McALLEN, RGV – Business leaders at a luncheon held at the DoubleTree Suites were asked by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus to look beyond headlines in newspapers and tell state legislators what issues they want covered by the legislature.
Straus was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.
“I want to wrap up today by reminding you that you also have a role to play. A really big role. You all are the ones in the private sector who are making this economy work. Investing in your community, and raising your families. You see every single day what it takes for the state to succeed,” Straus said.
“As I mentioned earlier, you live in a region that will in many ways determine the future of Texas. And that is why you all need to be heard from. So, please engage with your local representatives and with other legislators, including me, about the priorities and issues that matter to you, not necessarily the ones you see in the newspapers. Let us know what you care about and then hold us accountable for the results. If we work together, we can overcome the challenges this state faces, and make this state’s future even brighter.”
Among the topics Straus covered were the need to create more jobs in Texas, the state budget, public education and school finance, higher education and dual credit, mental health, child abuse and transparency in government.
The subject matter contrasted sharply with the remarks made by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a speech he made at a luncheon hosted by Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce back in March. In his speech, Patrick devoted one third of his time to border security. Straus did not bring up border security.
Other speakers included RGVP Chair Anabel Cardona, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, and Valley banker Paul Moxley, who held a fundraiser for Straus later in the evening. Alex Meade, executive director of Mission Economic Development Corporation, was master of ceremonies.
All but two of the Valley’s legislative delegation in the Texas House was present for Straus’ speech, along with the region’s two state senators. State Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi was also in attendance, as was former State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, a vice president at UT-Rio Grande Valley.
Straus represents a House district in San Antonio. In his remarks he said his city feels uniquely connected to the Valley, which, he said, is a growing region of the state. “We know how important this region is. We know how important you are. We know that from business to education to culture, the future of Texas really does belong and start down here. I think the rest of the state is beginning to realize what we have known for a long time.”
Straus said the Valley’s legislative delegation has a lot of experience, energy and leadership. “We may disagree on some issues. We may not share the same political party. But, one thing we do share is a sincere concern for the good of the state. Like me they are looking forward to the legislative session that is going to begin in January.”
Here are Straus’ remarks and the top topics he highlighted:
“I am looking forward to session so we can make a dramatic and positive impact on the state. There is certainly no shortage of challenges in front of us. For starters, thanks in large part to low oil prices the Texas economy has slowed down. You may have seen the report last Friday that said there were 200 jobs created in Texas in May. I am afraid you heard me right. That is not a typo. Two hundred jobs statewide. It wasn’t too long ago that 200 jobs were being created between breakfast and lunch in this state, and that was on a slow day. In fact, between 2009 and 2014, Texas was the home of one out of every four jobs created in the United States. And so next year, one of our jobs will be taking a thorough look at how to re-establish Texas as the country’s job creation leader.”
“More immediately, we know that our primary source of state revenue, state sales tax receipts are declining and that is not going to make it any easier to pass our budget. The good news is we are somewhat prepared for this. Last year, knowing that our economy was cooling off, we saved about $4 billion that otherwise would have been spent. And that will help some. But our state continues to grow very rapidly. In fact, we are growing quite as fast as the rest of the country. So, there is more and more demand for services that state government provides. That means we are going to have to make some difficult decisions. It also means we are going to have to identify our most important priorities.”
Public Education & School Finance
“As far as I am concerned, our most important priority is and will probably always be educating our young people (applause from audience). As Benjamin Franklin once said, and as your local Valley delegation certainly knows and agrees, an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.
“The last time our economy was struggling, in order to balance the budget, without raising taxes during a recession, we put fewer resources into education than many of us would have liked. But, since then, we have worked really hard to restore billions of dollars in education funding and used those dollars more effectively. The Texas Supreme Court recently said that our education funding system meets the bare requirements of our state constitution. But if you read passed the headline of that decision it was hardly a cause for celebration. The court also said, in what I would call the understatement of the year, that our school finance structure is, quote, ‘undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.’
“Now when our Texas teachers tell students that they have immense room for improvement, they expect those students to improve. And I think our legislators – I know the ones here – are going to demand improvement in school finance as well. The problems in our school finance system, such as outdated and inefficient funding formulas, or the growing reliance on property taxes, in my own understatement, needs to improve. And that is why I have asked two House committees to recommend ways we can make the system better. Better for students and better for taxpayers.”
Higher Education and Dual Credit
“I believe we should also prioritize our colleges and universities, which not only educate students but also drive economic activity in every region, especially in this region. This area has led the state in and in many ways led the country in using dual credit classes to connect students to college education. I recently learned that the number of students taking dual credit classes through South Texas College increased from just a couple of dozen a decade or so ago to now 16,000 today. I know that that surge has presented some challenges to the college and we will help you work through that. But that growing engagement in college course work should make your entire community very proud.”
“Along with public and higher education, I also hope we will make it a priority to improve our approach to an issue that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and that is mental health. Mental health is one of those issues that not only affects every single family but also affects just about every service that government helps provide, from, obviously, healthcare to education to public safety.
“Too often, however, we have looked at these issues separately – put them in their own silos. So, last Fall, I created something new in the Texas House, a special committee to take a comprehensive look, a holistic look at our mental health system. That committee, which Representative Munoz serves on, has talked to mental health experts about how we can improve outcomes and use taxpayer dollars more effectively. The committee, I hope, is going to make a series of recommendations before the legislature convenes, and I can assure you we will take those recommendations very seriously.”
“Another priority that has become painfully and in too many cases tragically eminent is the need for our state to better protect children from abuse. Unfortunately, we cannot prevent all child abuse in Texas – I, like you, wish we could – but, too often, the people we hire to protect abused children are leaving their jobs. And who can blame them? Their salaries are low, their case loads are high, and they walk into really terrible situations every single day. Last year, we increased funding for child protective services by about $200 million. But when your population grows very quickly, that means there are more and more child abuse cases out there. What I would like the House to do, is to determine the very best ways that we can help those children. We do not have an endless supply of money to throw at this problem, and that is not really our style of legislature any way, but Mother Teresa was right when she said, ‘the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.’ And we owe it to those children to protect them better.”
“And finally it is more important than ever in these times that we bring more efficiency and more accountability to the use of taxpayer dollars. One reason Texas succeeds is because we live within our means. We have a balanced budget and we don’t spend money that we don’t have. In the Texas House we scrutinize how taxpayer dollars are spent. Last year we brought new levels of transparency to the Texas Enterprise Fund and to the contracts state agencies enter into with private vendors. But, there is still more to do. Still more to make sure those who receive taxpayer dollars are using them appropriately. From the contracts issued by state agencies to the millions of dollars we invest in economic development, the House will continue to push for transparency and accountability. Because those of you who are paying the bill deserve to know you are getting value for your dollars. So whether the issue is education or mental health, or taxpayer accountability, we all have our work cut out for us. And that is good because that is all these people (state reps in the audience) and me signed up for. I have a lot of confidence in my colleagues and I have confidence we will address these challenges.”
“I want to wrap up today by reminding you that you also have a role to play. A really big role. You all are the ones in the private sector who are making this economy work. Investing in your community, and raising your families. You see every single day what it takes for the state to succeed. As I mentioned earlier, you live in a region that will in many ways determine the future of Texas. And that is why you all need to be heard from. So, please engage with your local representatives and with other legislators, including me, about the priorities and issues that matter to you, not necessarily the ones you see in the newspapers. So, let us know what you care about and then hold us accountable for the results. If we work together, we can overcome the challenges this state faces, and make this state’s future even brighter.
“So, again, I want to thank you again for sending so many good legislators to the Texas House and the Senate. They do an outstanding job and I can promise you they keep me on my toes. So thank you all very much for inviting me to be here with you today. But, most of all I want to thank you for the many, many, contributions you make to the Rio Grande Valley and to the entire state of Texas. Thank you all very, very, much.”