In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Chris Wallace, CEO of the North Texas Commission, spoke with government reporter Rachel Behrndt about how the organization shapes the region’s legislative priorities and how North Texas can work together to keep up with rapid growth.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behrndt: What is the North Texas Commission and what are its goals and aims today?
Chris Wallace: The Commission is the region’s advocacy lead in Austin and Washington, D.C., And so we are leading our advocacy voice in both our state and our nation’s capital. We bring the public and private sector leaders together within our 13 county region to really address some of our toughest challenges. We are certainly all about federal and state policies that promote a thriving business environment and that promote a strong local government structure.
We are pro-local control, excellence in our public schools, and an increasingly skilled workforce pipeline, which is our No. 1 challenge in our region and in our state, along with infrastructure and housing attainability. So we tackle those challenges by bringing the public and private sectors together to build a really unified region, where we are looking at sustainability looking at inclusivity. In a growing economy, that’s what we’re all about.
Behrndt: North Texas is a really rapidly growing region. Of course, we’re focused on Fort Worth, which is also absolutely rapidly expanding. I’m wondering what are the key areas of investment that the organization has been able to identify where leaders can ensure that as our population grows, we as a region are able to keep pace with that growth.
Wallace: What we do at the commission, is to work with our city partners in Fort Worth, and our county partners such as Tarrant County, and the private sector companies, including the Chamber of Commerce and others to make sure that we have six key assets and make sure companies continue to move here.
It’s why companies continue to expand here. We have a safe, diversified economy.
- We do have a very diversified portfolio of industries across our 13 county region.
- Second is a growing skilled labor force, we will continue to help grow that labor force. The foundation of that workforce is in our public schools. So we want to make sure that we’re keeping our public schools strong, and that they have the resources they need.
- The third is a reasonable regulatory climate, we want to make sure that we have an environment that is conducive in which to do business.
- Fourth is a rational tax system.
- Fifth is easy accessibility. With DFW airport, for the most part, you can be in and out on the same day. It is obviously one of our major economic engines in our region, and we want to make sure that we continue to make sure that it’s strong.
- And then, finally, embracing innovation. A lot of innovative projects are being cultivated, tried and tested right here in North Texas.
So those are the six points that we work very closely with our public-private sector partners to make sure that we protect.
Behrndt: What are the key components of protecting those items? What are the key ingredients and achieving some of those aims?
Wallace: The use of public-private partnerships: We are asking the Legislature to allow the use of them more in projects. Bringing private funds together with public dollars, bringing expertise from the public and private sectors, we typically find that’s better in terms of speed to market, it’s more efficient, and it’s less taxpayer money. And, you know, the outcome typically is a lot better and higher quality.
We’re all interconnected. I can’t think of any other region around the country that looks like ours, where our population is booming. So because of that growth, and because of the challenges that that growth brings with it, we have to work together. And autonomy is our worst enemy because we share education systems, transportation systems, healthcare systems, water systems, and infrastructure. It’s very common to live in one county and work in another county. So we’re all relying on each other and it’s important that the leaders all work together for that.
Behrndt: There have been some major spending bills that will send funds all over the country and North Texas has definitely gotten its fair share, how do we effectively leverage that money? And why is it so important that that money is invested wisely across the region?
Wallace: The money’s there, whether you’re a member of Congress who voted for it or not. Whatever you feel about the dollars put into the pandemic recovery, we want to make sure that we’re getting our fair share. We’re just a third or more of the state’s Gross Domestic Product. So you know, we can get a third or more of those allocated funds? We certainly have shovel-ready projects. But we want to make sure that our region gets our fair share. And I think the Legislature is going to want to weigh in on that during the 88th session, of the state Legislature, as well. So that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to block and tackle and make sure that our priorities are heard.
Behrndt: And you mentioned the 88th session. I’m sure that you’re gearing up for that already. Looking ahead, what are some of the major areas that you think people should be paying attention to that are going to be really consequential for the region?
Wallace: Protecting our public schools. Public schools are the foundation of our workforce pipeline. We want to make sure that taxpayer money is going into our public schools and we’re going to be having a discussion about our accountability system, our assessment of schools, is it fair? Then later in the year, we’ll be making priority recommendations for the 118th Congress. So stay tuned, because we’re gonna have a lot of issues, whether it’s school vouchers, whether it’s charter schools, we want to make sure that our higher education institutions are certainly in the mix.
This last session was supposed to be a higher education-focused session, and a lot of it was certainly about COVID relief and recovery naturally. So I think this next session, we will be having more of a discussion on higher education. So we’ll be in lockstep hand in hand with our institutions of higher education as well from our reach to make sure that those needs are being fulfilled.
Behrndt: I’m wondering how some of those more controversial bills or actions, I’m thinking of the recent news about transgender children, impacts the region and people’s willingness to move here and start a family here and how your organization thinks about that.
Wallace: We hear from our business leaders, and from our civic leaders as well, that what they want is greater stability. They want a predictable environment for business and investment. That’s what it boils down to. In the overall scheme, we have broader issues that we need to be paying close attention to and spending resources and tax dollars on and solving real problems, not looking for problems to cater to a voting base.
Behrndt: I want to talk a little bit more about that, because obviously, Texas has a long tradition of being a very fiscally conservative, you know, sort of pro-business state. Do you think that the Legislature in Austin is getting away from that tradition in a way that should trouble business leaders? And if so, how do you advocate against that?
Wallace: I hope it’s just temporary messaging related to campaigning. I hope after all is said and done after the elections, that we’re going to focus on the business of Texas. And I think that’s what most people want to see. We look for four key elements: Making sure that we are pro-business, pro-local control, pro-public schools, and pro-growth. And if we’re those four things, I think that creates greater stability and a predictable environment for business investment, which benefits everybody, employers, employees, job creation projects, which is what we’re all about.
Texas continues to be one of the best places in which to do business. We want to make sure that we keep it that way, and a lot of these ideas that have been floated… are just ideas. If they become pieces of legislation as we’ve seen in the past, then we will mount a large coalition and we will ask business leaders to speak up. We want to make sure that Texas is an environment that will recruit talent from all over the world, people want to move here, and that we’re fully accepting of all people.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.