At this time in even-numbered years, legislative committees are usually conducting interim hearings to receive testimony, analyze issues, and prepare reports and draft legislation for the upcoming legislative session. These interim activities provide a valuable opportunity for county officials to educate legislators and staff on the effects of potential legislation on their constituents and taxpayers.
With the COVID-19 epidemic, this year has been extremely unusual. The House and Senate committees have scrapped all plans for public hearings. Even the Texas Sunset Commission, charged with recommending the continuation or termination of state agencies, has been unable to conduct its normal review. Some legislative committees are receiving written testimony on their interim charges. Others are proceeding to prepare reports without any further public input. The Senate Finance Committee has already written and adopted its interim report and recommendations.
In these circumstances, county officials must use creative means to communicate with our legislative leaders on the issues. First, review the interim charges at www.house.texas.gov and www.senate.texas.gov and submit written comments to the committee members with a copy to your local legislators and the committee staff. Second, review the resolutions adopted by the regional and state associations and consider adopting these at your Commissioners Court meetings. Circulate these resolutions to the local media and through social media postings, and send a copy to your local legislators. Increase your personal communications to your legislators and other community leaders in the next few months.
Recent legislative sessions have involved heightened attempts to limit local discretion and impose additional state mandates. Unfortunately, this trend seems likely to continue. Unfunded mandates provide an opportunity for legislators to create services without the obligation to fund them. Of course, every unfunded mandate becomes a property tax increase on county residents. Continual vigilance is required to stop these “good ideas” before they become mandated tax increases. Legislation that provides local authorization, not mandates, is always preferred.
Last session also resulted in additional restrictions on county tax revenue. The passage of S.B. 2 imposed lower revenue caps and new confusing regulations. The sponsors of this bill have already promised to seek even greater restrictions on local government funding during this coming session. Local decision-making has no validity if there is no local discretion in funding. Counties need other local option revenue sources to offset the property tax, not lower revenue caps.
The COVID-19 epidemic has strained the ability of our local governments to maintain the basic services of our society. When federal and state officials were reluctant to promptly react to the need, county and city officials and public health authorities took early decisive action to limit the spread of the disease. Predictably, the “nay-sayers” have emerged to criticize and condemn these life-saving responses. The next legislative session will see efforts to deny the necessary tools and repeal the existing authority of local authorities to respond to disaster in its many forms. We must be prepared to defend essential local discretion in this area.
A democratic republic depends upon the ability of its citizens to communicate with their elected representatives. Effective communication requires resources and the ability to consolidate our message. Unfortunately, some of our leaders are determined to silence the voice of local officials. In the last session, S.B. 29 passed the Senate in a form that would have prevented local officials from using public resources to communicate with the legislature or to participate in nonprofit associations to combine their efforts. Although this unwise measure failed in the House, its sponsors are committed to a renewed effort to stop local officials from participating in the legislative process. This will likely be the major local government issue of the session.
With a state budget shortfall and redistricting on the agenda, it will be challenging to obtain appropriate attention to county issues. Please prepare now to fully engage with your local legislators.
For additional information, please call me at 1-800-733-0699.