County, state officials address Liberty Hill business leaders
By Christine Bolaños
Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce members gathered June 24 to hear their county, state senate and house representatives talk about accomplishments during the last legislative session. Commissioner Cynthia Long, Rep. Marsha Farney and Sen. Charles Schwertner’s Chief of Staff Thomas Holloway addressed the audience at Beck Chapels & Events.
Long said Williamson County is involved in four projects in the Liberty Hill area, including improvements to County Road 200.
“That is being designed and from that design, key intersections will be improved. Namely (State Highway) 29 and County Road 200,” she explained. “I know everybody that drives that wishes it was done yesterday, but thankfully (Texas Department of Transportation) has agreed to work with us on that project and they are kicking in some money to help do the overall design, even across the road on the loop so that what we build on the County Road 200 side will work with what ultimately is going to be built at that intersection.”
Improvements to County Road 250A is another project in the area. The first phase was completed nearly a decade ago. The county is in the process of acquiring right-of-way for the second piece, from Sunset to Ronald Reagan.
“We should be under construction on that by the end of the year, first part of next year,” Long said.
The traffic light going in at US Highway 183 and RR 1869 is a project TxDOT is handling and it continues to be delayed.
“The county is paying for 90 percent of it. (TxDOT) has originally said first of the year, then May, now hopefully, sometime by July they’ll start construction on that,” Long said.
Another project is a proposed loop around Seward Junction.
“We’ve got two engineers on board. One’s designing the southeast side of that loop and then another one is designing the southwest side,” Long explained. “We have most of the right-of-way that’s been donated on the southeast side. There’s a few pieces that the county will have to buy, but that’s under design. We’ll be about 30 percent complete with design by the end of August. On the southwest side, that part is also under design. We hope to have 30 percent plans by end of July.”
She said TxDOT has a small pot of money it is using on Hwy 183, north of 150A, to do a turn lane. An engineer has volunteered to do design work and collaborate with TxDOT to provide a safer turn at the Saratoga Springs intersection.
“TxDOT doesn’t have the money right now to do that improvement but thankfully we have somebody very generous and saw what was going on and volunteered his time to do that,” Long said.
The county has spent years working on what Long calls “horizontal infrastructure.” County facilities are now a focus.
Two projects include a new training facility for the Sheriff’s Office and a new training facility for Emergency Management Services.
She talked about the county’s focus on economic development so that cities evolve beyond bedroom communities. She mentioned the launch of the Williamson County Economic Development Alliance.
“It includes folks from economic development departments across the county, and Williamson County for the first time is participating in that. It’s the first time we’ve really had a united front to participate as a whole in economic development because I think folks are realizing more and more that a win for Liberty Hill is a win for Georgetown. A win for Round Rock is a win for Cedar Park,” Long said.
Rep. Farney, R-Georgetown, said Texas is in good financial health, which is dependent on fiscal responsibility. She said state lawmakers, who completed the legislative session in early June, strive for fiscal responsibility. in state government.
She said legislators added $1.5 billion to public education and took care of the Teacher Retirement System.
“This session we spent over $700 million to take care of their insurance. It was about to go under. So our teachers, who I believe are already unpaid, underappreciated and underloved, now are going to be taken care of with their insurance,” Farney said.
By ending diversions (putting money toward other projects), legislators will be about to put another $1 billion per biennium back into transportation.
She said the state is sending more troopers south for border security purposes. Human trafficking is another issue legislators tackled.
“Hopefully by having a greater law enforcement presence down there that’ll help make a difference,” she said.
She said Child Protective Services is not up to par due to low salaries and low-quality training. Farney mentioned Colton Turner’s case in which CPS dropped “the ball big-time.”
Legislators added another $34 million toward CPS to help the department do better with other child cases in the future.
She also talked about the gun controversy.
“My theory is that the problem isn’t with the gun, but with the person holding the gun,” Farney said.
That’s why legislators also put millions toward mental health services, she said.
House Bill 4, or the Pre-K bill, was one of Gov. Greg Abbot’s “emergency” bills.
“Education should not be a Republican or Democratic issue,” Farney said. “You become a legislator working for children. I supported Gov. Abbott 100 percent on wanting to have a strong pre-K program. This is a voluntary program.
“We’re talking about kids who are starting off behind. We’re talking about children who are going to come to Liberty Hill, or Leander or Georgetown, and their scores are going to be low, that school could be labeled failing, because a child can’t read our language, or is just learning our language, or who doesn’t have a mother or father and they’re homeless or are living with other families,” she said.
She said the program was going to be based on “high-quality curriculum,” where children were going to go into kindergarten more prepared to handle academics at their level.
She said opponents of the bill said the program was “Godless and socialistic.” She added that numerous studies show that a strong pre-K program makes a difference in a child’s life. She said she got “hammered” by people in her party for supporting the bill.
“I want you to know it was the right thing to do. We wound up getting support in the House and even the Senate and the Governor signed it. Lives will be changed because of this,” she said.
Farney said she also supported Senate Bill 149 because it allowed local school districts to have more control.
“If you have a child that doesn’t pass all of the high stakes testing we’ve been dealing with here in Texas — it’s gotten way out of line. Last session we cut back from 15 down to five (tests). This session we realized we still had some kids that for whatever reason were not able to pass some of those high stakes testing,” she explained. “They passed their coursework with their teachers. They could show what they had done but whether it was test-taking anxiety, whether it was parents getting a divorce, whatever it was that was going on, students were failing the test. We allowed for them to have at the high schools what they currently have at middle schools.
“You have a committee comprised of your principal, counselor, child, the parent and someone else involved with the school and that child then has to do what I think is far harder,” Farney continued. “A lot of time they require students to have a portfolio to show they had true knowledge and understanding and comprehension and they come up and do presentations about the entire course. If they pass their review they are not going to be denied their high school diploma. I think that’s fair.”
She said Liberty Hill has the authority to do that with individual children.
Legislators approved creating a math training academy for grades kindergarten through third with a stipend paid to teachers who participate. Those teachers will use what they learned and apply it to the schools in which they teach.
“I believe without a doubt that if the child in my classroom is not learning I have not done my job in getting them where they need to be,” the former educator said.
She said the state is looking at increasing the homestead tax exemption from $15,000 to $25,000. That would return $1.4 billion to Texas taxpayers. They are also looking at decreasing the franchise tax by 25 percent. “We’re going to give business owners their money back to invest in their business or create new jobs because it’s yours,” Farney said.
She said voters will also get a chance to consider a constitutional amendment that will generate a portion of tax revenue for the Texas Highway Fund.
“This way we’re not going to increase taxes, we’re not going to put tolls on the roads, we’re not going to have any additional fees for you and no toll roads can be built with this money,” Farney assured. “We’re looking to add $2.5 billion to the State Highway Fund if you vote to approve that.”
She said 19 of the bills she authored were sent to the Governor’s desk. Forty-nine bills she co-authored were also moved on to Abbott.
From the Senate
Holloway spoke on behalf of Schwertner who was unable to attend due to his wife’s minor surgery.
Schwertner, R-Georgetown, served as chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.
“(He) has a pretty large role and voice in determining the health policy in the state of Texas,” Holloway explained. He is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which along with the House Appropriations Committee, work together to write the budget.
“It’s the only bill that actually needs to pass or we all have to come back as we go into overtime as they say, through the summer,” Holloway explained. “Unlike the federal budget, we have to pass a balanced budget every two years. If we don’t come back and show that revenue equals spending or less, then we’re going to have to stay here until it gets done. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that’s the system we live under.”
Landmark tax relief, the Chief of Staff said, is one of the hallmarks of the session.
“I think it’s encouraging that Texas is in the position to be cutting taxes and give you guys some of your money back. It’s not the case certainly in most states,” he said.
The business, or franchise tax, mentioned by Farney, is “deeply unpopular,” Holloway explained.
Had Senate Bill 8 passed, he said, it would have provided $4 million total revenue exemption for all small businesses.
“This bill (Schwertner) authored, Small Business Relief Act, is really just a way of saying for these small and medium-sized businesses that are really kind of on the edge here and struggling to make it in some cases, the franchise tax represents an unnecessary tax burden that all it’s doing is holding them back from hiring new people, growing our economy,” Holloway said. The measure failed to pass, but Schwertner plans to introduce it again in 2017.
Holloway also mentioned “positive steps” taken to stop illegal immigration. “It’s a situation we have in Texas it’s sort of drawing immigrants to our state and to our country,” Holloway said, adding more DPS troopers should help alleviate the situation.
“This is a way to fight the problem in a more targeted way. Not saying we need to deal with this in a broad sense but with a scalpel. There are certainly people that mean to do us harm, not everyone. There are some that are here to make a better life for themselves and their families, but there are others who are bringing in drugs and problems across the border,” Holloway said. “Hopefully, having that increased DPS presence will make a big difference for Texas.”
Holloway also mentioned the higher education tuition issue, where cost of attendance seems to be ever-growing without a cap.
“It’s (tuition) growing much faster than the rate of inflation. It’s getting harder and harder to afford what used to be considered affordable education,” he said, adding that Schwertner hears about this issue from families throughout the district.
Holloway said one of the factors is the decision by the Texas legislature to de-regulate tuition.
“What it did is take the decision on what the rate of tuition should be away from the legislature where it had typically been,” he said, adding the decision now falls to the boards of regents at the various institutions.
Schwertner’s proposal was for the board of regents to remain the authority on tuition rates but that those rates couldn’t rise faster than the rate of inflation.
Legislators also authorized tuition revenue bonds to be used to toward Texas A&M Health Science Center in Round Rock and another building for Texas State University Campus-Round Rock.
Campus carry was the subject of much debate this session. Students across the state fought for their right to carry guns on campus to feel safer, but the majority of institutions opposed the legislation. House Bill 910 allows concealed gun permit holders to display their handgun openly.
Another bill that was important to Schwertner, who serves on the Sunset Advisory Commission, was Senate Bill 304.
“When we were looking at the Department of Aging and Disability Services, we found that the penalties that were put in place and the actions that were being taken against bad nursing homes were comically bad,” Holloway said. “There were several nursing homes that had been cited dozens of times for serious high level health and safety violations that put at risk the health and safety of their elderly residents and nothing was being done about this.” These homes were allowed to pay small fines and continue operating.
“He (Schwertner) passed a law, and it was a pretty big fight with the nursing home industry, this last session. Senate Bill 304, called the Three Strikes Bill, basically said if you’re a nursing home and you’re cited for three of the highest level violations that put one of your family members in direct risk of health or safety over the course of 24 months then they will lose their license.”
Mental health was another area Schwertner tackled.
One of the biggest problems in Texas, Holloway said, is workforce development.
“We don’t have enough and that’s a big problem in Texas. SB 239 was a bill we worked on with Gov. Abbott to provide student loan repayment assistance for folks that will enter those fields – psychology, psychiatry, license professional counselors, mental health nurses and clinical social workers that agree to serve underserved Texans,” Holloway said.
There is a similar program for general physicians who serve Medicaid patients, he said.
“I think there’s a hidden cost to not doing this. Those with mental illness aren’t going anywhere just because we don’t have people to serve them,” Holloway said. “They become addicted to drugs, they end up on the streets, they end up getting arrested, they end up in our criminal justice system which is really the worst place to serve them.
“They clog up the emergency rooms, they clog up the jails. There’s much better ways to serve these people and make sure they have every opportunity to lead productive lives they’re capable of leading,” Holloway continued. “In order to get there we need to increase the number of providers that are there providing mental health services to these folks.”