County judges have role to play in state goverment
One of the less obvious roles of the county judge is our role in state government. You might be thinking, wait a minute, we elected you to take care of business here in Milam County, what are you doing fooling around over there in Austin?
Well, the problem is in how the government of Texas was laid out in the state constitution. County governments are defined in the constitution and basically were set up to be outposts or extensions of the state government.
Almost all of the laws that govern affairs in county government are written and passed by the state legislature. Commissioner’s courts have been given very little authority relative to local law.
We can do a few things like control the local budget but under very strict guidelines, enact a few things like rural subdivision rules, call for burn bans, and the like.
But most of what we’re required to do in our departments, in our courts, and with our money is dictated by the state legislature and by the state administrative departments.
Therefore, if we want to bring about change, influence new legislation that affects us, impact the amount of money they give us, or worse still, the amount of money they extract from us, I’ve got to do my best to be heard and be an influence.
I do that through our state senator and state representative and their staf f, through our Texas Association of Counties (TAC) organization, in concert with other county judges, and so forth.
Here are a few examples. I participated in a per-legislative conference conducted by TAC on Aug. 29-31 in Austin at which we discussed the issues facing counties in the upcoming legislative session.
I am a part of their county judges’ core legislative group whose members work with the TAC lobbyists to do such things as testify at committee hearings, call senators and representatives on issues of importance to counties, and otherwise work to promote our cause.
On Nov. 29, I will attend a legislative conference at the capitol where our core legislative group of judges will discuss the coming session and meet with some of the legislators. On Jan. 22, a group of East Texas county judges that I am af f iliated with is also set to meet at the capitol to discuss issues with our legislators. I also meet periodically during the session with a group of county judges representing rural county interests.
Key concerns that counties will be addressing this next year include budget issues such as legislators “sweeping” funds from dedicated accounts for use other that their originally intended purpose.
This happened in a number of instances this past session and then counties are left to pick up the tab.
A prime example is dedicated 9-1-1 fees charged on phone bills, these funds being dedicated for maintenance and upgrading of our 9-1-1 systems (we have two in the county).
In a sense county residents have to pay twice when we pay the surcharge on our phone bill and then city or county governments have to pay again to maintain or upgrade these systems with local tax dollars because the funds collected by the state for this purpose were used for something else.
Other issues involve indigent defense, indigent health care, other types of health care funding, roads, jail standards, appraisal and revenue caps, consolidation of appraisal districts, control and disposal of stray animals, water issues, transportation of prisoners and bodies, records storage and other records issues, and on and on.
Some of these I’ve addressed in previous ar t icles, others you’ll hear more about in coming months.
To sum it up, I learned quickly that to be an effective county judge requires that I must do my best to try to be an influence in Austin in order for us to have the right kind of things happen in county government here in Milam County.