West Texas Association Conference
By Julie Anderson
Sometimes a question is more like a lesson. The keynote speaker at the recent West Texas Association Conference presented two such questions:
- Who is the most ethical person you know?
- Now, how many people would name you?
Judge Michael Keasler, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, elaborated on the qualities of ethical leadership during the opening day address at the West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association 90th Annual Conference. Some 280 County Judges and Commissioners convened in Potter County April 23-26 to pursue their continuing education and discuss the latest topics affecting grassroots government.
Taking answers from the audience, Keasler went on to discuss the values of leadership including integrity, loyalty, and commitment to excellence.
Throughout the conference other important questions were asked, some paving the way for thought-provoking sessions regarding the future of local government. For example, during a class related to the county budget and revenue caps, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley posed an important question:
- Where should state and local government be focused?
Using a combination of videos, statistics, and research results, Whitley shared a powerful presentation based on the following premise: “Since Texas became a republic and then a state, its leaders realized that because of the size and diversity, a strong state and local partnership was needed. This partnership relied upon local elected officials to make decisions on how to best implement state laws and respond to their individual communities’ wants and needs.”
This partnership and understanding have contributed to the success of the Lone Star State, which is becoming home to more and more residents and businesses each year. In fact, in 2018 CNBC ranked Texas as the #1 state for businesses, Whitley shared.
During recent years, the partnership has been tested with proposals and rhetoric that have strained the relationship. With this comes the concern that Texas may lose its footing.
How can state and local government help keep Texas #1, or “keep the Texas miracle alive?” Whitley asked local elected officials. The keys include:
- an educated workforce;
- adequate infrastructure; and
- continued local decision-making.
A high-performing public education system is critical to an educated workforce, which is key to keeping Texas at the top of the business world, Whitley emphasized. While Texas is impressive businesswise, it compares poorly to other states when it comes to spending for public education. In addition, data demonstrates that the State of Texas relies heavily on the property tax to fund public education.
“Over time, insufficient education will drag down overall performance,” Whitley noted. Texas has no choice but to increase the state’s commitment to public education.
Another key to maintaining a strong and growing Texas is improved transportation infrastructure.
“We MUST catch up as well as maintain our existing roads and bridges,” Whitley declared. The State of Texas can help by addressing the shrinking gas tax, rethinking public-private partnerships, and investing more in infrastructure to fulfill the demand that comes with Texas’ population and business growth.
In addition, the state partners could assist by supporting the efforts of cities and counties to help, Whitley shared. Cities and counties build and maintain four times as many road miles as the state.
“Placing revenue caps on local governments can severely limit our ability to stay up with our expected growth or even to maintain those roads we already have,” he observed. This means a call to renew the Texas tradition of local officials making local decisions.
“We need to maintain the ability of local elected officials to partner with the state to implement the laws they pass as well as provide the quality-of-life services that our citizens demand,” Whitley emphasized.
When it comes to obstacles, the first and most obvious is funding.
The second, Whitley offered, is exposing misinformation regarding Texas’ tax burden.
“We also have to point out rhetoric versus reality,” he elaborated, and avoid focusing only on property taxes and inferring skyrocketing increases. Data indicates that Texas ranks 29th per person in state and local tax collections when compared to other states and 37th in state and local revenue as a percentage of personal income.
“So, we are in the bottom half in both categories,” Whitley concluded. “I wouldn’t say from an overall position that we are extremely taxed.”
In summary, Whitley encouraged Judges and Commissioners to in turn encourage the Legislature to:
- Be an equal partner in total funding for public education.
- Provide adequate funding to address lagging infrastructure.
- Support locally elected officials by allowing them to do their jobs.
Please box somewhere in Conference Report:
The 91st Annual West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Conference will take place April 21-24, 2020, in San Angelo at the McNease Convention Center.