Members settle in to listen to the first session of the conference, moderated by Steven Albright and featuring senators Whitmire, Nichols, Hancock and Hinojosa.
AGC Members relished the opportunity to include family while mixing business and fun during the annual Management Conference in the Atlantic coastline community of Palm Beach, Florida.
The June event attracted another record attendance of nearly 400 attendees, including almost 100 children.
Members heard Texas lawmakers recap the recently concluded 2019 legislative session while also getting alerts about future efforts to restrict the quarry and aggregate business.
“We need to educate people over the next two years. We have to figure out incrementally what we are willing to give up and not willing to give up. If we don’t have a strategy, then we are going to have that bulldozer run over the property rights of people that run operations,” warned Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. “The tide is changing.”
Members also heard from national AGC leaders about highway funding and other industry issues.
Wade Miller (Big Creek Construction) attends most of the AGC Management Conferences, which he considers a valuable get-away “to spend time with fellow members and legislators in an informal and relaxed setting. Palm Beach and The Breakers (resort) was a great venue. The facilities were over the top nice. It offered a little bit of everything.“
He appreciated the large number of children that participated this year.
“The AGC is a family. It’s good to see young families becoming engaged. It means a bright future for the industry,” Miller said.
One of the legislative achievements affecting the highway industry (extending Prop 1 funding) did not get much attention this past spring. And that’s exactly what Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, preferred. Better to pass with a low profile than elevate its importance and risk others using it as hostage, he explained.
Nichols’ SB 962 extended Prop 1 funding (oil and gas revenue for the state highway fund) for 10 years. The funding stream will now extend to 2034. Prop 1 has increased highway funding by more than $1 billion annually in recent years.
Nichols wanted to pass the extension now, with four years left on the Prop 1 sunset provision instead of letting it dwindle down to a single session and creating more pressure to get it done. He found a key ally in House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who sponsored the Prop 1 extension bill in the House chamber. “Not a lot of people are going to mess with [the House budget chairman],” Nichols told AGC members.
Future member networking. The Chapter rented beach craft and poolside cabanas for members and their families for a little fun in the sun.
Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, triggered AGC applause when he credited Nichols for “single-handedly saving transportation resources.”
Toll road issues also earned attention in the Management Conference panel discussions. The state has nearly $40 billion worth of toll roads, mostly in metropolitan areas. Approximately 14.5 million Texas vehicles have toll tags. “That’s more than one out of every two vehicles with toll tags. Somebody likes to ride on toll roads,” Nichols told the audience. “If they want to get home, they will get on the toll roads. If we are not going to use toll roads, then we are going to need more funding to reduce congestion. It’s that simple.”
Excessive toll billing errors several years ago gave toll roads a bad name, but customer service has significantly improved, and complaints have dropped substantially, Hancock said: “I think the anti-toll mood mentality is starting to wane.”
Most of the anti-toll road mood is concentrated in loud, tea party groups,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said. “Don’t be on the defensive about toll roads.”
Much of the legislative action focused on property tax reduction and education spending during a time when Texas had plenty of money to appropriate.
Lawmakers added $11 billion for education with $5 billion of that going for property tax relief, Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin noted.
Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, described the mood as a “chicken in every pot” session.
“Normally fiscal conservative Republicans? We threw that out the window,” he said. Texas House Democrats gained 12 seats in the 2018 election, which got the attention of state GOP leaders, Darby said. They spent less time on divisive social issues and addressed voter concerns lest they get thrown out of office, he said.
Veteran State Senator Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, called it “One of the best sessions I have been involved with. We focused on bread and butter issues - education, health care, property tax relief. We had the resources and we had the will.”
The Senate’s most senior member, Democrat John Whitmire of Houston agreed: “It’s hard to have a bad session when you spend $250 billion. But nobody knows how we are going to fund it next session. We have some serious decisions to make next session, especially if the economy takes a downturn.”
Legislators participating in the AGC conference discussions generally agreed the large increase in education funding this session will obligate similar funding levels during the 2021 session. Doing so will make it difficult to find more money for the Texas highway system beyond what Prop 1 and Prop 7 are generating and the conventional transportation funding sources.
Several members contracted with a local fishing guide for deepwater fishing.
Also, the combination of more fuel efficient cars and electric vehicles makes a gas tax increase “a wasted vote,” Sen. Hancock told AGC members. In ten years, 40 percent of vehicles will be electric, he said.
“How do you equalize the cost of maintaining transportation when a growing percentage of vehicles are electric?” Hancock asked.
Toll roads could be an answer, he said, because “it doesn’t matter if you are gas or electric” in the fee structure for using those highways.
The Palm Beach Management Conference was the third for Meg Lisenby (Pipe Wholesalers of Texas), and she plans to attend future gatherings.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the business session panel discussions but being able to interact with and get to know the people I do business with on a personal level is always a highlight for me,” she said.
She characterized The Breakers as “an extraordinary location” and rated it “five stars across the board.”
Melanie and Chad Clark (Clark Construction) selected The Breakers Palm Beach as the destination for the 2019 Management Conference. The choice was a good one, as a record number of members and their families gathered for the conference’s 50th anniversary.
Members and guests take to the award-winning course at The Breakers for the annual golf tournament.
“Unfortunately, we all spend a lot time away from our families while we are working. The Management Conference allows us to include our families while we are at ‘work’ and that is a win-win situation for everyone,” she said.
2018 AGC of Texas President Chad Clark and wife, Melanie, chose “The Breakers” and Palm Beach for the Management Conference and were delighted with its success and endorsement from members.
“Everyone commented how wonderful the choice of venue was and how accommodating it was for families with children. The kids had an absolute blast. That makes the parents very happy!” Melanie said.
“The Breakers is a wonderful destination for all ages. We were so happy to see all the families come together with their kids and enjoy their time together. We’re so thankful to all who came and enjoyed themselves and that it was a success. Thank you to all who made that happen. We love our AGC family,” added Chad, who also credited AGC staff for its “off the chart” efforts for handling all of the event details without a hitch.
For Melanie, she expects conference memories to last for years.
“Playing with the kids at the poolside and beach party and the banana boat rides were a hit. But we have to say…the band’s performance at the banquet on the last evening made for an incredible night that we will never forget. “The Social” band made a name for itself. We hope to see them play for us again in the future!” she said.
National AGC President Dirk Elsperman (St. Louis-based Tarlton Corp.) described AGC as “the University of Construction. It’s where I learned how to run a construction company. There’s no other place to learn.”
He chronicled the industry’s work force shortage problem and told members he’s spending considerable time “building up our image.”
AGC of America is building a database of citizens identified as people who support better infrastructure. As of mid-June, the data base contained 40,000 names, AGC’s Brian Deery told the Texas gathering. Deery is senior director of Highway & Transportation Division/ Government Relations.
Much of the national highway focus remains on passing a new highway funding bill because money runs out at the end of the 2020 fiscal year, he said. Annual $1 trillion budget deficits cause concern. The fund has already siphoned $140 billion from general revenue.
“That’s why we have always supported a user-based revenue source for highway funding,” Deery told Texas members. More than a dozen states are running pilot programs that explore mileagebased fees. Deery expects to see a national pilot program.
“The Highway Trust Fund needs $18 billion a year extra to maintain current funding without any growth. Nothing happens if you don’t have the funding,” Deery said.
Texas’ economy has roared over the past 18 months, Comptroller Glenn Hegar told AGC members. But now it’s time to manage expectations, he said: “Just because we have been on an unbelievable tear the last 18 months, doesn’t mean it’s going to last for the next 18 months.”
Karen Rove moderated the House session, entitled “Session Surprises and Sine Die” with representatives Ashby, King and Darby.
He’s concerned about rising interest rates, trade uncertainties and corporate debt that he said has risen to historically high levels.
Quarry operations received considerable attention during the legislative panel sessions. Far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats teamed up in efforts to tighten regulations on the aggregates industry. Forty aggregate-related bills were filed this session. Only one passed. Or, as Tommy Williams, senior advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott noted about the 7,324 introduced bills, “You should be grateful that not all became law.”
Texas legislators approved only 1 of the 40 aggregate-related bills. But the issue will almost certainly return in two years. Industry leaders should be prepared to discuss quarry buffers, setbacks, and blasting hours and address concerns of residents, lawmakers said. “If you don’t, there will be a bill in the next session that will hurt your industry.”
County commissioners don’t want to deal with local quarry issues, so they send angry constituents to state leaders.
“County commissioners run. They see the angry mob and they are not willing to sit down and reason with them. They say, ‘call your state representative and senator,’” Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said.
The intersection of ‘property rights’ and needs of a growing population creates a complicated issue, Larson said. “We have to do something, and I don’t know what that something is. What have other states done to mitigate these issues?”
Larry Bateman (Lhoist) emphasized that legislation curbing quarries and the production of road aggregate “would have a very major impact in meeting the growing demands of the industry. We know it’s going to come back. It’s hugely important for all of us.” It’s important to meet with homeowner associations to discuss concerns, he told AGC members: “You can win but you have to go meet with people.”
And those discussions should continue until the 2021 legislative session opens to find an acceptable compromise for the quarry operations and neighboring residents.
“If you don’t remember a thing I say today, remember that nothing in Austin happens by accident,” Whitmire said. “Just remember that. It’s preparation. It’s the election cycle. It’s meetings like this. It’s organizations like yours.”
Nichols complimented AGC members for their strong relationships with Texas legislators. The 181-member Texas Legislature sees rapid turnover. Only 6 of the 31 state Senators remain since Nichols was confirmed to the Texas Transportation Commission in the late 1990s.
“You have to constantly reach out and get to know them. When issues come up, call them,” he said. During one of the conference gatherings, Chad Clark took time to thank spouses of AGC members: “You take care of 99 percent of everything that goes on while we are taking care of our business. You all are at home battling all of the real stuff. If I had to do what you do, I’d quit,” he said.
Clark’s colleagues applauded.