2019 Legislative Priorities for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce

By Jessica Attas

As we wrap up the year and look to the year ahead, the Texas 86th Legislative Session looms large on the horizon and front of mind.

As the organization dedicated to the economic well-being of the area, we at the Chamber seek to actively promote policies that are conducive to growing a thriving economy and community. Our ability to help develop the economy- and your ability to help your business flourish- is impacted by state and federal policies and the regulatory environment in which we operate. For that reason, your Chamber of Commerce is active in the public policy sphere, advocating for businesses to our legislators on issues of importance to our community.

Prior to every state legislative session, we go through a process to seek input from our members on their policy priorities, and with our public policy committee together with other community stakeholders, listening to the conversations being held around the state about coming policy debates, develop a relevant legislative platform to inform and guide our advocacy work in the session and the interim that follows.

The past few months have held a great deal of conversations at the state and local levels related to property tax, school finance and workforce development. Indeed, the growth of property tax and the quality and future of our workforce are both directly related to school funding, and are in fact consistently the top concerns we hear from business members.

The manner in which schools are currently funded is too heavily reliant on local property tax dollars. As economic growth occurs and values rise, the state uses the increased local contributions to themselves pay less in per-pupil spending. The state’s budget plans on (and some might say mandates) that, and calls for increased property tax valuations ranging from 6-7% annually for each of the next two years.  This allows the state to pay less, by shifting the cost down to local taxpayers. Where the state used to pay for the majority of per-pupil costs to educate our children, it has now fallen to 37% of the cost being paid by the state and the balance by local property tax payers. Without reform to the way we fund our schools, that will drop to just 30% by 2023. At a time when Texas already has the 46th highest property tax burden of all fifty states, this will inevitably mean millions more dollars that will have to be collected locally in order to offset the loss of state dollars. Every property owner can expect their local property tax bill to increase if no changes to the way we fund our schools are made.

The question of how we fund our schools also ties in with whether they are adequately funded. While money isn’t the only determining factor, it is a factor. Money matters in education, and money well-spent can allow our schools to produce the student outcomes we need. Recognizing our currents skills gap and that our student outcomes are not aligned with what our businesses need, Governor Abbott called on three key agencies- the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Higher Ed Coordinating Board, and the Texas Education Agency- to work together on a shared vision for the workforce our state will need if we are to keep our economic strength. That vision is called 60x30Texas, and aims to see 60% of Texans aged 25-34 hold post-secondary degrees or higher by the year 2030. This is a data-driven goal; by just 2020, more than 60% of jobs created will require some sort of post-secondary degree.  The current reality provides a stark contrast. At present, just over 30% of graduating students in Texas test on the ACT or other college or career readiness measures as “college-ready,” and less than 30% of high school graduates have completed any post-secondary degree six years after graduating. The implications for our future workforce- and our ability to sustain and grow our economy- if we do not act, are grave.

For these reasons, key priorities as we move into the legislative session are addressing property tax reform; opposing increases in local appraisal growth mandated by state budget planning; and increasing the state’s share of per pupil spending on public education, focusing those dollars on the strategies proven to improve student outcomes in order to build a 21st century workforce. Further, the process of appraisal valuation needs reform, and we call on improvements to include local input on valuation ranges. At present, the state sets target valuation ranges based on a sample of properties, and each appraisal district has to come near that target. Aligned with our overarching support of local control, a priority is local input on those target ranges.

Because there has been significant conversation at the state level around these interwoven issues of property tax and school finance, they are key priorities for our Chamber. However, as the organization responsible for the economic development of the area, we also have state legislative priorities regarding competitive incentives, small business and entrepreneurship, and trade and international competitiveness. We continue to support the Texas Enterprise Fund- the state’s deal-closing incentive fund- and call on the legislature to expand accessibility to the fund for existing businesses of all sizes throughout the state.

Of course, your Chamber of Commerce is a membership-driven chamber, and there are issues across the board that impact your ability to develop and grow your business. As an example, given this issue is focused on healthcare, we know access to a healthy workforce impacts day-to-day business operations. However, access to healthcare in Texas is limited, and in fact, Texas has a rate of uninsured more than twice the national average (26% compared to 11%). Further, Texas is also experiencing both a physician and a nursing shortage. Half of Texas counties do not have sufficient physicians for their population and thirty-five counties have not a single physician. For that reason, legislative priorities focused on healthcare include things like expanding access to healthcare coverage; prioritizing preventative and behavioral healthcare; supporting robust nursing programs and allowing those nurses to practice within the scope of their expertise; and given that doctors are most likely to work where they do their residency, prioritizing additional medical residency slot funding over new medical school funding.

Our legislative agenda is robust yet focused, prioritizing those topics of greatest impact to our businesses: business climate (including fiscal policy and regulatory reform); economic development; public and higher education; healthcare; transportation and infrastructure; and water and natural resources. To see our full state legislative agenda for the 86th session, please visit our website or reach out via email to [email protected]. If you become aware of a bill during session that would impact your business or your industry, please let us know. It is our charge to be the voice for the business community of Waco in Austin; we look forward to working and standing with you for the good of our community in the months of legislative action ahead.

Jessica Attas is the vice-president of public policy for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. She works with key state and federal elected and appointed officials to advocate on key issues of community and economic development.  Attas loves thinking about solutions for big challenges, and when her schedule allows, enjoys serving as a professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core Honors College. Attas has two sons and a pup who keep her busy during “down time.”

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