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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Grading the Legislature: Business leaders buoyed by success in transportation, water

By Martha Deller   For the first time in a decade, North Texas business leaders are heartened by signs that Texas lawmakers will approve more funding for water and transportation resources they say are desperately needed to spur economic development. Their hopes were further buoyed March 27 when the House approved nearly unanimously a bill to create a revolving “water bank” to develop local and regional water projects. House Bill (HB) 4, which was approved 146-2, now goes to the Senate. The House now must consider HB11, a companion bill, to withdraw $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to launch the proposed State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT). That measure may be harder to pass, said David Parker, regional vice president of AT&T who chairs the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce government affairs committee. “As long as people see water coming out of the tap, they don’t worry about reservoirs and conservation efforts,” Parker said. “The Rainy Day Fund is always a very controversial and partisan issue – whether to use it or save it for an emergency.” Parker said water officials may be competing with transportation and education supporters for money from the Rainy Day Fund.  Those are among the top priorities of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which also supports legislation on affordable health care, air quality, the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base economic development, which includes the emerging technology and enterprise funds, the Texas Tax Code and franchise taxes.  North Texas business officials say state government leaders are finally acting on some issues that they and their associations have been pushing for years.   Transportation Russell Laughlin, senior vice president of Hillwood Properties, president of the 35W Coalition and a member of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, said the Texas business community has been trying to solve transportation needs for 30 years. That includes about 20 years on I-35 and 10 years of legislative sessions, he said. “Those needs are huge,” Laughlin said. “They are underfunded by $5 million to $7 million a year. That’s what the biennial budget is now.” Legislators are considering a number of funding options, including restoring to the transportation budget money that has been “diverted” to public safety, Laughlin said. Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, said additional money could come from increasing auto registration fees by $30. Those fees, which haven’t been raised since 1985, still would be among the lowest in the U.S. California fees are about $300, he said. Transportation supporters also would like an increase in the state portion of gas sales taxes, which have been 15-cents a gallon since 1991, Suhm said. Suhm said the auto registration increases have a better chance of passage than the gas sales tax increase or obtaining money from the Rainy Day Fund, which is also being sought for education and water. “We’re still trying to get some of that vehicle sales tax into the highway fund,” he said. “I don’t have high hopes, but we’re going to try. Sales tax is a growing revenue source. The gas tax is declining revenue.”   Education Education supporters, who are still reeling from $5 billion in cuts two years ago, want those funds restored. But they also want changes in the new state student assessment and school accountability system. The Fort Worth chamber supports those goals in part. But business leaders are most interested in proposals to prepare students to work after high school or extend their educations to college. David Bloxom, president of Speed-Fab Crete, said the construction industry association is working with state and local education officials to start a charter school in the Dallas area to teach students all aspects of the construction industry. Bloxom said the school, which would be situated at a construction site, would offer students an option that is not available in many school districts. “They’d get training in trades like electricians and plumbers or as project managers so they could enter the work force after high school or go on to college,” he said. Parker, the AT&T regional vice president, said business and education officials have not always worked closely together but that has changed in recent years. “Business has to have a qualified workforce,” he said. “We’ve got to have technical trades. Let them start to tweak that pathway in high school. One size doesn’t need all. The key part of the chamber and economic development is attracting business. If the school system and quality of teaching and training is not there, it’s a real tough sell.”   Small Business Area small businesses support most of the chamber priorities. But they have a few of their own. Bloxom, the construction firm owner, said regulations and taxes are his biggest headaches. Legislators had introduced a bill to reduce franchise taxes for small businesses by expanding the number of business expenses that can be included as exempt items. But Bloxom said that was resolved without legislation. “They were getting really restrictive about what items were considered non-exempt,” he said. “Direct costs of the goods are excluded but overhead costs were not. The business coalition got with the comptroller’s office and worked it out.” Bloxom said business owners have different views of worker’s compensation, which many small businesses opt to provide themselves instead of using the state system which Texas allows. “Personally I carry it, but some small businesses can’t afford it,” he said. In general, Bloxom said, “most small businesses struggle to meet the basic requirements of running a business. If you ask most small businesses, they’ll say leave us alone.”

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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