Chris Wallace, CEO of the North Texas Commission. (North Texas Commission)

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Chris Wallace, CEO and president of the North Texas Commission, discusses what his organization, which represents 13 counties and more that 7.5 million people in the region, is focusing on in the next session of the Texas Legislature, which begins Jan. 10. 

Business editor Bob Francis spoke with Wallace.  This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

(Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

Francis: I wondered if you had some comments on some of the main issues the North Texas Commission plans to focus on. 

Wallace: You bet. They center around about three basic buckets. One, obviously workforce spending which is key. So also education, K-12 education, protecting our public schools, making sure they have the resources that they need. That’s the basis, as you know, of our future workforce. And then safety in our public schools. There’s a major teacher workforce shortage, and, if there’s a reason for that, we want to make sure that the legislature addresses that.

The other is workforce readiness. For our institutions of higher education, not just Pre-K-12, but our community colleges and our institutions of higher education. You might recall that this last session was due to be a session focused on higher education. So because of the pandemic and what have you, we didn’t get there. And so we hope that this next session will really focus on the need to make sure that our higher education programs, research programs, etc., are being looked at and addressed.

The other in the workforce readiness area in health and well-being. And there are  workforce shortages in our healthcare institutions, making sure that we’re addressing those and making sure we have an ample supply of  trained, high-skilled professionals in the healthcare industry. As our population ages, that’s going to be so, so important.

Mental health is also a priority in that area. We had a big win last session with our new mental health hospital that’s going to be built as a part of UT Southwestern Medical Center. We want to make sure we continue those efforts related to mental health.

And then Medicaid expansion. We didn’t get there last session. It continues to be a priority this session. We’re really stressing that those are federal dollars that taxpayers are already paying, right? We’re basically funding Medicaid for 38 other states when we pay our federal income taxes. So yes, there’s a match, but what a better time to look at that when we have more than enough resources. So we’re going to have a $30 billion-plus surplus, right?

Francis: That’s the latest. 

Wallace: We understand it may be even more. And so between that and a rainy day fund, federal stimulus dollars that are still yet to be spent, we’ve got financial resources to be able to look at these types of programs to be able to recapture those federal dollars.

The second kind of bucket, if you will, area of focus, is economic competitiveness. Economic development is a part of that. A new Chapter 313 is certainly a need. We’ve got about a half a dozen 313s in our region, with the others pending, but time is running out. That incentive program expires at the end of this month. It is not reauthorized. We’re a part of a statewide coalition that’s looking at a couple pieces of legislation to really overhaul that program, make it much more streamlined, much more efficient, easier to use, but we need it back.

We don’t need to take away that tool that our local school boards can use to say, “Highly capital intensive manufacturer, for instance, comes calling and needs some temporary incentives, temporary relief on taxable values in exchange for jobs and tax dollars  that they bring in.” So we can’t take away that tool that local school boards can use. So the idea is to task theLegislature to come up with a different program that’s similar. Been very involved in drafting of and  getting the legislation to make sure that the Legislature is doing that.

Francis: That’s definitely one we’re going to be keeping a close eye on. 

Wallace: We’re a part of this Jobs for Texas Coalition. Actually looking very closely at it, legislation and talking with legislators and really stressing the need. I mean, since that program was not reauthorized, Texas has won some pretty big projects … Tesla, Samsung down in Central Texas. And we’ve had a couple institutions where councils and school boards have punted on that issue here in our region recently, until the legislature comes up with a new program. We’re going to lose projects over this. And other states are just waiting for us to not do this and to call us, “Not open for business.” 

We’re very aggressive. We have a great regulatory climate. That’s why we are growing. So we want to make sure that those incentive programs stay as a tool.

Francis: There have already been some bills filed related to local control. 

Wallace: The last one is what we call Strong Local Communities. This deals a lot with local government, importance of local control. We’re going to be opposing any bill that would not allow taxpayer-funded lobbying. As I discussed before, that may sound good when you hear a soundbite or see it on paper, but what that really is, it’s stifling our local leaders from advocating on behalf of their communities and citizens. And they ought to be able to do that. They ought to be able to join co-op type state organizations, ours and others, that help them do that, to pool funds, being efficient in the way that they advocate on behalf of the local communities. But we’re already seeing bills filed like that.

So it’s not so much about those very small amounts of tax dollars being used. It’s about the greater issue of stifling voices of local officials to be able to advocate on behalf of their communities. We’re going to adamantly oppose that.

There’s also a couple bills filed on voting, to have the election date to only have November elections, to do away with the May elections. What we’re asking the Legislature is, “Let local communities decide if they want May and November or just November.” It should not be partisan at the local level. So that’s going to be an issue.

And then finally, of course, infrastructure, which is huge. Grid, reliability, efficiency, sustainability of the grid is going to be first and foremost. And I think there’s a lot of eyes on that. The lieutenant governor, the governor, the speaker, they understand the importance.

Supporting our state water plan, making sure that we have the water supply that meets the needs of our rapidly growing population, that’s important from an economic standpoint, as well. Also under infrastructure, they use some public-private partnerships, particularly as it relates to mobility.

We really pride ourselves in North Texas because we have this transportation system of choice. And we want to stay in that and continue to grow that. The North Tarrant Express, the LBJ Express, those are great examples of how public-private partnerships have helped, where you bring the private sector, planning, design, construction, money, risk, all to the table to help TxDOT move these projects quicker and a faster speed to market for these projects.

Francis: What else? 

Wallace: Broadband. We talked about broadband. We worked hard on that this last session. We have a statewide broadband plan today that’s equitable. We want to make sure that it’s not just an access issue, but it is an adoption issue. We want to make sure people, Texans, are aware of services that are out there for greater adoption of broadband. And that’s going to be certainly another important issue of this session.

A lot of, I think, of this session is going to be how we spend the surplus, right? And we’ve got more than enough dollars. We’ve got the constitutional thinking cap and how you have these one-time expenditures that money can be invested for a long-term infrastructure, a long-term investment that make a difference. But you don’t put a strain on a future biennium, right, for maintenance operations, cost, etc.?

Francis: Right.

Wallace: So that’s going to be hard for legislators. We get that. We’re trying to identify what some of those one-time expenditures may look like. But a lot of experts are pouring through … How much money can be used of the surplus? How much can go into an account to hold for another day? Do you give some of that back, right? Do you buy back property taxes, and citizens can benefit from that? And what that looks like … But we’ll be certainly involved in many of those discussions.

Francis: What about property taxes? That’s going to be the subject of a lot of discussion. 

Wallace: Absolutely. That’s going to be key. It’s going to be an interesting session. I have no doubt. But we’re ready and poised to lead the region. We are staffed up. 

 Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at 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.

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Bob FrancisBusiness Editor

Robert Francis is a Fort Worth native and journalist who has extensive experience covering business and technology locally, nationally and internationally. He is also a former president of the local Society...