Local government officials gathered en masse Tuesday to lay out a state legislative wish list that includes everything from Interstate 35 expansion to full-day pre-kindergarten.
With two of the area’s state legislators listening, they called for action on uninsured patient costs and funding for public schools and colleges.
The city of Waco convened the meeting with elected and appointed officials from McLennan County, Waco Independent School District, McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College.
Mike Morrison, a consultant for the city and former Waco mayor, put together the legislative priority list beforehand with input from all of those entities. Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. asked each board to pass resolutions in support of the agenda.
Duncan said each entity plays a different role in the community, but they have shared goals.
“From the city’s standpoint, education cannot be separated from poverty,” Duncan said. “We’ve got to do our part to increase college outcomes. We can’t wait until they’re seniors in high school. Education is the top priority for the city.”
If nothing else, Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler said, local entities in the 2015 legislative session need protection from “unfunded mandates” and legislative threats to their tax base.
“We play a lot of defense every time the legislature meets,” Fisseler said.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, joined the conversation at the brief policy summit. They said it would help guide them in the 2015 legislative session, but they made no specific promises about legislation and seemed to dismiss some of the recommendations as fiscally unrealistic.
But Birdwell said he will be careful of passing on costs to lower levels of government.
“If we’re going to do something that’s free to the state but impacts your budget, we’re highly sensitive to that,” he said. “That message is going to be heard and repeated.”
Some of the priorities listed for the groups include:
Universal full-time pre-kindergarten.
Flexibility in design of career and technology curriculum.
More funding for community and technical colleges.
Support for the “Texas Way,” a low-income, market-based medical coverage option that the Texas Hospital Association has proposed as a way to draw down federal Medicaid funding after the state already has rejected Medicaid expansion.
Restoring job training money that was cut in 2010.
After Birdwell said the Legislature probably would not restore job training funds to 2009 levels, Bill Clifton, head of the Waco Industrial Foundation, challenged him to reconsider.
“We really do look at it as an investment, not a cost of government,” he said.
Birdwell responded, “I know you and I have had some passionate discussions about this.”
“I just wish I was more convincing,” Clifton replied.
Waco Independent School District Superintendent Bonny Cain asked legislators to push for full-day pre-kindergarten, saying it would give lower-income students a better chance for future academic and personal success.
Cain said students who go through pre-K are less likely to be referred for special education, drop out of high school or be involved in criminal activity.
State funded pre-K would provide more learning opportunities for low-income students who often enter kindergarten without proper social and verbal skills, she said.
“They come in substantially behind their middle-income peers,” Cain said.
In an interview, Birdwell said pre-K expansion isn’t fiscally realistic in this legislative session.
“The cost is just too large,” he said. “Just for the expansion of what we have now to full time, that’s $1.8 billion. That’s nice to have, but I’ve got road issues and Medicaid (issues) to deal with.”
Likewise, he expressed skepticism over the “Texas Way” for reducing uninsured health costs, saying he would have to study to see if it is just a repackaged version of “Medicaid expansion,” which he has opposed in the past.
Birdwell said he has to balance the desires of local officials with stewardship of the state budget.
“I’m trying to make sure that as a state legislator I’m not simply going to Austin and voting for things in the local area that local folks may want with disregard for the solvency of the state,” he said.
But Birdwell added that the sit-down with local officials was “a great way to sit down and listen to what the issues are.”