Bay Area leaves its mark on the Texas Legislature

May 1st, 2017

Bay Area Houston community leaders arrive at the Texas Capitol in Austin to promote education and a number of other subjects. In all, about 300 business people, residents and educators made the trip – some more than once.

By Mary Alys Cherry

The Texas Legislature may seem rather far removed from life in Bay Area Houston.

However, you can rest assured that our area has left its mark on Austin thinking this legislative session as dozens and dozens of local business people, astronauts and aerospace executives, mariners, chemical engineers, educators and everyday housewives – about 300 in all – have made their voices heard in the Texas Capitol during visits over a span of several days.

Target topics included education, the maritime jobs preservation, Ellington Field, the state franchise tax, healthcare, the Texas Spaceport Trust Fund, Texas Aerospace Scholars and storm surge protection.

Besides the bus loads led by Clear Lake Chamber President Cindy DeWease, League City Chamber President Steve Paterson and Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell going up to Austin, many went by car.

State Legislator Dennis Paul and his district director, Debra Risinger, center, explains the current workings of the Texas House and Senate to Chris and Dawn McDonald, left, and Judge Holly Williamson and Tom Boone to the capitol in Austin.

A GOOD EXPERIENCE
“As champions for business success and quality of life in our community advocacy is one of our top priorities,” the Clear Lake Chamber CEO said. “The impact that this biennial trip by representatives from our business community has on our state senators and representatives is significant and we thank all those involved,” she added.

BAHEP’s Mitchell agreed. “We had very successful meetings on both days of our trip to Austin and feel that our messages were heard and understood. The priorities we discussed must be legislatively addressed as necessary for the continued growth of the region. Due to the budget shortfall, we are justifiably concerned about the future of Texas Aerospace Scholars and the Technology Outreach Program and hope that a resolution can be found to continue these worthwhile programs.”

The League City Chamber president thinks “the feedback from our group was very good and included comments such as ‘meaningful, eventful, illuminating’ shared with us. The group was enthused that they were able to play a part in the process. It was wonderful working with experienced partners like the Clear Lake Area Chamber…and BAHEP…”

Other area chamber officials in the mix included Galveston County Economic Development Director Bix Rathburn, Texas City/La Marque Chamber President Jenny Sentor and Galveston Chamber President Gina Spagnola.  Plus representatives from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

MANY EDUCATORS
Some of the better known voices legislators heard from in the education field were UH-Clear Lake President Dr. Bill Staples, College of the Mainland President Dr. Warren Nichols and San Jac Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer; Clear Creek, Friendswood and Pasadena ISD Superintendents Dr. Greg Smith, Trish Hanks and Dr. DeeAnn Powell  and La Porte Deputy Superintendent Linda Wadleigh; plus CCISD School Board President Dr. Laura DuPont and Communications Director Elaina Polsen, Communities in Schools-Bay Area CEO Dr. Peter Wuenschel and Clear Creek Education Foundation Director Kaci Hanson – there to plead for funds for public schools and workforce development, plus community colleges and universities.

Joining them were League City Mayor Pat Hallisey, Kemah Mayor Carl Joiner and Interim Police Administrator Chris Reed, Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, Taylor Lake Village Councilman Bob Davee, Kemah Councilman Kyle Burkes, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, South Shore Harbour Resort GM Roy Green, Amoco Credit Union President Shawn Bailey, Gulf Coast Educators Credit Union President Jamieson Mackey, attorney Randy Ashby, Memorial Hermann Government Relations Director Ashlea Quinonez of Memorial Hermann, Bay Area Regional Medical Center Vice President Santiago Mendoza Jr., and retired JSC Human Resources Director Harv Hartman.

Each spent a day meeting with legislators while many made several trips and spent multiple trips trying to help our communities.

Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, from left, and Deputy Director Mark Geyer join Houston City Councilman Dave Martin and Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell in the legislature chambers during Space Day at the Capitol.

SPACE DAY
NASA sponsored Space Day to celebrate space exploration and its achievements with Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, JSC Deputy Director Mark Geyer and astronaut Rex Walheim on hand to explain the many space exhibits – the International Space Station, Orion, the Commercial Crew Program — and visit with the many Bay Area residents who call this their favorite day.

Walking around the Capitol, it didn’t take long before one would bump into someone from here. Folks like John Martinec, who carried the banner for the Ellington Field Task Force initiative; Greg Allison, who has worked for a number of years trying to help the local maritime industry; Mark Rush, who was there to remind legislators of the State Franchise Tax drawbacks; Ashlea Quinonez of Memorial Hermann, who pointed out how hospitals are not being compensated by either the state or federal governments; and Bob Mitchell, who led a discussion on funding for the proposed Coastal Spine to protect our area from storm surge – all to make our lives better.

Houston Pension Solution takes historic step forward in Texas Legislature

March 21st, 2017

After hearing testimony from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and many others, the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee Monday, March 20 voted to send the Houston Pension Solution to the full senate for approval.  With one exception, the measure passed out of committee is the same reform package supported by a 16-1 vote of City Council and forwarded to Austin by the City of Houston.

“This is a historic day,” said Mayor Turner.  “With today’s vote, the state affairs committee joins the growing list of supporters for the Houston Pension Solution.  Our plan eliminates $8.1 billion in unfunded liability, caps future costs, does not require a tax increase and is budget neutral.  There is no other plan that achieves these goals and has the same consensus of support.”

The state affairs committee measure includes a provision requiring a vote for the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds (POBs).  The agreement between the city and the Houston Police Officers Pension System (HPOPS), as well as the Houston Municipal Employees Pension System (HMEPS), includes the issuance of $1 billion in pension bonds to replace existing debt the city already owes HPOPS and HMEPS.  They will not result in new borrowing.

“We oppose the inclusion of this provision and will continue to fight for its removal,” said Turner.  “As my father taught me, a deal is a deal.  We have kept our word to the police and municipal employee pension systems.  Now I am asking the Texas Legislature to do the same.”

The mayor is reiterating a call to the Houston Firefighter Relief and Retirement Fund (HFRRF) to provide data on the true costs of providing firefighter pension benefits.

He was joined in that call by Texas Sen. Joan Huffman, who is sponsoring the Houston Pension Solution in the Texas Senate.  Both the mayor and Huffman indicated willingness to revisit the proposed changes in firefighter pension benefits if HFRRF will provide the cost analysis it has, so far, refused to release.

Mayor Turner will travel to Austin again next Monday to testify before the Texas House Committee on Pensions.  The House version of the bill does not include the requirement of a vote for POBs.