Local residents hear presentations with legislative session underway in Austin

Editor: Shannon Cottongame

March 29, 2023

State Representative Angelia Orr (R-Itasca) is pictured reading a resolution recognizing Hill County Day at the State Capitol Thursday, March 16. She also introduced members of the Hill County group (l to r, at back): County Judge Justin Lewis, Hillsboro City Manager Megan Henderson, Hillsboro Economic Development Corporation Board Chair Natasha Sawyer, Lake Whitney Chamber of Commerce Director Janice Sanders and Hubbard Chamber of Commerce representative and trip sponsor Eugene Fulton. See accompanying story for more information.

Hill County residents heard from four speakers representing the Comptroller of Public Accounts, Secretary of State, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Farm Bureau during Hill County Day at the State Capitol Thursday, March 16.

The presentations followed the group attending the opening of both the state House of Representatives and Senate to be recognized by Representative Angelia Orr and Senator Brian Birdwell.

Each legislative body passed resolutions highlighting Hill County’s history and contributions to the state.

Lisa Craven, who serves as chief of staff and deputy comptroller to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, said that the comptroller’s office is “the most important state agency that you’ve never heard of.” She discussed several of the duties that fall to the comptroller’s office, including tax collector, accountant, treasurer, chief revenue estimator and other lesser-known responsibilities, such as its law enforcement arm that investigates tax fraud, its administration of the Texas Bullion Depository and its management of college savings plans and other programs.

The comptroller’s duties as revenue estimator have been a topic of interest recently, as his biennial revenue estimate showed a $32.7 billion surplus. Craven said that in a normal session, the estimate provides guardrails for lawmakers as they carry out the only duty they are required to do when they convene in Austin and pass a state budget. “That’s in a normal session,” she said. “We are not in a normal session.”

Craven said that the legislative session is more complicated for lawmakers when there is a large cash carry forward balance. When there’s not, the answer to everyone is the same – “No.”

In a session like the current one, the legislature has to pick winners and losers. “Everyone who comes in has a compelling reason for why the money should be spent on the thing they’re asking for, and all of those things are competing with one another,” she said.

“Everybody has dollar signs in their eyes and they’re thinking there’s a whole bunch of money out there. Not true, because we also have spending limits in Texas,” Craven said.

She explained that these constitutional and statutory spending limits are calculated to ensure that the government doesn’t grow at a faster rate than the state as a whole.

However, these limits don’t apply to funds that have been constitutionally dedicated by voters, such as money approved for transportation and the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) for water projects. The limits also don’t apply to expenditures related to tax relief or disaster response.

In addition to staying under the spending limits, Craven said that Hegar’s message to lawmakers has been: “Don’t go crazy. Don’t spend all that money because we do see signs of a recession on the horizon.” She said that a recession would likely be shorter and shallower in Texas than the nation as a whole, but the legislature still needs to ensure that it doesn’t initiate spending that isn’t sustainable in the future.

The comptroller’s office has also been tasked with leading the state’s broadband expansion program. Craven said that the first $363 million from the federal government to expand broadband access was received by the state in January, and the Broadband Development Office plans to make applications for about $100 million of that available in April. Another $2 billion to $4 billion is expected to roll out this summer as part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Craven said that the comptroller’s office is not happy with either the federal or state map that was created to show which areas of the state are underserved by broadband access. These maps were based on internet service providers’ advertised speeds, which Craven said are known to be inaccurate.

The comptroller’s office is also seeking state funding this session to help communities fund the 25% match required for broadband projects, and Craven said that efforts are underway to provide assistance to small communities to help guide them through the process of applying for funding.

Another topic highlighted was the comptroller’s unclaimed property program.

The comptroller’s office has given back $2 billion in unclaimed property in the Hegar administration and is still holding about $7 billion to be returned to the rightful owners. Unclaimed property can involve lost money and property from utility deposits, final paychecks, oil and gas royalties, safety deposit boxes and other forgotten property. Craven encouraged everyone to check ClaimitTexas.gov to see if they have property to be returned.

Deputy Secretary of State Joe Esparza also spoke to the Hill County group and reported that the office was excited to welcome Jane Nelson, who was confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of State the previous day.

In addition to serving as the chief elections office, the Secretary of State’s Office handles business and government filings, certifies notaries public and acts as a liaison to foreign dignitaries and businesses that want a foothold in Texas.

Esparza said that the secretary of states office has requested funding this legislative session to help it modernize its operations. He said that the current system of business filings has been in place since 1999 and it is time to make it more of an automated process.

Responding to an audience question about the office’s use of election inspectors, Esparza said that the secretary of state’s office partners with other state agencies that do not have elected department heads, such as the Department of Public Safety. Individuals from these agencies volunteer their time to participate in training and become certified as election inspectors, and they travel to random sites throughout the state to ensure that elections are being run correctly. He explained that elections inspectors are different than poll watchers, who are members of the public certified through local candidates, political parties, or special interest groups having a measure on the ballot.

Esparza also encourage the public to get involved with the election process by serving as an election judge.

Esparza was also asked if the secretary of state’s office has plans to leave the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). In 2020, Texas became the 30th state to join ERIC, a non-profit consortium of member states aimed at improving the accuracy of the country’s voter rolls.

Esparza said that states send very secure, encrypted voter information to the system, which compares it to encrypted data submitted by other states. After the data is compared to other data in the system, the secretary of state’s office receives information that helps clean up the voter rolls by identifying voters who may have moved within or outside of Texas, those who may have died and those who may have duplicate registrations in the state.

Membership keeps the secretary of state’s office in compliance with state election code, which requires Texas to take part in such a cross-check program, but legislation being considered could amend that requirement.

Several Republican-led states have recently left ERIC, and Esparza indicated that the office will determine how to move forward if Texas follows suit.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Deputy State Parks Director Justin Rhodes updated the group on the 100th Anniversary of Texas state parks. Rhodes said that the first state parks board was formed in 1923, and Texas now has 89 state parks, and almost 10 million annual visitors to its parks. He said that the department is working to introduce state parks to even more Texans. “We have 30 million folks in Texas, and we want everybody in Texas to know about the parks,“ Rhodes said. He added that the parks are economic engines for communities in addition to providing outdoor opportunities for the public.

He said that last year, Lake Whitney State Park welcomed 115,000 annual visitors and brought in about $700,000 in revenue. “You have a jewel right there in your backyard, and if you haven’t been out, I encourage you to go out there and see it,” he said.

The celebratory tone of the centennial has been tempered by the potential loss of Fairfield State Park as a developer has it under contract with the current owner, Vistra Corp. “We have never, in our 100 years of Texas state parks, lost a part to development,” Rhodes said. “It’s tough for us to stomach that, and there’s no doubt it’s tough for our team there.”

Rhodes said that Rep. Orr has been a champion for the effort to try and save the park and filed a bill addressing the issue. He said that conversations are ongoing to try and strike a deal that would keep the park open. “I’m here to tell you we haven’t given up,” Rhodes said.

The majority of state parks are owned by the State of Texas, he said, and the rest operate under leases from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the exception of Fairfield and Lake Colorado City state parks, which have both been leased from Vistra.

The group heard about Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) efforts from TFB Associate Legislative Director Joy Davis, who introduced herself as having connections to Hill County.

Davis, a Grandview native, said that her family currently farms and ranches in Hill, Johnson and Ellis counties.

She provided an overview of several initiatives TFB is focusing on this session, including right to farm and truth in labeling legislation.

Davis explained that many cities are passing ordinances that deem agricultural activities health and safety code violations. These include codes barring tall vegetation and stored hay bales, and even one Texas city that has required “solid-walled structures for animals to reproduce in.”

She said that she believes many of these efforts are designed to push out farmers, whose property has agricultural exemptions, so that the property can be taxed at a higher level. “That’s what we’re trying to fight,” she said.

TFB is working to strengthen right to farm legislation to ensure farms and ranches can continue operating inside city limits. Currently, the law only protects ag operations annexed after August 31, 1981, but HB 1750 by Rep. DeWayne Burns would prohibit cities from imposing these requirements on any agricultural operations no matter when the land was annexed by the city. Any municipality that wants to restrict an ag activity would need to prove that it actually presents a health and safety hazard.

Davis said that TFB also wants cities to have to refer to a manual that explains generally accepted agriculture practices to those who may not be familiar with the operations.

Truth in labeling of meat products bills are returning to the legislature for the third session. Rep. Brad Buckley has authored HB 1788, and a companion bill, SB 644, has been filed by Sen. Charles Perry in the Senate. The legislation would prevent those marketing meat alternatives from using language that could confuse consumers.

Davis said that TFB’s membership includes producers who grow all of the products involved and is not a move to discourage plant-based products. She said that she has talked to vegetarians who also spend a long time reading labels to ensure a product doesn’t contain meat. “You just have to identify what’s in there–actual truth in labeling,” she said. The bill also addresses cell-cultured products. Those marketing any of these products would have to indicate that they are meatless and avoid using misleading graphics on the packaging.

She said that TFB is a true grassroots organization, and the issues that it works to implement are decided at the county committee level and work their way up to the state level.

Responding to a question about the TFB’s position on the increasing number of solar and wind farms in the state, Davis said that the bureau has had extensive discussions about all aspects of what she described as a difficult issue that affects many producers and landowners. “The decision was, we have always been pro private property rights; that’s what our organization stands for,” she said. “So it’s really hard for us to come in and say you can’t take the highest bid on your property because it’s going to go into solar and wind.”

She said that TFB does want protections for agricultural land that would establish regulations for the solar companies regarding construction, disassembling equipment and other aspects of the developments. “We’re working on all of those things right now, because solar has become a predominant issue in the state.”

Sponsors of the trip to Austin were Neal T (Buddy) Jones and his firm, HillCo Partners; Citizens National Bank; Oncor; HILCO; and Eugene and Paulette Fulton. The trip was hosted by chambers of commerce in Hillsboro, Hubbard, Whitney and Itasca. Art Mann was trip coordinator.

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