Waco will have its day in Austin as local leaders travel to the state capitol to advocate for policy initiatives designed to boost economic and educational opportunities in the city.
“Waco Day,” which will be held Wednesday, will unite business representatives, elected officials and education leaders for briefings with the legislators who represent Waco and McLennan County, including State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, and Kyle Kacal, R-College Station.
The event is being spearheaded by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s just to show that Waco is engaged in the process and to advocate for policies that are conducive to economic prosperity in Waco,” said J.D. Windham Jr., director of community development at the chamber.
The chamber’s policy priorities are focused on economic development, but also cross over to other initiatives that would benefit education and transportation efforts in McLennan County.
For example, Windham said, the chamber’s delegation plans to urge the importance of funding workforce development training, which would divert dollars to McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College to prepare residents for jobs with new companies coming to Waco.
MCC President Johnette McKown said the college has received nearly $5 million in grants from the state’s Skills Development Fund in recent years, including $1.3 million to train nurses at hospitals in McLennan and Falls counties.
“Those grants really help our programs and help local employers,” McKown said.
“We really work hard to provide employers what they need, and the chamber talks about the possibilities — as we’re attracting new business here, as well as working with existing businesses — about opportunities for training.”
Another chamber focus is advocating for funds to expand Interstate 35 between its intersections with State Loop 340. Windham said the chamber aims to work with legislators to keep Waco a priority among other parts of the interstate throughout Central Texas that must be addressed.
McLennan County Commissioner Ben Perry said the county has a keen interest in seeing what the Legislature does with highway funding, in particular the road project in China Spring.
Transportation officials have said they still expect the $1.74 billion committed for projects this year to come through.
Local officials are keeping an eye on $12.1 million in Proposition 1 funds to fully fund the $33.4 million expansion of China Spring Road, in hopes of bidding the project this summer and beginning construction in the fall. The project would expand the overloaded road to four lanes.
County Judge Scott Felton said the Waco Day event is mostly a learning experience for local officials regarding what legislation could affect McLennan County and where county leaders can direct their support.
“They’ll even talk about what the budget is set at this year so you’ll know how much compared to last year they have to spend,” Felton said.
Felton said he’d like to walk away from the meeting knowing whether there was any negative legislation the county could be facing, so officials can start to head that off early.
Unfunded mandates from the state hit the county every session, putting a strain on the local budget, he said.
“It’s almost an unending train of that coming our way,” Felton said.
McKown expects to meet with local legislators on multiple occasions next week, representing both MCC and the Texas Association of Community Colleges, for which she is the chair-elect.
In addition to the workforce training initiatives, McKown will also lobby for the Legislature to maintain the current level of funding for community colleges, based on a success funding model approved in the 2013 session that awards funding to colleges based on instruction hours provided to students as well as certain academic benchmarks.
Baylor University is advocating for legislators to maintain or boost funding for the Texas Equalization Grant program, which helps students with financial needs attend private universities in the state.
Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman noted that TEG funds were cut by 20 percent in 2011, and only a portion of that was restored during the 2013 legislative session.
About 3,200 current Baylor students receive TEG funds, or roughly 20 percent of the university’s student body, Fogleman said.
“The TEG offers first-generation and lower-income students the ability to attend private universities, and that also ensures diversity on Texas private institution campuses, and that’s very important to the university,” Fogleman said.
TSTC Interim President Rob Wolaver will represent the college, seeking approval for the college’s budgetary needs for the next biennium.
Speaking for schools
Local school districts will not send any representatives to Austin for the event. But Windham said the chamber does plan to voice support for K-12 initiatives, particularly funding pre-school for all students.
Area school administrators were vocal about their policy demands during in November at an intergovernmental meeting where county, city and school officials presented their desires to the area’s state representatives.
Local school administrators said they want a fully funded pre-school, for legislators to deny any type of voucher program and to fix the school funding formula to make it more equitable.
Waco Independent School District Superintendent Bonny Cain decried the lack of money available for districts with low-socioeconomic students and wants the rest of the $5.4 billion cut from education in 2011 to be restored.
The Legislature restored $3.4 billion of the money in 2013.