County officials descended on Austin. (L-R) Henderson County Commissioner Wayne McKinney, Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston, Cherokee County Commissioner Byron Underwood, Senator Lucio, Henderson County Judge Hugh Taylor, Trinity County Commissioner Tiger Worsham and Garza County Judge Lee Norman. Senator Lucio presents Commissioner Worsham a gavel to commemorate his past service as President of State Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas. Photo by TAC Legislative Liaison Aurora Flores.
More than 130 county officials got up early and made the trek to Austin for TAC’s Counties at the Capitol event on Jan. 24. The event focused on bridging the worlds of the courthouse and Capitol through conversations between legislators and county officials about their shared service to the people of Texas.
After brief introductions from TAC Executive Director Gene Terry and Legislative Director Paul Sugg, where they outlined some of the daunting challenges counties could face this session, the event got underway with a legislative breakfast and talks from Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) and Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso).
“There is nothing like face-to-face communication, there’s nothing like the personal face-to-face development of relationships, and that’s what today is about,” Sugg said.
The legislators delivered powerful messages to county officials on a wide-range of topics, and expanded on many of their priorities and the priorities of counties during question and answer sessions. After breakfast and networking time over coffee, county officials walked to the Capitol to speak with their representatives and senators about the issues important to them and their constituents.
That afternoon, county officials were recognized from the floors of the Senate and House by Sen. Lucio and Rep. John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) respectively. Both legislators spoke proudly of their own prior service as county officials.
The day closed out with an informal reception in the TAC Events Center. More than 150 county officials, legislators and staffers gathered for the event.
“We had dozens of legislators and staffers join their county officials for food, refreshments and fellowship that evening,” said Sugg. “It really was the perfect opportunity for county officials to engage with legislators and their staff members in an informal setting.”
MESSAGES FROM LEGISLATORS
First to speak was Rep. Hunter, a long-time House member and friend of county government. Over the course of his career in the Legislature, he’s represented Aransas, San Patricio, Jackson, Refugio and Calhoun counties, as well as part of Nueces County. Currently, he represents the eastern portion of Nueces County.
“Let me tell you what you’re up against,” said Hunter. “There are only 11 people left in the Legislature that were here in 1999 — both Senate and House, and I want you to think about that if you’re in county government.”
Hunter’s point is that the beginning of session is often referred to as an education session. Hunter emphasized that the term is not a negative one, it’s just the nature of the Legislature’s make-up, and a fact to take into account when communicating with many of the newer legislators.
“Nobody knows what county governments are. Unless you tell them, they really don’t know your connection into the Constitution,” Hunter said.
“Local solutions to regional local problems are going to be the most effective thing that we can possibly do.”
Because some newer legislators do not have a local government background, they don’t necessarily understand the cascading effects a simple change in law can have for the jobs county officials do. Hunter says legislators may not be able to anticipate some of these downstream challenges, and that it’s the duty of county officials to speak up and advise the legislature of such things.
“So it’s very, very important that they see you. Otherwise, it is out of sight, out on mind,” Hunter said. “I really want to impress upon you visibility and education, because when you go into this session it’s easy to say cap; it’s easy to say take from a sheriff’s office; it’s easy to put a rule on a commissioners court. But if they don’t know what a county government is and you’re origin is, it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of impact. So I’m going to push you to please be visible.”
Sen. Lucio, a long-time legislator and former county official now serving in his 16th legislative session was next to take the podium. Lucio chairs the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, and sits on the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief.
Lucio spoke about the urgent need for county officials to engage in the process this session, particularly in light of the fundamental debate happening about the powers of and restrictions on local governments.
“I call upon you to participate — truly participate — in a dialogue about the role of state and local governments throughout the session, and we have a limited time, don’t we?” said Sen. Lucio. “It’s a dialogue that I hope will yield responsible legislation that will meet the best interest of all parties.”
Lucio said that this session, county officials should have a very clear picture of the priorities of our statewide leadership on a variety of topics including county and state relations, and that legislators, too, should have a clear picture of counties’ priorities.
“I spent the interim — among other legislative pursuits — traveling the state as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief, and everywhere I went, your members your colleagues had one unanimous message: Do not constrain our ability to provide needed services,” Lucio said.
“I want to make this clear. Just like you, state legislators must represent the best interests of their constituents—we have the same constituents quite frankly—and as those who represent the level of government that is closest to our shared constituents, it is your responsibility to advocate for them at the legislature,” said Lucio.
The senator said that there will be bills introduced that may not be in the best interest of constituents — bills that may impact the ability of county officials to govern and to provide services necessary to ensure communities continue to grow. Lucio believes bills like SB 2, the Senate revenue cap bill, may come to a vote on the Senate floor.
“But if you remain in constant contact with the members of your legislative delegations, if you show how these measures may impact the communities that we to represent, if you work with my colleagues and me to support good proposals, we can together secure for you the tools you need to effectively fulfill your roles as public servants,” Lucio said. “I promise you today that if you come to the table, there’s a spot at the Texas table.”
Next up was Rep. Price, who served as chairman of the Select Committee on Mental Health, which held interim hearings around the state and recently released an extensive report examining the state’s approach to mental health issues. He also sat on the House Appropriations, Calendars and Human Services committees. He was also a co-chair of the Health and Human Services Commission Transition Legislative Oversight Committee.
“We were tasked to study the gaps in services across the state, to identify where we can make a difference, look at innovations that exist across the state, and talk to those who are doing things in a unique way — maybe a way that other counties and other regions are doing things and let’s see where the problems are and what we can do to improve them,” said Price.
Price said Texas spends more than $6.7 billion, including Medicaid costs, for behavioral health across 18 agencies in five articles of the state’s budget. He acknowledged counties shoulder a large burden, too. When talking with sheriffs as he’s traveled the state, Price said mental health has been the number one item he hears about regarding the state’s allocation of resources and the challenges counties face.
Issues facing counties include access to care, early identification and increased services for children, the need for regional crisis intervention teams or mental health deputy programs for law enforcement, partnering with teaching institutions and expanding the use of telemedicine, and of course, the need for more forensic and civil psychiatric beds in the state hospital system.
“If we can do some of these things all at the same time, increase our capacity, intervene a little earlier, find more community beds and space that we can have more intensive treatment for some of the more super utilizing Texans who really need our help, then I think you’ll see some of that pressure eased and that will help make a difference to your bottom line,” said Price.
Price made it clear, though that a top-down approach from the,
state was not the solution.
“This theme has been touched on over and over again, but for the state of Texas to come up with programs and say, ‘everybody’s got to operate them,’ that probably will have the least effect in terms of success as anything we can do,” Price said.
He went on to talk about meeting with officials from Victoria County just a few days earlier about a local solution they had been working on. The program was a collaborative community effort coordinated through the local mental health authority, the sheriff’s department and others to focus resources to those that needed them the most.
“Local solutions to regional local problems are going to be the most effective thing that we can possibly do,” said Price.
Price closed by echoing and adding to the sentiments of Hunter and Lucio. He urged county officials to not only communicate with their legislators about the good, the bad and the ugly legislation that is circulating, but to also ensure county residents also understand these messages, saying that communicating to them about these issues is equally as important.
“When you go home, tell folks why it’s important that you’re doing this work here. Let them know that if they’re bills that you disagree with, that you think that are going to hurt your county government, your local control, your ability to control decisions,” he said.
Price urged officials to talk with their local media outlets, to educate them and enlist them in the effort to spread that message.
Rep. Pickett speaking to a full house at the TAC Tuesday Legislative Breakfast prior to Counties at the Capitol Day
“Sometimes, when they hear less tax, rollback rate, adjustment — well, that all sounds perfectly reasonable to an average Texan and sometimes they don’t understand what your challenges really are. So I just want to kind of emphasize that, because I think it’s very important not only to be an advocate here, but to do it at home, too,” he said.
Last to take the podium before the gathering broke to meet individually with legislators at the Capitol was Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso. Pickett chaired the House Transportation committee during the 84th legislative session. He gave wide-ranging remarks on the budget, transportation and other infrastructure, reinvestment zones and the perennial question of money at the Texas Department of Transportation.
Like the speakers before him, he encouraged county officials to communicate with the legislature about the issues important to their shared constituents, but his biggest applause line related to new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) fees associated with vehicle registration renewal.
“We tell our counties that we’re going to go to a process and handling fee for your registrations and don’t worry it’ll all be fine and give you more money for the ones you process in your offices and less money because the people online don’t have any questions. It’s a smooth operation. They don’t ever need to call about their taxes or collections. They never have issues that come up they don’t need you to participate or answer any questions. So, I don’t believe that either,” the representative joked in explaining the situation.
The change, which has raised the ire of many tax assessor-collectors across the state, leaves Texans paying more for renewals while simultaneously losing money. It’s not a cost counties are interested in passing along to taxpayers if at all possible.
“The additional bad news is the bill was authored by Joe Pickett. The good news is Joe Pickett is not real happy about that. The bad news is — for maybe some, maybe not for others — I’m looking at some legislative changes in that regard,” Pickett said.