To those of you who managed to read my story on the front page about the Fort Bend County Legislative Conference all the way through, I congratulate you.
You have just discovered a pretty decent sleep aid or at the least a cure for insomnia.
Actually, I hope you did get something out of it. Covering the event was like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. Throughout the course of the day on Nov. 15 at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa near Bastrop there were more than two-dozen speakers and numerous topics with each person trying to get about 10 of their 100 most important talking points across to the assembly.
I realize the story was long and rambling, but trust me, that was the Cliffs Notes version of the conference. In order to get the key points across I had to leave out numerous speakers, including Texas Comptroller Glen Hager, higher education representatives, and the mayors of each city in the county, to name a few. It’s not that they didn’t have anything important to say – they did – it’s just that there is only so much you can write about from a conference that lasted a day and a half.
Rather than bore you with the details, I want to share some general thoughts and observations about the conference. The conference was the eighth and last biennial conference for County Judge Bob Hebert. The conferences were his brainchild and he and the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council hosted it with the very generous underwriting from a laundry list of local businesses.
The reservations for the conference were made back in August, long before the Nov. 6 election. I had the distinct feeling that attendance would have been very different had the election not been washed over by the Blue Tide. Still, it was an excellent opportunity for elected officials new and old to come together and strategize key items they want to see the 86th Legislature address next year. I tried to highlight the key components in my story and I hope that came across.
From the legislative side, we had Sens. Lois Kolkhorst and Borris Miles and Reps. Rick Miller, John Zerwas, and Phil Stephenson there. Notably absent were Rep. Ron Reynolds, who is in jail, and Sen. Joan Huffman. Rep. Miller didn’t call her out by name, but clearly expressed disappointment in Huffman’s absence.
“I would have liked to have seen another senator here, personally, but she wasn’t. But that’s her decision. Fort Bend County is a big part of her district and Fort Bend County helped get her elected,” he said.
I checked with her office and they said she had a scheduling conflict that prevented her from attending. She did respond to my request to know her top three priorities going into the session.
“My three priorities for the upcoming session are public education, Harvey recovery and resiliency, and public safety,” Huffman said in a statement Monday. “I will be advocating for a pay raise for our teachers, real property tax and school finance reform, improved flood mitigation and preparedness, and tougher anti-human trafficking laws. As Chair of State Affairs, Vice Chair of Criminal Justice and a Senior Member on Finance, I’ll use my leadership positions to ensure that these issues are front and center when the Legislature reconvenes in January.”
In my mind, the top priority of the 86th Legislature is overhauling public school finance. It should have been the top priority in the last session, but it was barely discussed as lawmakers dealt with a budget shortfall. School finance and healthcare make up the two largest pieces of the budgetary pie. They’re the foundations upon which the rest of the rest of the funding priorities rest. Of those two, school funding is the most complex and has the most direct impact on the people of Texas.
That is because the current funding formula called for a 50/50 split between state and local revenues. Local funding comes from property taxes. Over the years, the state has let that get way out of balance and has forced school districts to rely on increased property tax revenues to cover the lion’s share of local school budgets while the state shifted its share of school funding to other areas. While that oversimplifies a much more complex issue, it basically illustrates why our taxes are so high and the state gives so little to public education. It’s the reason why almost half of my monthly mortgage goes to taxes.
If the Legislature can get school funding in order first, the rest should fall into place. But if they go after the low-hanging fruit first and put off the hard job, they will once again fail to get it done.
Along with school finance, the Legislature has a $2.5 billion gap in Medicaid funding it will have to fill. There is also the need to provide funds to help rebuild from Hurricane Harvey. Those were almost everyone’s top priorities. For the cities and county, another priority is stopping the governor’s proposed 2.5 percent property tax revenue cap. It’s arbitrary and it takes local control away from local governments. Most, including our school districts, would suffer significant loss of revenue with property tax caps.
That would just force them to make up the difference elsewhere, usually by cutting back on services and/or having layoffs. We really don’t want that.
Another key issue the Legislature is going to have to address is school safety. Legislators need to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all program that will work across the board. Ideas like arming teachers or installing metal detectors won’t work in most cases. What our local districts want is more funding for school counselors and computer programs that search social media for warning signs of potential violence.
The schools would rather be proactive than reactive when it comes to the safety of the students. Rather than mandate a school safety program, the Legislature needs to allocate funds to the districts and trust that they know best how to secure their campuses and assure student safety.
Of all the things that were discussed at the legislative conference, there was one little nugget that I latched onto. Sen. Kolkhorst said she wants to see more funding for state parks. Hallelujah! I’ve been a volunteer at Brazos Bend State Park for six years and I see first hand the negative impact on our parks from the lack of funding from the last few legislative sessions. The parks are suffering from neglect and band-aid fixes.
They need a lot of attention or we’re going to start losing them. We’re at the point it will cost more to repair buildings and infrastructure than it would have cost to properly maintain them in the first place. We can’t keep deferring maintenance and cutting personnel. Our parks are important and we need more equipment and people to meet the demands that are being placed on them.
Anyway, I could keep going on, but the point is, the Legislature has a revenue surplus to work with and a lot of problems it needs to fix.
We need our Legislators to step up and take care of the big problems first and allow the smaller ones to fall into place after that.