By Julie Anderson
The Texas Legislature meets in a regular session every two years, convening on the second Tuesday in January of every odd-numbered year. These biennial sessions are limited to 140 days. The governor can also call additional special sessions as necessary, which cannot exceed 30 days. The 84th Texas Legislature is set to meet January 13 through June 1, 2015. Texas legislators began pre-filing bills on Nov. 10, filing some 350 bills on the first day alone.
Some two weeks after taking their oaths of office, hundreds of new County Judges and County Commissioners will have the opportunity to actively exercise their county’s role as partner to the State of Texas. This process, becoming involved on the state level and helping impact how laws are made, “is something to get excited about,” declared former Polk County Judge John Thompson, chairman of the State Association’s Legislative Committee from 1994-2014.
Every one of Texas’ 254 counties and the five members of every Texas County Commissioners Court are members of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas (CJCAT or Association). As has been pointed out by lawmakers in the past, this Association and its Legislative Committee have a reputation for approaching every session of the Texas Legislature with resolve. For example, during the past few legislative sessions local government officials and associations such as the CJCAT voiced spirited opposition to appraisal and revenue caps and extreme budget cuts. Consequently, multiple regular and special sessions adjourned without imposing these restrictions and cuts, due in large part to the heightened presence and significant voice of county officials and their supporters.
Lawmakers will be asked to consider thousands of bills throughout the 84th Session, and the CJCAT will closely monitor all proceedings to champion and protect county government; members of the Association’s Legislative Committee will join CJCAT General Counsel Jim Allison at the Capitol throughout the session to address issues as they arise.
Perhaps a good way to explain how this happens is to provide a recap of the previous two sessions.
A Look Back at the 83rd Session
During its 2013 regular session, the 83rd Texas Legislature enacted 1,437 bills and adopted 10 joint resolutions after considering more than 6,061 measures filed. The Legislature also enacted three bills during the first called session, two bills during the second called session, and one bill during the third called session.
As with every legislative session, the CJCAT came to Austin with the overall goal of playing defense.
“No additional revenue caps, no additional appraisal caps, and the defeat of most unfunded mandates were important defensive accomplishments,” reported Allison after the session. However, the Association went on the offensive as well, making plays on mental health funding and transportation.
“We had a win-win,” Allison declared.
In an unprecedented move, lawmakers earmarked some $225 million to a transportation infrastructure fund via the 83rd Texas Legislature’s Senate Bill 1747 (see our August 2014 issue for additional details.)
DeWitt County Judge Daryl L. Fowler, who traveled to and from Austin multiple times to testify before lawmakers, described it as an “unprecedented move.”
“I argued for this in Austin until I was blue in the face,” Fowler later told fellow officials at an educational conference.
In a second offensive win for the CJCAT, legislators addressed mental health via House Bill 3793.
“When the largest mental hospital in a particular area is the county jail, then we have a problem,” Allison insisted.
- requires the Department of State Health Services to plan for the allocation and funding of an appropriate number of state mental hospital beds and outpatient treatment beds;
- establishes a planning advisory panel to review the state’s resources and the provision of mental health services;
- expands the list of mental health disorders eligible for assessment and treatment by local mental health authorities; and
- requires local mental health authorities to include jail diversion strategies in their management plans.
“We had two priorities – transportation and mental health,” Allison summarized. “Your emails, phone calls and personal visits are what pulled us through,” resulting in “one of the best sessions we’ve ever had.”
The 82nd Texas Legislature
During its 2011 regular session, the 82nd Texas Legislature enacted 1,379 bills and adopted 11 joint resolutions after considering more than 6,000 measures filed. It also enacted eight bills during the first called session.
What a difference two years makes. While the 83rd Legislature would open with a budget surplus, a daunting deficit loomed over the 82nd. Experts predicted the 2011 Legislative Session would be defined by two issues: redistricting and the state budget deficit. They were right.
“These two issues will be the driving force and determining factor in all other issues,” maintained then-CJCAT President Don R. Allred, Oldham County Judge.
Because of the $20 billion-plus deficit, “we will be bombarded with all types of unfunded mandates,” predicted then-CJCAT Second Vice President Roger Harmon, Johnson County Judge. “All I can say is to batten down the hatches and be willing to fight like we have never had to in the past.”
The 82nd Legislative Session presented a particular challenge, with lawmakers seeking deep cuts and targeting dedicated funding. For example, proposed legislation originally zeroed out the Lateral Road Fund, meaning an elimination of $14.6 million, or 100 percent of the portion of the gasoline tax dedicated to county roads by the Transportation Code. Lawmakers also put forth elimination of Overweight Truck Permit Fees valued at $15 million; the fees from these TxDOT permits are dedicated to counties for partial reimbursement for overweight truck road damage.
County Judges and County Commissioners tag-teamed one another, accompanying CJCAT officers and Jim Allison to the Capitol to present a united message. Facing cut after cut, local elected officials showed up both literally and figuratively, sending e-mails and faxes, making phone calls, and putting in personal appearances to safeguard their county, their community, and their taxpayers. Officials sent a firm and consistent message: Infrastructure is critical. Roads carry our emergency vehicles, school buses, our employers and employees. When it comes to roads, we are in maintenance-mode, using every penny to support and repair an outdated and over-burdened transportation system. Officials repeated the message, broken-record style; when all was said and done, both funds were fully restored.
When the 82nd Session of the Texas Legislature adjourned sine die, Commissioners Courts breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the adopted version of the state budget partially restored funding to most county programs. In addition, revenue caps and most unfunded mandates were defeated.
“Our system worked this time like our system is supposed to work,” Polk summarized “We found the key, and now we just have to keep refining that key.”
84th Texas Legislature
This resolve to connect with state officials is especially important considering the turnover of lawmakers and the state leadership. The Texas Senate is composed of 31 members and the Texas House includes 150 members. There are 25 new members in the House of Representatives, 23 of whom are brand new, according to the clerk of the House; the 84th Legislature will include nine brand new senators, according to the secretary of the Senate.
“It is our responsibility to seek out legislators – our senior partners in the state-county partnership – and educate them on our needs and responsibilities,” Allison told officials throughout last year’s CJCAT educational conference classes.
Thanks to the oil and gas industry, the 84th Session will not face the budget deficit that characterized the 82nd. Rather, surplus funds have been identified; however, as Allison stated, many entities will be clamoring for this money.
The Association set its legislative priorities with the passage of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas 2014 Resolutions. The subject and final “resolve” portion of the majority of the resolutions are provided below. For a complete listing and the full text of your Association resolutions and related legislative directives, go to countyprogress.com.
CHRISTI – maybe something special with these – a 3-D type box or another shade?
Opposition to Unfunded Mandates
NOW, THEREFORE, the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas and its 254 current member counties do hereby resolve that for the foregoing reasons, it is in the best interests of Texas counties and their taxpayers to support and favor the passage of legislation in the form of an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Texas that would expressly prohibit the imposition of a mandatory governmental program on Texas counties, whether by an act of the Texas Legislature or a state agency or by executive order, unless the State of Texas has fully funded and disbursed all necessary funds to enable Texas counties to operate said governmental program.
Opposition to Appraisal Caps and Revenue Caps
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas does hereby express its opposition to efforts to limit local control and does hereby oppose any attempts to impose revenue caps or appraisal caps upon Texas counties, and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas expresses its deep appreciation to all legislators who oppose these unsound measures.
Indigent Health Care
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas opposes any attempt to impose a mandatory assessment upon Texas counties to fund a regional or statewide health care system.
Opposition to Diversion of Dedicated Funds
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas expresses its opposition to any state diversion of dedicated funds and supports the state leadership’s commitment to end this practice.
Emergency Services Program
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas urges our state legislators to provide full funding to the Emergency 9-1-1 Services Program for maintenance and improvement; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that funds generated by the 9-1-1 surcharge will not be used by the Legislature as money set aside to balance the state budget; and
BE IT ALSO RESOLVED that any such funds set aside that currently exist be fully appropriated for the Emergency 9-1-1 Services Program.
Opposition to Granting Powers to Municipal Utility Districts and Special Utility Districts
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas opposes the granting of additional powers to municipal utility districts and special utility districts and requests that the approval of the county be required before any further districts are created.
Mental Health Patients
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas hereby requests that the State of Texas implement the additional funding for mental health services in S.B. 1, the General Appropriations Act, and implement the state mental health plan approved in H.B. 3793 to ensure the efficient and effective use of these resources.
Support for Constitutional Amendment for State Highway Fund
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas does hereby support the constitutional amendment for the state highway fund to be considered on November 4, 2014, and requests its approval by the voters.
Repeal of H.B. 259
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas does hereby request the repeal of H.B. 259 and the re-establishment of local control over the premises of public buildings.
Extension of Chapter 313 of the Texas Tax Code
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas supports the extension of Chapter 313 of the Texas Tax Code and its inclusion of Renewable Energy Electric Generation; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we support increased tax benefit to the local school district and continuation of local decision-making power to approve projects, and urge the State Legislature to show its support of rural Texas communities by only passing bills that include all of the above-stated positions.
Royalty Revenue from County Roads
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas supports legislation designed to reallocate the lease payments recovered by the Texas Land Commissioner from county roadways and to return such funds to the counties which generate the revenue from the lease of deeded lands held by the county for road purposes.
Resolution to Support Federal Legislation H.R. 1526 to Provide Payments in Lieu of Taxes to Local Governments for Federal Lands
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas that we support the enactment of H.R. 1526, and we furthermore urge the Honorable John Cornyn and the Honorable Ted Cruz to support this important legislation in the United States Senate.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas is opposed to any legislative action that would remove current county authority to regulate fireworks.
Oil and Gas Waste Disposal Facilities
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas does hereby request that the Texas Legislature and the Texas Railroad Commission require that Texas counties, their citizens, and groundwater conservation districts be provided all available information concerning proposed oil and gas waste facilities in their area and a full opportunity to participate in the evaluation of any application for additional facilities.
Communicating Our Message
As Allison indicated in this month’s column on Page 6, “Resolutions from the Commissioners Courts, letters, emails, telephone calls, and personal contacts are the most effective methods of informing legislators and their staff on important county issues.”
If your senator or representative is new, perhaps a simple review of the county and state dynamic would be helpful.
State and Local
As a part of the State of Texas, the structures and duties of county government are set forth in the Texas Constitution. As an arm of the State, Texas counties can only do those actions that are specifically authorized by Texas law. Equally important, Texas counties must do those actions that are required by law, such as maintain and operate the court and jail system, conduct elections, and provide for public safety.
County Revenue – The Property Tax
The property tax, or ad valorem tax, is inarguably the largest revenue source for Texas counties. According to the Texas Constitution, Article VIII, Section 9, the county cannot levy a tax rate in excess of $.80 per $100 of property value for the county’s general fund, permanent improvement fund, road and bridge fund and jury fund. On top of the $.80, the county is authorized to levy a $.15 road and bridge tax and a $.30 farm-to-market road/flood control tax; however, these taxes are subject to voter approval. In addition, counties on the Gulf of Mexico can levy a special tax for construction of sea walls, breakwaters, or sanitary purposes, not to exceed $.50 per $100 valuation. Counties are also authorized by several statutes to levy certain special purpose taxes. However, these taxes when combined with the general fund tax may not total more than $.80 per $100 assessed valuation. Property tax rates across the state are as varied as the counties themselves, with some counties hovering in the 20- to 30-cent range and others approaching or even reaching the maximum. In addition to the property tax, counties rely on fines and fees, intergovernmental revenue, and interest, along with miscellaneous revenues or transfers.
- County budgets are driven by the laws that are implemented in Austin by the Texas Legislature.
- Counties are limited to property taxes as their main revenue source.
- Taxes, for the most part, are determined by mandates put on the county by the State Legislature.
- Discretionary spending for local services is the first to be cut because spending for state-mandated services is just that, mandated.
- If the state would fund the laws that they adopt, then property taxes could be more closely tied to local services.
How Will This Law Impact My County?
As county-related bills are introduced, do your best to determine how these bills will impact you on the local level. For example, during the 82nd Legislature when proposed legislation originally zeroed out the Lateral Road Fund, then-Houston County Judge Lonnie Hunt put pen to paper and communicated to lawmakers the impact on his county:
- Elimination of Lateral Road Distributions
Although these gasoline taxes are dedicated to county roads by state law, they would not be distributed during the next two years. This would cost Houston County about $68,000.
As you communicate with lawmakers, be specific, Allison and Polk urged. Check your facts and figures, and help the state understand that what happens in Austin doesn’t stay in Austin.