Local elected officials want a say in what the Texas Legislature does during its upcoming 85th session, and they went public Tuesday with a list of priorities that addresses, among other things, funding pre-kindergarten classes for youngsters statewide and completing the construction of Interstate 35 through Waco. The list also includes increasing funding for community and technical colleges and opposing vouchers that could reduce funding to public schools “without top-to-bottom school funding reforms.”
Highlighting the session was talk about those school vouchers and finding creative ways to improve the state’s infrastructure, including highways and bridges, possibly through a raising of the gas tax now earmarked for state transportation projects. Elected officials also urged state lawmakers to avoid passing so-called “unfunded mandates,” which are requirements to carry out certain services or functions without providing state revenue necessary to accomplish the task.
Attending the meeting in the Waco Convention Center were representatives of the Waco City Council, the McLennan County Commissioners Court, the McLennan Community College Board of Trustees, the Texas State Technical College Board of Regents and the Waco Independent School District Board of Trustees.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver introduced guests and served as emcee for the gathering of local leaders that included Matt Meadors, president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, who presented eight priorities under the category of “economic development.” That list includes funding for the Texas Workforce Commission’s Skills Development Fund and the State Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texans program aimed at keeping the state’s workforce trained in a complex world marketplace.
He also suggested lawmakers pursue reform of the payday lending industry; create an aerospace incentive fund and financially support the Spaceport Trust Fund at a minimum of $15 million per biennium; and support the state’s deal-closing fund and expand its accessibility to existing Texas businesses wanting to expand.
Meadors said Central Texas finds itself in the midst of the booming aviation and aerospace presence, with McGregor serving as home to a SpaceX rocket-testing facility that shakes a few windows but also provides hundreds of well-paying jobs with the potential for more with founder Elon Musk’s appetite for adventure that includes sending space travelers to Mars. The massive Texas State Technical College airport, meanwhile, allows L-3 Communications to modify military and commercial aircraft while employing about 1,500 people. Much more property remains available near the airport for use by aviation-related companies or others.
SpaceX, which has become a powerhouse in private rocketry, is developing what would be the world’s first commercial orbit launch site at Boca Chica Village near Brownsville. The Texas Legislature allocated no money to the Spaceport Trust Fund to support this project during its last session, a fact that did not escape the notice of SpaceX, whose director of governmental affairs, Caryn Schenewerk, recently said publicly that Florida committed $20 million to its spaceport infrastructure fund.
Discussing travel of a different nature, Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler and others suggested the widening of Interstate 35 north and south of Waco has gone well. But if the state does not soon commit to expanding the section in Waco, the city could become a bottleneck waiting to happen and a disaster for state transportation.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican whose District 22 includes Waco, said he understands the frustration local leaders are feeling.
He said he does not think the project will get fully funded during the next biennium, but assured that work is about to proceed, albeit in phases.
“Between September of 2017 and August of 2018, I believe you will begin to notice activity,” said Birdwell, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, as did State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, a Waco Republican, and representatives of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, also a Texas Republican.
Waco ISD board member Cary DuPuy wondered why the Legislature does not consider raising the state fuel tax to deal with the growing list of transportation projects in need of funding. About a nickel of that 20-cent tax is earmarked for education, with the balance going to transportation-related projects.
The fuel tax is a use tax, said DuPuy, so it makes sense for those most needing to use the state highway system to financially support its upkeep.
DuPuy also took issue with those who criticize public schools and compare them negatively to charter and private schools. He said he hopes local lawmakers remind their colleagues that districts such as Waco have a high percentage of students from low-income families that face learning challenges.
Waco ISD Superintendent Bonny Cain, who has announced her retirement, echoed DuPuy in her push to have state lawmakers “oppose vouchers or other proposals that reduce funding to public schools unless and until the Texas Legislature, as recently advised by the Texas Supreme Court, implements ‘transformational, top-to-bottom school funding reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid,’ ” she said in her comments to the group Tuesday night.
She and DuPuy said the state should not consider allowing the use of vouchers until charter schools are required to meet competency requirements comparable to those the state mandates for public schools. They also said charter schools should be required to maintain student populations with family incomes comparable to the communities they serve.
“All we want is a level playing field, and that’s not what we’re seeing now,” said DuPuy. “We want this to become a topic of discussion for lawmakers.”
Other priorities include legislation that encourages “preventative and behavioral” health care, and encourages people to be more involved in their health; laws that protect the public from the Zika virus; and fully funding the Texas Tuition Equalization Grant to ensure opportunities for all Texans.