As Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (D-121) outlined his priorities for the 2017 Legislative Session at a luncheon hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Thursday, the uncertain impact of Donald Trump’s presidency sat at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“I hope that our entire country will come together behind our new president,” Straus told a crowd of several hundred business and political leaders from across the city. “He’s made a very real connection with millions of Americans who feel like our economy and our political system are not working for them.”
Adding that he aimed to keep Washington-style politics out of the Texas Legislature, the Republican lawmaker said he would work across the aisle to set a balanced budget and reform the broken Child Protective Services (CPS), education financing systems, and mental health infrastructure.
“On most issues, the issues that really affect Texans’ daily lives, there’s a lot of room for common ground,” Straus said.
Democratic State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) had a more cynical reaction to Trump’s surprise ascension and the prospect of progressive state reforms.
“I don’t know that this does anything that wasn’t already there…,” he told the Rivard Report, pointing to conservative intentions within the Texas Legislature to restrict sanctuary cities, create an anti-transgender bathroom bill, and double down on voter ID restrictions. “Texas has no problem leading the way on bills that hurt vulnerable people. It just feels like the rest of the country might start to feel our pain.”
Bernal expressed limited optimism of how effectively the Legislature would address the Texas Supreme Court’s call for “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms” in what it described as a “sclerotic” education finance system.
“I don’t know how widespread or large (reforms) would be, but I do think there is a window of opportunity to make things better,” he said. “We just have to do it very deliberately and delicately.”
Leaders of the Hispanic Chamber seemed uncertain of how a Trump presidency could affect the city’s business sector.
Chairwoman Rebecca Quintanilla-Cedillo said she had trouble imagining the president-elect’s sweeping deportation policy going into effect.
“What is the rhetoric, and what is the actual sentiment, and what is going to be the outcome?” she asked.
Emphasizing the catastrophic effect an immigration roundup would have on the nation’s budget and economy, Chamber CEO Ramiro Cavazos seemed confident it wouldn’t happen.
“It’s not realistic,” he told the Rivard Report. “There’s no money in it.”
Similarly impracticable, Cavazos said, was Trump’s intention to “tear up” trade deals like NAFTA.
“We can’t shut down the border or do away with trade agreements that, quite frankly, have allowed Texas to be the 10th largest economy in the world, just surpassing Canada and Russia,” Cavazos said. “…Texas exports $95 billion (of goods) to Mexico. San Antonio is over $5 billion, just our companies, and that’s more than 42 states in the U.S. … That shows that we are interconnected to Mexico and we’re going to stay connected. We have for centuries.”
Cavazos felt hopeful that San Antonio can stay insulated from much of the national political drama.
“We control our own destiny,” he said. “… We know that three-quarters of the economy is driven by consumer spending and local trade, and we should stay focused and be very clear-minded, and not let us get distracted by some decisions that Washington makes. We’ve done very well regardless of whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in Washington.”
As far as state politics go, Straus said a significantly reduced tax base will require discipline if his priorities are to be met.
“It’s more important than ever in a period of a constrained budget to focus on priorities and ensure we have the resources committed to those priorities,” Straus told the Rivard Report. “But it is going to be difficult. Just funding the programs we have currently is going to be a large task.”
The Legislature’s severe belt-tightening this year comes in response to a slowdown in the oil and gas sector, which has decreased spending and in turn reduced the state’s primary revenue source – sales tax. To make matters worse, Texas’s burgeoning population puts increased strain on infrastructure, education, and social services.
“While our revenues are shrinking, the demands on dollars are increasing,” he told the crowd. “In fact, the Texas population continues to grow twice as fast as the rest of the country.”
Indicating that tax increases were not an option, Straus remained vague on what areas of the budget might make room for social spending by a predominantly conservative Legislature. He seemed sure, however, that the job could get done.
“It will only get worse if it is ignored,” Straus said of the state’s education finance system. “We need to keep more local dollars in our local schools, and at the same time make sure that all students have access to a quality education no matter where they live.”
How these seemingly incompatible mandates will be brought together remained unclear.
“We need to bring stability to the workforce of Child Protective Services,” he said. “And we need to increase the availability of foster homes for children who need them.”
Only time can tell whether the Legislature will truly prioritize its broken systems, or whether Trump will make good on his promises of mass deportation, increased trade regulation, and unifying the country. What seems certain, though, is that this coming year will be about as volatile as 2016.