82nd Texas Legislature

Senator John Cornyn speaks with Shelby county judge Rick Campbell after the Post-Legislative Conference at Hilton Hotel ballroom on Friday morning. The conference, attended by county elected officials, covered how 82nd Texas legislative session will affect Texas counties and how the budget will operate.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

As the federal government and Texas Legislature shave millions off their operating budgets, the cost for vital programs and services — including Health and Human Services and the courts — are shifted locally to counties, according to county officials.

County officials representing 189 of Texas’ 254 counties gathered at the Post-Legislative Conference in Austin last week to discuss what happened at the 82nd Texas legislature and what it means as they prepare their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

“What the Legislature does trickles down to the county level,” said Paul Sugg, the legislative director for the Texas Association of Counties. “When the Legislature starts cutting programs that they fund, that tends to devolve on [the counties’] backs so we are always worried about what happens at the appropriations process.”

During this session, state legislators cut historic preservation grants by 85 percent, from $9 million to $1.4 million; decreased local library funds by 72 percent, from $35 million to $10 million; and cut all $9 million previously allocated to reintegration programs for offenders, according to a comparison chart on Texas Association of Counties’ website.

The Texas Legislature cut total expenditures by 5 percent from last session. That’s a total of $236 million less in state spending. If county officials decide to continue providing services that were cut by the state legislature, the counties must absorb these costs.

“We have this challenge to continue providing adequate services,” said Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis. “Taxpayers will complain if we cut services. On the other hand, they will complain if I raise taxes. Ultimately, the blame will go on [the county] — it’s really a catch-22.”

Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties, said cutting funding to services like the court system is not an option.

“It tends to be discretionary services like libraries or Meals On Wheels that get cut,” Christopher said. “Then again, constituents expect those services, and maybe they’re willing to pay a penny more in taxes to get those services.”

Davis said Travis County is exploring all efficiency and cost-cutting options. Counties rely on property taxes to fund services, so increased costs that are passed down from the state ultimately impact the property taxpayer.

Davis said he doesn’t want to increase the property tax rate in Travis County. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and county officials, such as Davis, will have one month to balance the budget. However, their real concern is much further in the future.

“We’re riding this out with an eye forward to 2013,” Sugg said. “I think there is a county consensus out there that the 2013 legislative session is going to be much worse.”

Senator John Cornyn made an appearance at the conference and said he remains optimistic about Texas’ future, citing an average annual job growth of 3.6 percent since 1990, which is markedly higher than the nation’s average of 1 percent.

“The United States is continuing to struggle, and we continue to struggle, but we are blessed to live in a state that’s doing better than the rest of America,” Cornyn said.

Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining what student organizations are doing to lobby the 82nd Texas Legislature.

University Leadership Initiative, a UT group that supports the rights of undocumented students, will work this semester to defeat more than 25 bills they say target undocumented immigrants.

The group will join other immigrant activist groups at the Capitol Tuesday to lobby against two specific bills.

ULI will focus on education issues that directly impact undocumented students in Texas. State Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, filed one of the house bills the group will target that could require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, and State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, filed the second bill that could require public schools to take a head count of all undocumented students.
The point of the head count bill is to give clarity to how much public education for illegal immigrants is costing the state, said Jon English, Riddle’s chief of staff.

“The cost of illegal immigration is obviously a central focus in the illegal immigration debate, but there are nothing but a bunch of guesses as to how much money, in terms of tax dollars, the state of Texas is spending on services to illegal immigrants,” he said.

English said the bill is not intended to affect the number of undocumented students in public schools, but to record them and make the numbers available.

“We aren’t hoping to deter anybody from attending, but we do want to know how many are showing up,” he said. “The head count will give some transparency to those numbers and I think that would better inform the immigration debate.”

ULI is a group of students, both documented and undocumented, who advocate civil justice and education for the immigrant community, said Daniel Olvera, a ULI spokeswoman and government senior.

“We fight not only for us but for generations of students because their future and our future is in jeopardy,” he said. “All these anti-immigrant laws will just make it harder for our community to live.”
Last semester, the group worked to pass the DREAM Act, a U.S. bill that would have granted citizenship to undocumented students who completed college or joined the military. The bill ultimately failed in the U.S. Senate.

“Even though it didn’t pass, we saw how it empowered our community, to be proud and to fight for our rights, so we felt successful,” Olvera said.

Olvera said according to lawmakers the head count bill seems beneficial because taxpayers will know where their money is being spent, but it will be a burden to the public schools and
undocumented students.

“This unfunded mandate is not logical. It seems like a harmless law but it singles out our community,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a wise law from an economic standpoint or a social standpoint.”

ULI is considering weekly trips to the Capitol, sending out information packets to media outlets and teaming up with other immigrant activist groups across the state.

ULI President Loren Campos said the head count bill could cause undocumented students’ parents to see public schools as an arm of immigration officials and cause them to shy away.

“If this bill passes, a lot of parents are going to perceive schools as immigration enforcement agencies,” he said. “They are going to feel targeted and so this bill would damage the relationship between parents, teachers and students.”

ULI will team with North Texas DREAM Team, Dreamactivist.org, South Texas Immigration Council and more than 20 other immigration rights organizations to continue lobbying throughout the semester.

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Other anti-illegal immigration laws University Leadership will lobby against include:

HB 113 concerning sanctuary cities
HB 16 Relating to requiring a voter to present proof of identification
HB 21 Relating to reporting by state agencies on the financial effect of providing services to illegal immigrants
HB 494 Relating to the eligibility requirements for certain public benefits programs

Lobbying the Lege

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining what student organizations are doing to lobby the 82nd Texas Legislature.

The Legislature Working Group, a committee of student leaders, laid out a plan to keep UT affordable, academically competitive and gun-free at its first meeting of the semester Sunday.

Members discussed how the new session will affect higher education and launched “Invest In Texas,” a breakdown of the group’s lobbying strategy.

Student Government Executive Director Jimmy Talarico said “Invest in Texas” is a compilation of students’ needs and legislative priorities. He said the group’s strategy is to make students aware and get them active.

“We wanted to come up with a plan that effectively represents our issues, effectively represents students and gets students involved to learn the process,” he said. “I think this proposal straddles that line of both effectiveness and efficiency.”

The Legislative Budget Board, a joint committee that recommends appropriations for state agencies, circulated a potential state budget in which the number of TEXAS Grant recipients would be cut in half and community colleges may be forced to close.

Talarico said the budget proposal shows that legislators see higher education as a place with a lot of leeway to make cuts.

“Our challenge, as we move forward, is trying to reverse that perception and make it clear that higher education is not an expenditure, but an investment,” he said.

The group will offer lobby training sessions, at which two experienced lobbyists will teach students how to push their legislation forward. The group will also draft letters students can send to hometown representatives and will host an official “Invest in Texas” Lobby Day to inform and mobilize students.

Civil Engineering senior Loren Campos, president of the University Leadership Initiative, pushed to add protection for funding for undocumented students.

“I think the message is very clear,” Campos said. “The name ‘Invest in Texas’ encompasses a lot of the issues that we are addressing, but in terms of content, I would add support for protecting tuition for undocumented students.”

The Senate of College Councils will lobby for the first time as a part of the “Invest in Texas” platform, said government and social work senior Chelsea Adler.

“We technically have never taken a lead role in these kinds of initiatives, but this year, I think Student Government and Senate both realize this is probably the most important legislative session for higher education in Texas,” she said. “We are pooling all our resources together to be as effective as possible.”

Although academics are their main focal point, Adler said the Senate of College Councils fully supports the new legislative proposal.

“Something like affordable funding is going to be more relevant to us than handguns, but we’re still prepared to help out wherever we need to,” she said.

“Invest In Texas” will run on a timeline beginning Jan. 24 and run through the end of the session.