The services Texans need, how to pay for them and how to advocate for them made for a lively three-hour discussion Aug. 31 at the Pre-Legislative Forum presented by United Way and its Area Agency on Aging.
Panels of local Texas legislators and advocates moderated by Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy weighed in on what to expect when the 85th Texas Legislature is in session from Jan. 10 to May 29. They were State Senator Konni Burton and State Representatives Giovanni Capriglione, Nicole Collier and Chris Turner; Robert Earley, President/CEO of JPS Health Network; Mark Mendez, Assistant County Administrator/Governmental Affairs for Tarrant County; T.J. Patterson, Jr., Manager of Legislative Affairs for the City of Fort Worth; and Vicki Truitt, Principal with VTruitt Consulting, LLC.
A state budget anticipated to be billions of dollars smaller due to the decline of the oil and gas industry weighed heavily on the minds of the presenters. “The budget is going to be a challenge,” said Vicki Truitt, who is a former state representative herself. “They are starting in a very different spot than they did two years ago.”
Child Protective Services, school finance, transportation, property tax reform, and higher education tuition costs are among the topics that “you’ll be hearing about in Austin,” said Sen. Konni Burton. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione cited education, good health care and public safety among the issues his constituents care about. Also on the list was transportation. “If you have to drive farther than around the block, you know how hard it is to get around,” he said.
Rep. Chris Turner focused on mental health services. “We’ve got a real shortage when it comes to mental health providers,” he said. “We need to do more in the way of mental health parity.”
Rep. Nicole Collier said her own medical issues during the last year made her aware that “we need to make sure our health insurance companies provide adequate networks that can provide the health care people need.” She also said problems at Child Protective Services need to be addressed, including the issue of “underfunded and overworked” CPS caseworkers.
The tighter budget is likely to put pressure on all levels of government, making local control and unfunded mandates big issues for cities and counties. “This will be the greatest challenge to local government in the history of Texas,” said T.J. Patterson, Jr. He said the City of Fort Worth’s goal would be “to protect where we are” rather than “asking for a lot.”
Mark Mendez, who said his job is to educate the Legislature about what the County does, said Tarrant County priorities for the Legislature include continuation and improvement of mental health services and continued innovation in the criminal justice system, particularly related to re-entry services. “Property tax reform makes us nervous because of the County’s dependence on tax revenue,” he said, as does the “dreaded unfunded mandate.”
Robert Earley said “mental health must be addressed. None of us are very far from the issue of mental health.” He also said continued support of level 1 trauma centers such as JPS is important because it is “the best insurance you can have” in critical medical situations.
The legislators were not aligned on some issues, such as Medicaid expansion and school finance, but Sen. Burton said Austin is not Washington, D.C. “We know where we stand in Austin, but we do have common ground,” she said.
Legislators and advocate panelists alike urged the Forum audience to make their wishes known to their elected officials. “Our priorities are not set in Austin; they are set in our conversations with our constituents,” said Rep. Capriglione. The reason legislators are in Austin “is to be the voice of our communities,” said Rep. Collier. “Now is the time to contact our office,” noted Sen. Burton.
“You have a powerful voice and you should make that voice heard,” Rep. Turner told the audience of mostly health and human service professionals. “You are on the front lines of our community needs.”
T.J. Patterson also urged Forum attendees be engaged—and persistent. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, so stay involved,” he said. “Don’t get tired. If you get tired, you will not be successful in the sausage-making.”
Forum keynote speaker Dr. Diane Patrick spoke about education in Texas. Dr. Patrick served four terms in the Texas House of Representatives, was president and a member of the Arlington ISD Board of Trustees and was a member of the State Board of Education. She recently was appointed to fill Tarrant County College Board of Trustees’ vacant District 3 seat and is currently on the Educational Leadership faculty in UTA’s College of Education.
Dr. Patrick said that, while “there are not simple answers” to education funding because legislators support their district’s interests, she has “a lot of hope” for House Bill 5, which is being implemented now. HB 5 changed Texas curriculum and graduation requirements to allow high school students to earn endorsements in specific areas such as business and industry and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). “Students who might have been drop-outs come out of high school with something that’s going to take them to the next level,” she said.
Online opportunities have expanded at both the high school and college level, she said, and dual credit courses are enabling high school students to graduate from high school with a two-year associate degree, giving them a head start on an affordable four-year college degree. “We see program after program where the community colleges, four-year universities and high schools are working together with one thing in mind: what’s best for the kids,” she said. Collaboration and partnerships are the key to enabling all high school students to graduate ready to be successful in a post-secondary program and the workforce, she said. “We can do this. I believe that,” she said.