Players Issues in the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature
Written By: John Crutchfield III, President & CEO, Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce
Published in theGreater Killeen Business Quarterly 2017 Fort Hood Guide
The 85th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature convened on Tuesday, January 10, 2017. It will adjourn 140 days later on Monday, May 29. Between those dates, thousands of bills will be filed. A few will pass. Many will die. What happens during that session will affect us all – hopefully in positive ways. It is in the interest of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, and its members, to do all we can to make sure that is the case. In many ways, this will be a different session for Central Texans. How will we approach it?
For starters, we will have new representation. Gone will be veteran Representative Jimmie Don Aycock and veteran Senator Troy Fraser. With them will leave knowledge and seniority built up over many years. In the legislative process, institutional knowledge and seniority are critical. Many of us enjoyed excellent and productive relationships with both Representative Aycock and Senator Fraser.
Replacing Senator Fraser will be Senator Dawn Buckingham. Senator Buckingham has spent a considerable amount of time in Bell County. We have developed a good relationship with her. We will need to do the same with her new staff.
Killeen has two state representatives. Representative Hugh Shine has been there before, having served in the legislature from November, 1986 to January, 1989. Those years of service will give him seniority over many members and position him strategically during the session. This will provide invaluable leverage. Representative Scott Cosper will not have the benefit of seniority. Collaboration and relationship building will be key.
It is important that our members work well together to effectively advocate for our interests. That has been the case leading up to the session. All three members have committed to meet with our Public Policy Council on a regular basis during the session.
While there will be many issues addressed during the Session in which we will have an interest, there are several unique issues that must be addressed.
All agree that if Texas is to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy, it must achieve two urgent educational objectives. One is to move more students to graduation quicker. Those students must be career and work ready. The second is to reduce, or at least control, the cost of a college education. We believe that dual enrollment is critical to achieving each of these objectives.
Dual enrollment is the process of allowing high school students to take college level classes while still in high school. It has been demonstrated to work well in Central Texas, first at the Bioscience Institute at Temple College and now at the Early College High School at Central Texas College. Those who run our public schools, community colleges and universities understand the concept, and are dedicated to making it work. Our education leaders work well together to ensure that students are prepared to excel and that the system is efficient and effective.
Despite the benefits, there has been push back. Both the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Association of Business have expressed concerns. Those concerns have to do with rigor and standards. The implication is that high school students enrolled in dual credit courses are held to a lower standard than college students enrolled in those same courses. Our education administrators and, in fact, the Central Texas experience makes the case that students are held to the same standard.
Some four-year universities are pushing back. The reason is obvious. Some believe college level courses taken in high school represent revenue lost to their four-year universities. We must not let push back derail the progress made by our educators and students locally. What has been achieved here can be a model for the rest of the state. The reality is that if we are to produce more college graduates and control cost, the education model must change. There is always resistance to change.
Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grants are state grants to improve military value at Texas’ fifteen military installations. Those military installations have an annual economic impact on the State of Texas of $148 billion. Fort Hood’s economic impact is close to 30% of the total. Military installations provide 255,000 direct jobs and provide 6% of the state’s economy.
Military investment is competitive. States around the country are arming up to protect their existing military installations and grow them at someone else’s expense. Texas must meet that completion.
During the last Session, the Legislature provided $30 million in DEAAG grant funding – an inadequate amount. That number has to go up. The return on the investment is substantial.
The act was originally approved in 1943 and has been amended several times since. Today, the act provides veterans, their survivors, or their children up to 150 free credit hours—in addition to federal educational benefits—at any of the state’s public universities or community colleges. Colleges and universities must absorb the cost. For the most part, those costs are not repaid by the state.
Recent amendments to expand the program have driven the cost of the program out of sight. From 2009 to 2015, the amount of tuition lost rose by 621% from $25 million to $178 million. The Legislative Budget Board projects that by 2017, the amount of tuition lost will be $286 million, up 61% in two years.
Today, the program is limited to veterans who enlisted in Texas or had Texas as their home of record when they enlisted. There are court challenges to the residency requirement. While educational benefits are something that Texans want to make available to veterans, this program is unsustainable in its present form. Changes will have to be made.
The Legislature has granted state-wide property tax exemptions to disabled veterans. This is appropriate. It is also an unfunded mandate on local political subdivisions. And, the benefit places a disproportionate burden on military communities because many military veterans tend to live in military communities to access their well-earned benefits. In the case of the City of Killeen, the cost of these exemptions is equivalent to $0.06 of the property tax rate.
There are precedents for the state reimbursing those cost to political subdivisions on which the state’s actions have placed a disproportionate burden through unfunded mandates. That has been partially done in this instance. More needs to be done.
It has been said that, “when everything is said and done, more gets said than done.” Most of us would agree the statement applies to life, in general, and the legislative session, in particular. It is important that whatever gets done in the upcoming legislative session impacts our community in a positive way– especially as those actions impact dual credits, DEAAG grants, the Hazelwood Act, and veteran’s benefits.