who could put it to best use, so use it wisely," he said.
Tom Green County Auditor and TAC President-Elect Nathan Cradduck reflected on the event's theme, "Stronger Together," in his closing-session remarks, underscoring that counties are better prepared to help one another when they learn from one another. TAC's annual conference aims to facilitate those connections. By all responses seen and heard, the aim was met.
But the work of county government knows no end. Attendees were already looking ahead to next year's conference as they exchanged goodbyes and well wishes and either signed off online or began their return to their home counties.
Mark Barron contributed to this report.
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