Less was more: Some North Texas leaders pleased some bills didn’t pass in special session

North Texas Commission

The North Texas Commission held a luncheon titled “To the Point” on Wednesday, Aug. 23, with special guests Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) to get their opinions on how the regular and special sessions went and what their impacts will be.

The luncheon was held at the Courtyard Marriott & TownePlace Suites off Bass Pro in Grapevine and, in typical North Texas Commission fashion, brought out attendees from the public and private sectors.

North Texas Commission President and CEO James Spaniolo opened the event, and after all was said and done commented that he feels the special session allowed the voices and needs of North Texas to be heard.

“In terms of North Texas, our cities and municipalities were very concerned with the property tax limitations bill and I think our whole region was concerned about the possibility of the bathroom bill, and since both of those did not pass I think that was a plus,” Spaniolo said. “In this case, less was more.”

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“I think most of the issues, in terms of this region, were dealt with – one way or another, for better or for worse – in the regular session,” he said, adding that he thinks the most important issues for North Texas are “maintain a positive and vibrant business climate and making sure our cities have the resources that they decide they need to serve the growing population in our region.”

At the luncheon, Fidelity Investments Vice President Scott Orr (SO) moderated a discussion between West (RW) and Capriglione (GC), getting “To the Point” of their thoughts on the sessions.

West represents the 23rd senatorial district, which covers Dallas County, and has served on the Texas Senate since 1992. Capriglione was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2012 and is serving his third term and represents the 90th district, which covers North East Tarrant County.

SO: Senator West, looking at the entire session, is there one particular bill, or a couple of bills, that you were particularly proud of that you authored that you feel good about that passed? Regular or special session.

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RW: During the regular session, many of us recognized that you could probably tell us where you were on July the 7th, that was the day we had the shooting in Downtown Dallas. One of the things we did on a bipartisan basis this legislative session was to try to make sure that the families of those officers knew exactly how we felt about them. SB12 was a bill that appropriates about $25 million to make certain police officers have the best vests and the best [body armor] possible so when they find themselves in those types of special circumstances, they will have the best protection …

Read more about SB12 at https://legiscan.com/TX/bill/SB12/2017.

Another bill that I was real proud of is called the “Community Safety Education Act,” [also known as SB30] … How many of you have a driver’s license? You remember taking your driver’s license test, and you remember studying your driver’s license manual… [we were able to pass a bill] revising the driver’s license manual to make certain that we put in that manual the behavioral expectations of both officers and also citizens at traffic stops. We believe that if you do that then people will know the expectations they will be tested on the expectations [which will help with de-escalation at these traffic stops].

Read more about SB30 at https://legiscan.com/TX/bill/SB30/2017.

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The last one that I was real proud of is finding a permanent alternative to foster care. Many of you may not be aware, but our foster care system is broken. We continue to revisit that foster care system. In 2009, I put in place a program called the Kinship Care Act – it was going to Sunset this session, but [we saved it] – which makes certain that family members are the first persons that are looked to if the state needs to remove a child from the home, and that we also provide those family members with a subsidy to make sure they can take care of these children. During the implementation of this program, we have found better results from the kinship care program than the foster care program.

This session’s SB11 built on that 2009 program West introduced, West was a co-sponsor of the bill. Read more about SB11 at https://legiscan.com/TX/bill/SB11/2017.

SO: Representative Capriglione, what was something you were most proud of?

GC: Probably the thing I spent the most amount of time on was cyber security and cybercrime related legislation. We had heard from a lot of different industries and constituents about cyber-attacks, malware, all these sorts of things. I worked with the speaker’s office and ended up filing HB8 and HB9 and really started to focus in on how large state agencies can improve their cyber security defenses. Our department of information resources is essentially the IT department of the state. We have like 200 agencies and they have told me that they’re attacked every month 1.6 billion times. Most of those are attacks from outside this country… We had heard of attacks but we also know that as a state we just have so much of your information – we have your records, social security number, biometrics, we have all that information – and the state of Texas hasn’t, in my opinion, been doing that great a job at making sure it’s infrastructure is solid technically. So, what we worked on this session was investing almost $100 million in IT, cybersecurity, but also just really allowing agencies to focus on training for cyber security so professionals would understand. I also put inside the bill things related to cyber security election integrity… I know Dallas county may have had a couple of attacks during the last election.

Read more about HB8 at https://legiscan.com/TX/bill/HB8/2017. Read more about HB9 at https://legiscan.com/TX/bill/HB9/2017.

SO: The North Texas Commission is unique, I believe, in North Texas in that it represents both business and municipal interests. The general discussions among our committees is that this session in particular seemed to be more hostile toward both business and local governments at the same time. Do you believe this is true, and if so, what do you think the implications are for the future?

GC: I think it’s true. There is definitely a lot more antagonism toward our municipalities, our local communities, school districts and our business. That goes without saying. I think half of our special session items in some way related to that. I’ll tell you, I represent North East Tarrant County and, in my opinion, we have some of the finest cities and some of the finest elected officials. Very conservative with managing finances really well. Most of them get elected time and time again. For me it was surprising to see the attack on elected officials, because here I am, they’re doing just about everything they can, they’re the closest they can be to the individual citizens of our area and it just kind of honestly put some of us in a tight spot hearing that ‘The municipalities are out of control and there are problems’ and all this other kind of stuff, but at the same time, where I live, it’s some of the best schools and some of the best cities. But there definitely was a focus on trying to do that and maybe – I hate to put it this way – but real leaders lead. They don’t blame. It just seemed to me there was definitely an attempt to blame the state’s problems on other people.

RW: How many of you believe that the Democratic party and the Republican party no longer represent your interests? What’s happening is we’re seeing more divisiveness as it relates to policy in this country… At the state level, you see attacks on cities. You have the governor and the lieutenant governor saying the democrats that control cities are our problems… Republicans control every branch of government in the state, now the next wave is going to be to control cities… For some strange reason during this last legislative session, we tried to dictate the role of cities – what they should and should not do. That is an all-out assault on cities. So, the question becomes where organizations like [NTC] line up as it relates to these pertinent issues that aren’t going away. We are going to see more of them in the next session. I understand that the government and lieutenant governor are going to make issues that didn’t pass issues for the republican primary. The point I’m making is, you haven’t seen nothing yet…

SO: I think one of the things we saw, especially during the regular session, is where the voices were the most lost. It seems like it took the special session where it was much more concentrated to have CEOs coming out and expressing concerns … How do you think at NTC and other chambers, how can these voices best be heard? Is it money? Is it time? Is it actually getting the CEO to Austin in front of somebody? What is the most impactful to change this?

GC: It doesn’t matter what the groups is, whether it’s business local communities, whatever, it’s the contact that’s the most important. Unless somebody comes to my office and tells me where they stand [I don’t know]. Especially during the regular session. We had 6,000 bills and 1,200 of them passed in the last five to six weeks – so that’s probably not the best time, because those are set to go. Now is the time when you do have to get into rooms and talk to people and say ‘Listen, I supported this and I wish you guys had done this other thing.’ How do you guys support? Yeah there’s money and there’s campaigning, but what about telling your friends and having those conversations. When we’re in Austin, we really are in a bubble. We really don’t get to talk to too many people. So, the conversations have to happen now. I think it’s important for the business community and local officials to really start getting engaged and have those conversations among their peers now.

RW: Absolutely. I think that you have to look at those individuals that supported the measures, resources [and more]. I think during the legislative process that once it begins and you get these bills together you have to make sure that persons like yourselves and other persons in governmental affairs are on top of what potential bills are. Then figure out where your bills are in the legislative process. Use your CEO’s strategically…

SO: Is it just our imagination that things have gotten more divisive?

RW: Oh, not at all, in the Senate. I represent probably 850,000 people and the great thing is all of them are in Dallas county, whereas some senators represent multiple counties as a senatorial district because of the sparsity of the population. When I became a senator, I swore in in ’93, we had rules and it called for the two-thirds rule. That rule basically said if you didn’t have two-thirds of the votes of all the senators of the body then you couldn’t bring a bill to the floor, which required you to go talk to and get support from a democrat or a republican… Prior to Dan Patrick becoming lieutenant governor, we had the two-thirds rule. Once he became lieutenant governor he did away with the two-thirds rule, which doesn’t require … but just 20 members to come across the aisle… There’s more divisiveness… I think that the institution is being damaged by what is happening. I think the president calling for Mitch McConnell to do away with the filibuster damages the institution…

SO: You still got bills passed during the regular session. How do you manage when to reach out, when to not, and does the other party listen when you express concerns?

RW: Do they listen? Yes. Do they vote for it? Sometimes. … If I have legislation that I need support on, I’ll talk to members before to see if I have support and if I don’t have support, there’s no sense in bringing it to the floor. Unless I want to make a spectacle out of it. Depending on how difficult the bill is, it may take three sessions for it to be passed and, when you get it passed, you may not get all you want. You have to try and do it a little bit at a time and build a consensus around the principals that you’re able to.

SO: Even though there’s a Republican majority in the House, it’s not monolithic, everybody doesn’t think the same. How do you manage relationships among your colleagues, even among your own party?

GC: What I would say in the House is there’s really almost 150 different parties, because each member really does focus on their district. When you have a bill and you want to put it out there you do have to have those relationships. I had I think 15 bills passed this past session and 13 of them passed unanimously. One of the things you have to do is understand people are different. You can’t take things personally. A lot of people I think, too, really focus on the vote. But to me, the most surprising thing is that the vote is almost the least important part of the whole thing. What to vote on, compromises, negotiations, [those are important].

RW: One of the most difficult issues I was involved in this session was the Dallas Fire Engine Fund. You have all these fire fighters plus the retired fire fighters that have several different retired fire-fighters unions, you have police and several police unions, you have the mayor and the council persons. All those type-A personalities in one room, you can imagine that was a difficult process. And it got kind of heated. But, once people understood that time wasn’t their ally any longer, I was able to kind of bring together consensus around these issues that led to restructure of the governance…

SO: So, the governor, after the special session, came out and basically blamed Speaker Strauss for not getting many of his special session priorities [though]. He said that elections matter in his statement. From a House standpoint, how does that impact members of the House when choosing a speaker next time? Do you think he’ll be able to run and be re-elected as speaker?

GC: One of the things that’s come up recently is the idea of a rules change inside of the caucus. The Republican party platform has some 300 planks and one of the planks is how to elect the speaker. What they say in there is inside the caucus the Republican members should choose who the speaker is and then everybody should feel obligated to vote for whoever is backed by the caucus. And what I do is I point to the fact that I’ve been there three terms. My first term, the speaker won unanimously, my second term he won 80 percent of the republican caucus and this last time he won 150-0 so I have no problems doing the caucus. But, if you look at past performance and future behavior… there’s always going to be people who attack the leadership whether it’s in the House of the Senate or wherever it is. But each member has to decide for themselves.

RW: That process … should the speaker be elected by a caucus? Hopefully my Republican counters are saying that based on sure governmental change, once people start voting, the pendulum is going to swing…

SO: The rainy-day fund was a little bit of discussion. I know, looking at the analysis of the final budget, that there’s still probably going to be issues that have to be resolved when you guys come back in a couple of years – issues that were pushed off or borrowed from future years. The rainy-day fund – is it the right size and is the current approach to it the right way?

GC: In terms of investing it, the last session I did invest a portion of it, we had at the time about $10 billion in our rainy-day fund and all of this was in a checking account earning about .2 percent interest so in the last session I took about $2.5 billion of that and invested in in about 2.5 percent interest, which generates almost $100 million extra. Tried this session to go a little bit further, I wasn’t successful, but I mean it’s a question you have to ask. Sometimes I wonder – it’s not just politics, it’s this conversation of ‘oh, we’re not going to tough this chink of money but we are going to use and borrow and defer on this other stuff. At the end of this session we had $12 billion dollars in the rainy-day fund, but we’re going to start the next session having to pay $18.9 billion in past deferrals that we didn’t do and we’re going to say ‘That was a fiscally conservative thing. We did not use cash to pay our dues, instead we are just going to say we won’t have them due until the next session. But look, we still have $12 billion in our rainy-day fund.’ So, I think the first thing people have to realize is we don’t have this much in our rainy-day fund, really, as there is. It really is a function of people not wanting to use cash sitting there. I look at it this way, let’s say you have a mortgage and its coming due, you have to pay this month. And you say, ‘Well, you know what? I don’t really want to spend that much this month,’ even though you have $1 million sitting in your checking account, because you really like having that much in the account, so you say, ‘I’m just not going to pay that this month. I’ll pay it next month.’ That’s us, in my opinion.

RW: I concur with [GC] in terms of what he did last session, and would have supported his attempt this session to do the same thing… we need to stop patting ourselves on the back, saying we have $12 million in the rainy-day fund, and reconcile that we recognize [we don’t,] really.