Government Relations Council

The Goal of the Government Relations Council is to develop, implement and manage the Chamber’s public policy agenda that supports the identified priorities, projects and activities that are in alignment with the growth of our targeted industry clusters, in addition to lobbying for state and federal funds to assist in these objectives.


Texas Electoral Maps Sent Back to the Drawing Board

The prospects of Texas holding party primary elections in April faded to almost nothing after the US Supreme Court threw out legislative and congressional district maps ordered by a federal court panel in San Antonio, but did not indicate which lines should be used.

Federal judges in San Antonio have called a conference to talk about the situation February 1, while the Supreme Court seems to be waiting on a decision by a circuit court in Washington, D. C. to rule on a dispute between the state of Texas and the U.S. Justice Department about the validity of the lines approved in May by the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature.


Without a decision this week on which maps to use, county elections officials have testified it will be almost impossible to conduct elections in early April. Until congressional lines, state House and Senate lines are established, county elections clerks and administrators cannot draw lines for individual voting precincts.

Delaying the primaries even later – they were originally set for the first week of March – would push the elections hard up against the two political parties’ state conventions, both set for early in June. With meeting halls rented and hotel rooms already booked, party officials say changing the convention dates is virtually impossible.

At stake is whether or not Republicans will continue to have overwhelmingly majorities in the Texas House and Senate and hold down Democratic representation in the U.S. Congress. The lines drawn by state legislators are the most Republicans can possibly hope for, either packing likely Democratic voters into as few districts as possible or splitting voters with like interests into separate districts so they don’t have any impact on the election.

Tarrant County is a key area of interest in at least the state Senate and Congressional maps. The legislature drew Senate District 10, currently represented by Democrat Wendy Davis, to create a district Davis would be hard-pressed to compete in. The two centers of Democratic strength in District 10 were split, adding the east and south side of Fort Worth to a largely rural district that runs to Waco, while the Hispanic North Side was drawn into a district that is dominated by Denton County and represented by Republican Jane Nelson.

Similarly, despite the creation of a new congressional district in North Texas, the legislative map created no additional minority opportunities. Arlington would be primarily in the new District 33, with the balance of the district threading a thin line through south Fort Worth and then ballooning to include Parker County.

Democrats sued to overturn those maps, arguing that they provide relatively few new opportunities for minorities despite Hispanics representing more than half of all population growth in Texas during the last decade. A three-judge federal panel in San Antonio threw out the state’s maps, substituting plans that created significantly greater opportunities for Democrats.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s maps. Meanwhile, on an entirely different path, the state’s maps have not received the pre-clearance required by federal law by the Justice Department. Because Justice is part of a Democratic administration, Abbott chose to take the maps directly to the DC District Court. The Justice Department objected, starting a battle of words between lawyers in the Justice Department and Abbott over who was responsible for the delay. The standard procedure is for states that have a history of discrimination against minorities – which includes Texas – to have their maps approved by the Justice Department before they’re considered valid. Justice officials pointed out that Abbott waited two months after the Legislature approved the plans to submit them, and then he tried to bypass Justice by going directly to District Court. The court hearing the pre-clearance challenge has not yet ruled.

In 2003, many will remember that Texas legislators, with Republican majorities in all major positions for the first time ever, re-drew congressional districts to defeat six incumbent Democratic congressmen. That map was upheld by the then-Republican Justice Department, though department career lawyers argued they were overruled by political appointees put in place by then-President George Bush. Without a similarly inclined federal office in place this time, Abbott chose to try to skip the Justice Department to get the state’s maps approved.

There is no indication when, or how, the current impasse gets resolved. If the district court in Washington throws out the state’s plans, that decision could also get appealed to the Supreme Court. The conference set for next week in San Antonio may at least identify a possible path forward, but without a definitive decision before then, it seems likely there will be yet another primary election date set. Who sets it, and whose lines will be used—or who will be ordered to draw yet another set of maps – is yet to be determined. Most partisan observers know that any change from the lines created by the state legislature will be less advantageous to Republicans, since the legislature’s approach is the most aggressive one possible to protecting Republican majorities that would stand any chance of standing up under the Voting Rights Act.


Insurance & Water Issues


Texas Senators suggested last week if state regulators or statewide elected officials didn’t step up to address the high cost of insurance and the lack of preparation for future water needs, that legislators might need to step in and take over those issues.

The Senate Business and Commerce Committee’s interim hearing was focused primarily on drought conditions and their impact on the demand for electricity, along with the ability, in a drought, to generate electricity. But senators also asked heard testimony from Eleanor Kitzman, Texas’ insurance commissioner, who was appointed to the position in August.

Kitzman told senators that comparisons showing Texans paying the highest homeowners rates and some of the highest auto rates in the country were relative, depending on how the comparisons were drawn and over what time period. She said homeowners rates, in particular, were a function of weather-related damage caused by Texas having almost every tyupe of dangerous weather event—from wildfires to hurricanes.

But senators weren’t very receptive to Kitzman’s defense of the industry. They noted that the state is the insurer for most homeowners damaged by hurricanes through the Windstorm Insurance Association. As for the faulty comparisons, that was a non-starter.

“My constituents aren’t going to think that’s much of answer,” said Houston Democrat John Whitmire.

Almost all of the industry criticism came from the panel’s four Democrat, but the most pointed comments came from committee Chairman John Carona, a Republican from Dallas.

“We have continued to be the lapdog of the insurance industry,” Carona said. “We have continued to offer one feeble excuse after another about why costs are so high.”

He suggested that if regulatory efforts to promote competition didn’t bring down rates, the legislature might need to impose rules of its own. In doing so, he took a shot, not for the only time during the hearing, squarely at Governor Rick Perry.

“The alternative is greater regulation, which may not be acceptable to this governor, but it might be acceptable to the next one,” Carona said.

Carona was equally critical when discussing the lack of funding that has been approved to address future water shortages that everyone agrees are coming, with or without continued drought conditions, as a result of Texas’ continued growth.

“I don’t think there has been a greater dereliction of duty than our inability to fund the strategies to meet our water needs,” he said. “If Texans get nothing else, they get the need for water.”

Industry representatives, planning experts and university officials noted that water demand is higher during the hottest periods of the summer because most electric generating plants need increased water to cool the plants, which are operating at higher capacity because of the extreme heat.

While most cooling water is returned to the lakes – industry experts said about three percent is lost to evaporation – some testified that newer plants that are less dependent on water need to be part of the solution.

Dr, Michael Webber, who is part of the leadership of the International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, gave the panel alternatives that ranged from the state cooperating with electric generators by paying for lower water-use technology to more tightly regulating emissions so plant operators would be forced to go to lower-weater-use, less polluting generating alternatives.

Webber’s report to the committee can be found here.


Population Changes in Texas Pose Challenges

Population changes in Arlington and Texas will challenge educational achievement over the next three decades, with serious implications for economic growth. At state Rep. Diane Patrick’s fifth annual Education Summit, Dr. Steven Murdock, former state demographer presented a compelling case for increasing educational achievement and increasing incomes among the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.

Murdock, now a professor at Rice University, said there is a direct and long-established correlation between income and scores on standardized tests. Residents with college degrees have higher incomes in almost every geographic area and demographic group, something that hasn’t changed notably in 30 years. As Texas grows, the state needs to increase achievement in students graduating from high school to stay competitive, Murdock said. His full presentation can be found here.



Arlington Receives $2.7 Million from the Major Events Trust Fund

Last week that the state’s Major Events Trust Fund notified the City of Arlington that it will reimburse the city for investments and costs related to the Super Bowl to the tune of $2.7 million.

The City of Arlington made substantial infrastructure improvements to accommodate the influx of media and football fans, which in turn, enhances the city long after the football masses have gone home.

All of this is made possible due to the Major Events Trust Fund, which is operated by the state comptroller’s office.  The Major Events Trust Fund is designed to allow cities to lure major events to a region in order to generate revenue. In return, the state will reimburse a city for costs incurred if the revenue gained exceeds costs.  It’s a win/win for the State of Texas and the City of Arlington.  For more information, click here.

In addition, this past legislative session, Arlington Senator Chris Harris authored and passed a bill that expands the scope of the Major Events Trust Fund to include the Academy of Country Music Awards and the national conventions of both the Republican and Democratic parties. This will allow the City of Arlington to attract more events to the region. Arlington State Representative Diane Patrick sponsored Harris’ bill in the House.  You can read the bill here.



Budget Debate Is Set & Will Gambling In Texas Pass?

State legislators are starting to move on major legislation with 11 weeks left before adjournment. Some of that legislation is critical – the state budget, education funding formulas – and some of it – voter ID, bringing guns to work – is critical because, since leadership declared it a priority, it needs to move before the calendar gets so jammed the stuff that actually affects everyone gets lost.

The House Appropriations Committee, on a party line vote, kicked out a state budget that is roughly the same as the one they started with in January. No funding for growth in the public education or higher education systems, way short of paying for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but one that balances the budget after cutting out about $24 billion in spending. On an 18-7 vote (all seven no votes were Democrats) the committee moved the bill, HB1, and set it for debate on the House floor Friday, April 1.

The Senate is nowhere close to coming up with a budget, which sets in motion some pretty interesting logistics once the House acts, which may not be Friday but probably will be over the weekend. Its conventional wisdom that the ultimate budget will be written in late May by a secretive and somewhat frenzied House-Senate conference committee, but that committee can’t be appointed until the Senate has a budget to conference on, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden says his committee is nowhere near a consensus.

Although left for dead after November’s election, gambling legislation will get its hearing tomorrow at the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee. Rather than attempt to incrementally build a case for destination-resort casino gambling, advocates are going all in with legislation to open up Texas for slot machines at existing horse-racing tracks as well as casinos in several areas of the state and on the land of federally recognized Indian tribes.

Depending on what the appetite for the revenue is – even some social conservatives who oppose gambling on moral grounds are looking for money – the handful of bills heard Tuesday will be the starting place for what comes next. House Bill 382 and accompanying joint resolution, HJR 112 by Jose Menendez of San Antonio are the full-blown casino bills. Similar legislation is carried in the Senate by Rodney Ellis, with SJR 34. The slot machines at racetracks and Indian lands only bill is carried by Rep. Beverly Woolley of Houston, HB 2111, and by Senator Juan Hinojosa, SB 1118. Full-blown casino gambling faces a huge hurdle, needing a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, followed by ratification in a November constitutional amendment election. Woolley’s bill needs only a majority. It’s a matter of just passing interest – though it might say something about the casino legislation’s prospects, that all of the casino legislation is carried by Democrats. Woolley is a Republican and, by virtue of resisting Tea Party pressure to vote against Speaker Joe Straus, is part of House leadership.

For those interested in political theater, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts’ bill, HB 275, to use $3.2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund – otherwise and more popularly known as the Rainy Day Fund – will be heard Thursday, March 31 on the House floor. This use of the fund is for balancing the budget that the state is currently spending, which expires in August. A three-fifths vote – 90 members – is required to pass the legislation. Given that Governor Rick Perry has backed off his opposition to use the bill for the current budget, odds are this legislation will pass, but the hearing is likely to be a precursor for the debate the following day – April Fool’s Day, no significance attached—on the state’s budget for the next two years.

Like the approval last Wednesday of Voter ID legislation after an 11-hour debate, look for the budget discussion to be long and contentious. Pitts acknowledged that the House may have to stay in Austin all weekend to get something passed. But, after it’s all finalized, it seems likely it will be approved mostly as submitted. In part, this is because amendments have to be pre-filed, and they won’t be considered if they spend more than the budget coming out of committee allows. It’s pretty easy to forecast that this vote will end up looking very much like the final voter ID vote, which was 101-48, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.



UTA President James Spaniolo: The economic impact of Texas research universities


The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Calling for investment in the future when Texas is facing a historically difficult budget may sound like a hard sell. But as lawmakers grapple with how to allocate the precious state revenue available, we must make the compelling case for investing today in Texas’ colleges and universities.

The cause is perfectly symbolized by the University of Texas at Arlington’s new Engineering Research Building, a landmark center to be dedicated this week that adds 234,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory and classroom space to our campus. The building would not exist except for state lawmakers who had the foresight in 2006 to authorize tuition revenue bonds needed to help fund the project.

You can read the rest by clicking here.


Speaker Straus Committee Appointments Shake Up the House

With a lot of pressure building to get legislation moving in the Texas House, Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday released his list of the committee appointments for the 82nd Legislative Session. The release was later than most had hoped but earlier, by at least a day, than Straus had indicated last week.

Most significantly for the Arlington Chamber, Rep. Diane Patrick was placed by Straus on the House Appropriations Committee. The appointment gives the community a stronger voice in the critical budget decisions that are facing the legislature. Appointments to subcommittees haven’t yet been made. Logic indicates Patrick would be very strong addition to the committee dealing with education funding, but there are other, more senior members who also want to serve on that subcommittee.

The down side to the appointment is Patrick no longer serves on the public education committee, though she remains on Higher Education. Given that the issues in education this session are more about spending than policy, this is probably not as big a blow as it would otherwise be.

Other interesting items to take away, at first glance, from the committee appointments, are the increased number of Republicans as committee chairs, reflecting their dominance in the House this session. And for those who attacked Straus for being a Republican in name only, his nomination of Rep. Larry Taylor to head the House Redistricting Committee seriously undermines those claims. Taylor isn’t just any Republican, he is officially the most partisan Republican in the House in his role as chairman of the House Republican Caucus.  Tarrant County is represented on redistricting by two members, Republican Charlie Geren and Democrat Marc Veasey.

Most of the 15 reps who voted against Straus’ election as speaker were not given seats on powerful committees, or on committees of their choosing. Ken Paxton and Van Taylor, both of Plano, were relegated to the Urban Affairs committee, which has evolved into a place that mostly deals with police and fire union issues. Tan Parker of Denton County had been was vice chairman last session of the House Economic Development Committee was assumed to be in line to move up to chairman in place of Democrat Mark Strama. Parker is not on the committee at all.

For a complete list of the committee membership, the breakdown of committee chairs by party and an explanation of the seniority vs. speaker appointments, click here.



Senate Announces Committee Assignments


The Senate released its committee assignments recently, you can find it by going here. Speaker of the House, Joe Straus, is expected to announce house assignments later this week.


Chamber asks City Council to consider member concerns on development fees


Last Friday, June 11, the Chamber of Commerce forwarded a list of member concerns regarding the city’s current review of impact fees and, more broadly, the entire schedule of city developmetn fees. The letter came after a dialogue between members of the city’s Fiscal Policy Committee and Chamber members at a meeting at the Chamber two weeks ago. At least partially in response to the letter, the city has decided to take a broader look at development fees and temporarily postponed final consideration of an impact-fee schedule. State law requires the city to review its impact fee ordinance every five years. That review is past due in Arlington, and with that in mind council members have established a date, within the next six months, when impact fees will be finalized. To read the Chamber’s letter to the city, click here.


Federal Health-Care Reform


The links below are to a reasonably non-partisan analysis of the federal health-care bill as finally signed by the President March 23, 2010. This is from the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, a non-profit organization. It probably won’t satisfy anyone who has a partisan or idealogical bias, but it’s good, basic information:

http://www.kff.org/healthreform/sidebyside.cfm

Also attached is a link to the implementation timetable, also published by the Kaiser Foundation:

http://www.kff.org/healthreform/8060.cfm


City of Arlington Impact Fee Review


Cities that charge developers impact fees must review their fee structure every 5 years by law. They are not required to adjust those fees during that time, but the state requires the review. The City of Arlington is in the process of reviewing its fees and is currently keeping a public hearing open on the City Council agenda for comment. The presentation given to the Council’s Fiscal Policy Committee on March 9 of this year can be found by clicking here.

The Chamber of Commerce has not weighed in on the current impact-fee review. Our members have indicated that now is not the time to be raising fees – and there is no indication that the city will raise fees, but until a decision is made an increase could be proposed. If you are affected by these fees or have a comment, .