Get Ready, Get Set…
Lawmakers to Convene in Austin Jan. 10-May 29
County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Poised and Prepared
By Julie Anderson, Editor
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 85th Texas Legislature is set to meet Jan. 10 through May 29, 2017. Texas legislators began pre-filing bills on Nov. 14, 2016, filing some 350 bills on the first day alone.
Some two weeks after taking their oaths of office, a slate of newly elected officials will join their veteran counterparts in exercising the 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,” former Polk County Judge John Thompson shared. Thompson served as chairman of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas (CJCAT or Association) Legislative Committee from 1994-2014.
Every one of Texas’ 254 counties is a member of the CJCAT. 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 85th Session, and the CJCAT will closely monitor all proceedings to champion and protect county government. As always, 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 previous sessions.
A Look Back at the 84th Session
During its 2015 regular session, the 84th Texas Legislature enacted 1,323 bills and adopted seven joint resolutions after considering 6,476 measures filed.
As far as county government was concerned, the introduction of revenue caps and an early hearing date set a negative tone as some lawmakers seemed intent on restricting local government, Allison reported. However, members of Commissioners Courts quickly jumped in.
“You packed the room, you got on the phones, and you sent faxes and emails,” Allison declared. “With your work and the work of a great team in Austin, we escaped this session without revenue caps.
“You’re not known around the capitol as being potted plants,” Allison continued. “You speak up. You are heard.”
Thanks to the county voice, a negative tone was not synonymous with a negative outcome; rather, the session was a success for counties in that caps were defeated and very few unfunded mandates passed, Allison summarized. In addition, lawmakers did authorize additional funding for mental health, indigent defense and courthouse preservation.
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.
Lawmakers earmarked some $225 million to a transportation infrastructure fund via the 83rd Texas Legislature’s Senate Bill 1747.
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.
- required 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;
- established a planning advisory panel to review the state’s resources and the provision of mental health services;
- expanded the list of mental health disorders eligible for assessment and treatment by local mental health authorities; and
- required 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. The Legislature 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 Allison to the Capitol to present a united message. Facing cut after cut, local elected officials showed up both literally and figuratively, sending emails and faxes, making phone calls, and putting in personal appearances to safeguard their counties, their communities and their taxpayers.
Officials sent a firm and consistent message: Infrastructure is critical. Roads carry our emergency vehicles, school buses, 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,” Thompson summarized. “We found the key, and now we just have to keep refining that key.”
This resolve to connect with state officials is especially important considering the turnover of lawmakers. The Texas Senate is composed of 31 members and the Texas House includes 150 members. There are 26 new members in the House of Representatives, and 22 of those members are freshmen, according to the chief clerk of the House; the 85th Legislature will include three 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.
The Association set its legislative priorities with the passage of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Resolutions. In October 2016, the CJCAT passed 23 resolutions addressing issues including:
- Opposition to Unfunded Mandates
- Opposition to Appraisal Caps and Revenue Caps
- County Local Option Revenue Sources
- Indigent Health Care
- State Funds for Indigent Criminal Defense
- Juvenile Probation Funding
- Mental Health Patients
- Opposition to Diversion of Dedicated Funds
- Emergency Services Program
- Opposition to Granting Powers to Municipal Utility Districts and Special Utility Districts
- Support for County Road Grant Fund
- Commissioners Court Budgetary Responsibility
- Uranium Mining Regulation
- Sludge Waste Disposal
- Fireworks Regulations
- EPA Definition of “Waters of the United States”
- Oil and Gas Waste Disposal Facilities
- Rural Public Transit
- Opposition to Rules Adopted by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles That Decrease County Revenues, Increase County Costs, and Reduce Local Control and Local Services
- Full Funding of DPS Labs
For a complete listing and the full text of your Association resolutions and related legislative directives, go to www.countyprogress.com.
“Each of us is a vital link in having a successful year with the Legislature,” declared Wichita County Judge Woodrow W. “Woody” Gossom Jr., current president of the CJCAT and former CJCAT legislative chairman. “Take our resolutions to your members, along with the great fold-out document you received this year that explains county government very succinctly, as many Legislative members are not well versed in county government,” Gossom continued.
Communicating Our Message
Resolutions from the CJCAT and individual Commissioners Courts, letters, emails, telephone calls, and personal contacts are the most effective methods of informing legislators and their staff on important county issues, Allison maintained.
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.
“As county-related bills are introduced, do your best to determine how these bills will impact you on the local level,” Allison urged.
As you communicate with lawmakers, be specific. Check your facts and figures, and help the state understand that what happens in Austin doesn’t stay in Austin.