An interview with Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and remarks by state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) highlighted this year's Counties at the Capitol Legislative Day on Tuesday, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Phelan and Hughes discussed several top issues of interest to counties, including broadband internet access, which each pointed to as a legislative priority.
Gov. Greg Abbott also strongly supports broadband expansion. He designated it as an emergency legislative item in his Feb. 1 State of the State address.
More than 400 county officials registered for Counties at the Capitol. TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford noted that the event underscores TAC's important role as a communication and education arm for counties, and as a bridge between county officials and state legislators.
"There is strength in numbers, and counties are better when we work together," Redford said.
The day's keynote was a conversation between Phelan and Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick. In the interview, which was recorded before severe winter weather caused widespread power outages and shut off water for millions of Texans, Phelan called COVID-19 "a kind of disrupter" that "showed us our weaknesses and our strengths throughout Texas." One of the weaknesses exposed by the pandemic, Phelan said, "is connectivity, whether it's telemedicine or whether it's public education."
"It's an issue. It has to be confronted. And this is the session to do it," Phelan said. "I would say the most bipartisan issue right now we're probably going to have is a broadband plan for the state of Texas."
Branick and Phelan have worked together over the past several years to help Jefferson County withstand and overcome hurricanes, floods and a chemical plant explosion, as well as the pandemic. Their discussion also touched on mental health issues and moving beyond the stigma often attached to them, the economic impact of COVID-19, local control and whether counties should use public money to advocate for their interests.
Phelan told Branick that county officials should be able to work together to contribute an effective voice on bills that affect them. "That's important and, quite frankly, it's more efficient than having all the elected officials traveling on the county dime up to Austin to testify on legislation when you can have a representative from TAC do that for you."
Phelan said he would let the legislative process takes its course on so-called taxpayer-funded lobbying. He said his main priorities included passing a balanced budget, as required by the Texas Constitution, and redistricting.
In his remarks, recorded Monday, Hughes acknowledged that county and other local officials rely on organizations like TAC to help them research and monitor legislation that affects them and their budgets. But he noted "that most Texans, when asked, are not in favor of taxpayer dollars paying to hire lobbyists."
The Legislature would address the issue, Hughes said. "We want to do it in a smart and thoughtful way that fits the needs of Texans while letting government do its important work," he added.
As chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, Hughes leads the panel charged with many proposals affecting Texas counties. He thanked county officials for their response to last week's extreme weather and reassured them that he would seek their input on a variety of issues this session.
In addition to the lobbying issue, Hughes specifically mentioned election reforms, COVID-19 liability protections, redistricting, and police procedures and funding. And like Phelan, he sounded an optimistic note on broadband expansion, offering a rural perspective.
"We've been beating that drum for a long time," Hughes said, "but a lot of folks didn't really see the need. I don't have to tell you that now, after COVID-19, with relying on internet for school and for work and for so many other things, that every Texan has got the message now that broadband, rural broadband, is important."