Transportation projects, new M.D. program pushed by local leaders in Austin

Posted Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- Nearly 200 government officials and business leaders from Tarrant County presented lawmakers with a legislative wish list for one of the nation's fastest-growing counties Thursday, including adequate funding for transportation projects and creation of an M.D. program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

The two-day lobbying trip -- called Tarrant County Days -- was sponsored by all 24 chambers of commerce in Tarrant County and drew officials from the county government as well as city council members from Fort Worth, Arlington and burgeoning suburbs.

The Tarrant emissaries combined goodwill gestures, such as a breakfast at the Austin Club and reception at the DoubleTree Hotel, with one-on-one visits with lawmakers to pitch their legislative agenda before returning home late Thursday.

Fort Worth leaders, as well as chamber officials, are asking lawmakers to resurrect a proposal from the 2011 session to create an M.D. program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, noting that Fort Worth is the 16th-largest city in the nation, said the fast-growing metropolitan region deserves "to have a great medical education" and could support both an osteopathic school and a medical school.

"We have the strongest D.O. program in the nation and we would never want to threaten that," Price said. "North Texas Health Science Center and the D.O. program have been huge partners for the city, brought a lot of revenue, brought a lot of people, a lot of goods, but we believe the expansion would be good for all of us."

UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson told the Star-Telegram last month that the M.D. school initiative continues to be a top priority, but no legislation has been introduced. Supporters of the school have raised more than $25 million in private donations for upfront costs but need legislative approval to authorize creating a medical school.

Price said osteopathic physicians "can rest assured they're not going to lose any of their strength and focus." Although some issues vary from community to community, Tarrant's political leaders seem united on many of the top priorities in a county of more than 1.8 million residents. "Transportation, transportation, transportation," said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, the county's top administrator, echoing a common assessment of many leaders.

Some of the initiatives could likely find a chilly reception in the 83rd Legislature.

A majority of the chambers of commerce, in a position paper circulated during the visit, are urging lawmakers to increase the vehicle registration fee and allow the state's gasoline tax to rise with the rate of inflation as steps to boost transportation funding. Gov. Rick Perry and leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature have consistently said no to tax increases.

"I don't see that happening in this Legislature," said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. "The business community wants to make the case that there's not adequate funding for transportation projects, but the [Republican] leadership has made it pretty clear that they're not going to bring it up."

Revenue needs

Price, however, said that lawmakers should take a look at increasing the taxes as they consider ways to boost funding for projects in fast-growing areas such as the Metroplex.

"I think they need to look at it and see what the impact is going to be," she said. "We don't want to be a burden for citizens but citizens have to understand that we have to be able to deliver ... roads and infrastructure."

Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, told members of the Tarrant County legislative delegation last month that the current system "can't possibly generate the revenue required to fund our transportation needs" unless the Legislature boosts the gas tax and vehicle registration fee.

Of the $15 billion in North Texas road projects over the next five years, less than 20 percent are being financed by state funds, Price said. "We've really had to be creative to deliver road projects," she said. "It's putting a strain on local government."

The gasoline tax hasn't been increased since 1991. The Coalition of Tarrant County Chambers of Commerce is calling on the Legislature to peg the motor fuel tax to the consumer price index and raise the vehicle registration fee "so that it more reflects the current economic reality."

The chambers are also calling for creation of a dedicated funding source for transportation and want lawmakers to end the diversion of gas tax revenue for purposes other than transportation funding.

Other issues pushed by the Tarrant County business community include continuing the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, and permanently continuing a $1 million exemption for the state franchise tax. Chamber officials also want to boost funding for Texas community colleges to keep pace with enrollment growth over the past several years.

Perry has continually touted the enterprise fund and technology fund, which operate through his office and offer grants to attract ventures to Texas. Democratic critics of the funds say at least some of the money would be better spent to restore cuts in education and healthcare, but chamber officials say the economic incentive programs should be continued to stoke job growth in the Metroplex.

Unfunded mandates

In addition to pushing legislative proposals, Tarrant County communities are playing defense to prevent the Legislature from burdening local governments with costly unfunded mandates. "Local control is our mantra," said T.J. Patterson, Fort Worth's manager of legislative affairs.

Tarrant County's legislative delegation underwent a significant face-lift in the 2012 elections and now has seven freshman lawmakers: five Republicans and two Democrats. The delegation comprises 11 House members and four senators.

Lawmakers took turns introducing themselves at Thursday's breakfast. Freshman Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, acknowledged that the delegation "lost a lot of seniority" but said the local lawmakers are "absolutely committed" to representing Tarrant County effectively.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who was elected this week as the delegation chairwoman, told the visitors that the legislators will work to make sure that Tarrant County remains "a huge economic engine."

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, accused the 2011 Legislature of taking a "slash and burn approach" to public education and said his fundamental goal will be to help restore $5.4 billion in education cuts. "We have not done teachers right," he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

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