Going into the next session of the Texas Legislature, things will be different, and likely “even more of a challenge than it has been in the past” for county officials, said former state senator Robert Duncan in a speech Tuesday.
Duncan, who served in the Legislature for more than two decades, first in the House of Representatives and later in the state Senate, spoke to an auditorium full of socially-distanced attendees at Abilene Convention Center to launch the 98th Annual County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Conference.
County judges and county commissioners are opinion leaders, especially in rural counties, said Duncan, also former chancellor of the Texas Tech University System
Duncan said he remains hopeful that the legislative process still reflects that the state and counties are partners, whether “red or blue.”
There is no one size fits all in a state like Texas, he said.
“We’re very fortunate that we have local control, I believe, in our counties,” he said, having a hand on the pulse of issues such as jail standards, law enforcement, mental health issues, child welfare, and similar topics.
Clear communication with state legislators, then, is “critical to your success,” he told attendees at the convention, which has brought about 400 people to Abilene.
Larger, urban counties do have great sway, Duncan said, something of which their rural counterparts must be conscious.
Houston and Dallas, for example, command 15 of 31 state Senate seats. Houston alone claims nine.
The three primary leaders in the state — the governor, the speaker and the lieutenant governor — are all from Harris County.
“If you’re going to have to win by the numbers, it’s going to be difficult for rural counties … to compete,” he said.
That means doing things in “a different way,” he said, and “sticking together.”
Now is the time for rural counties to start building relationships with legislators and staff, before the “drama” of the legislative process threatens to drown out their voices,
Members have to make their decisions based on what their constituents’ problems are, he said.
“Once people understand the problem, there’s more tolerance for the types of solution that have to be implemented,” Duncan said.
To understand present legislative challenges, one must look to recent history, Duncan said.
When he served in the Texas House more than 25 years ago, Gov. Ann Richards presided over essentially a blue state.
Both political parties have “kind of shifted and gone really further away … from the middle than where they were in 1992 and 1993,” he said.
It’s also important to understand the current political differences in rural and urban counties, he said.
In the 2016 presidential election, Hilary Clinton got 50 percent of her Texas votes from five urban counties, all east of Interstate 35.
“Everything west of I-35 was Trump,” he said, showing Democratic alignments are closely tied to urban areas.
Conversely, Rick Perry won his governor’s race because the votes he got in West Texas counties offset the margin he lost in urban counties, Duncan said.
“That shows you that local government is very, very important as it relates to how the legislative process will work for you,” he said.
In the upcoming state legislative session, “we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Duncan said.
“We may even have a (Texas) House that very close, is a lot closer than it is today with a Republican majority, or a House that has a slim Democrat majority — which means the speaker of the House would be a Democrat,” he said.
There will be a new speaker “no matter who it is,” he said.
“I’m sure those shifts will continue past our lifetimes as the country grows and as our state grows,” he said.
Changes in visibility and communication have also affected the legislative process, Duncan said.
The addition of televised Texas House and Senate hearings proceedings heralded a change in ability to build coalitions, he said.
“We like transparency,” he said. “But on the other hand, there needs to be some discipline in there about how you get problems solved, and how (avoid) making division by things that are said just out of theater, basically.”
The addition of social media is another major change to the process, with constituents and others able to provide immediate feedback on any statement — or gaffe, accidental or not — made.
“It’s the way most of of our young people get their news,” he said. “And so, social media has changed the way the legislative process works to the extent that everybody has to be more sensitive to the issues.”
Throughout the legislative process, everyone must be willing to listen, talk less and respect opposing views, Duncan said.
“If you don’t respect it, you can’t figure out a way to address the issues or the objections or the advocacy that they have in opposition to what they’re trying to do,” he said.
Ideally, that respect becomes reciprocal, he said.
“Over time, they’re going to be in your camp more often,” he said, even in a time when “tolerance seems to have gone away a little bit about opposing views, opposing parties.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Read or Share this story: https://www.reporternews.com/story/news/2020/10/06/duncan-texas-counties-must-band-together-present-legislative-needs/3637239001/