Property tax relief and transportation issues were on the minds of Waco’s state legislative delegation as they gave a preview Wednesday of the upcoming session.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury; Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco; and state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, pointed to Texas’ vast economic growth and its accompanied benefits and challenges at a State of the State Luncheon organized by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
State Comptroller Glenn Hegar also sounded the same themes at the event at the Waco Hippodrome, noting that budget demands have grown as 1,000 people move to Texas every day.
“No one envisioned the pressure the system would have,” Hegar said.
“How do we make sure that the state side continues to keep up with that pressurization so it’s not continually put back on the property tax owners?” Hegar said. “And I think that is the biggest issue that (lawmakers) are going to have to address this session and the next session because that is a very significant, fundamental, financial issue.”
Anderson, who has represented North Waco, West Waco, Woodway, Hewitt, Robinson, Lorena, Moody, McGregor and Crawford for 14 years, called for reforms to the appraisal process, which is now overseen by county appointees. He said a board of elected officials would be more accountable to taxpayers, who have seen property tax rates skyrocket in recent years.
Birdwell, whose district includes the entirety of McLennan County, agrees.
“The challenge has been in the property tax arena, the rate of growth and the inability of the taxpayer to have some voice more directly in not just their appraisals, but in the rate of that growth,” Birdwell said.
The trio is also looking to boost education funding this session, as they await the recommendations of a bipartisan commission organized by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Meanwhile, expediting the project to widen Interstate 35 remains a priority for the legislators. The first $300 million phase, which is set to begin in coming months, will expand the highway from 11th Street to North Loop 340 over 4.5 years. But the Waco delegation and city leaders are asking the Texas Department of Transportation to speed up the second phase south of 11th Street so the project doesn’t drag on for years beyond that.
Most local stakeholders agree the widening will benefit Waco in the long-term, but the short-term traffic has Wacoans bracing for headaches.
“Waco is thriving at all levels, whether it’s the university community, the community itself, Chip and Joanna,” said Kacal, who represents parts of East and South Waco, Bellmead, West, Gholson, Ross and Mart. “We do not need 35 to be the problem, and we don’t want that spotlight.”
He said discussions with TxDOT are continuing, with a meeting on the issue set that very afternoon.
“We want to make sure Waco’s a good place to stop, not a place you’re compelled to have to stop and sit in traffic,” Birdwell said.
Asked what the greatest threat facing Texas is, Anderson pointed to the availability of illegal drugs and the death toll of the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Kacal said management of Texas’ budget amid an economic boon will require diligence, and Birdwell said a new dose of moral virtue is a necessity for the future of the state.