Investments in higher education, workforce development, and transportation, and reform in the state’s economic development incentive programs are on the to-do list of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus as he readies for his own expected re-election as House Speaker and the 84th session of the Texas Legislature. The 140-day session opens Jan. 13 and concludes on June 1.
Straus was the keynote speaker at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce‘s sold-out luncheon held Tuesday at the Marriott Riverwalk. It was a hometown crowd for Straus (R-Dist. 121) who will celebrate his 10th year in state office next year as he seeks his fourth term as Speaker. His affluent district includes Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, Terrell Hills and northeast San Antonio. Straus was accompanied by his wife, Julie, and his parents, Joe Sr. and Joci Straus.
“Julie’s been very busy this time of the year getting ready to welcome about two dozen new members of the House of Representatives,” Strauss said, calling his wife’s pro bono work at the State Capitol, “remarkable and amazing.”
Four people among the dignitaries introduced by Chamber CEO and President Richard Perez would like to be San Antonio’s next mayor: Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-Dist. 123), state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier, and District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg. Only Villarreal has officially announced as a candidate. Van de Putte said she will decide sometime this week whether she will run. Krier told the Express-News that he does not plan to run, and Nirenberg, who sought election as interim mayor, which was won by Mayor Ivy Taylor, has made no public statements of late.
Straus noted those officeholders in the audience and started with his own amusing disclaimer: “In case you’re wondering, I want to announce I will not be running for mayor of Terrell Hills.” That job actually belongs to Mayor Anne Ballantyne, who was elected to the seat earlier this year after serving six terms as a Terrell Hills City Councilmember.
A room full of civic leaders, elected officials and other dignitaries gave Straus a standing ovation welcome, and after his speech, a second standing ovation. It seemed like a collective expression of appreciation for someone willing to work to get things done.
“Voters want to see our system work again,” Straus said.
Noting how partisanship had led to gridlock in Washington despite rising voter discontent with elected officials who refuse to work across party lines, Straus jokingly quoted a recent headline published in the satirical newspaper The Onion, “Artifacts buried in nation’s Capitol suggest that humans used to pass laws there.”
Straus said he prided himself on the Texas House’s non-partisan approach to passing legislation, and believes momentum built in the 2103 Legislative Session will carry into January.
“The Texas House knows how to get things done,” he said. “We focus on the priorities that matter the most, we seek common ground, we build consensus around solutions that work for Texas. Two years ago the House came together to pass a balanced budget, tax relief, important education reforms, and a historic investment in our water supply.”
Straus will find himself the senior statesmen among the state’s top officeholders this January, one who will be working with a new governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide officeholders new to their positions. In a state that followed the nation with a Republican landslide on Nov. 4 that was strong even by Texas standards, Straus stands as the symbol of moderate conservatism rather than strident partisanship that defines the contemporary political landscape.
Straus told his audience Tuesday that legislators will focus on higher education and workforce development this session.
“A world-class economy needs a world-class workforce, and that’s why we’re going to make a higher education a focal point in 2015,” he said.
He lauded UTSA’s drive to attain Tier One status, the work being done at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center and nationally ranked Trinity University, and the impressive impact Texas A&M University-San Antonio has had in its five years as a stand-alone university. He cited the Alamo Colleges as a statewide model for workforce development and it programs preparing students for careers at Toyota and in the aerospace industry that require skilled technical training.
“As our economy changes, the work of our technical and community colleges is increasingly important as well,” Straus said. “In the next few years, 40% of our new jobs in Texas will require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree. These are good jobs, they pay well, and there’s plenty of room for advancement. But too often, employers can’t find workers to fill them. Too many of our young people come out of high school with little direction and purpose, and they don’t know how to get either.”
“Our mobility needs in Texas have been pretty well documented: Traffic is getting worse and the solutions to it are getting more expensive,” Straus said. “Proposals to raise new revenue haven’t gotten very far, but the House has found other ways to address this issue. For one, voters recently approved a plan, overwhelmingly, nearly 80%, to take some of our oil and gas tax revenue and set it aside for roads. That was a positive step, but I think even more significantly, the House wants to use all the money in our state’s Highway Fund for transportation. Now, I realize that using something called ‘the Highway Fund’ for highways doesn’t exactly sound like a bold proposal. But for 80 years in this state some of that money has been diverted to other programs, and 80 years is long enough.”
Straus said using funds for their dedicated intent would move billions of dollars into transportation spending without raising taxes.
Straus also promised “the House will reform our approach to economic development,” a reference to controversy surrounding the way Gov. Rick Perry has managed state incentive funds to support job creation. Critics have accused him of using the funds to favor political supporters and an independent audit found that funds were allotted with substandard application, review, and record-keeping processes.
“Some say that the state should not be in the business of offering incentives to businesses, and that’s a reasonable argument,” Straus said, pausing, “provided that other states agree to stop competing as well. But I don’t think they will. Texas needs to stay competitive, but we also need more accountability in our incentive programs. I’m confident the Legislature will strike the appropriate balance, making these programs more effective and more worthy of the public trust.
“I also believe we need to take a broader look at economic development,” Straus added. “Most job creators aren’t just looking for a handout. They care about our schools, our parks, the arts, and everything else that contributes to the quality of life for their employees. They know that education and transportation and water mean more to our business climate than any incentive fund ever can.”
Some speculate that Straus’ willingness to work across party lines puts his Speakership at risk, but he sounded quietly confident Tuesday of his re-election when the Legislative Session opens on Jan. 13. After his speech, Straus told reporters that “threats and intimidation” against House members who support him are not going to cause him to change his leadership style or values.
Tea Party members and Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans, a perennial right-wing voice in Austin who is supporting Strauss challenger Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco), have threatened to recruit candidates to run against Straus supporters.
“I keep going back to the way I do business, and the way that I attract support of the members, and that’s by offering them support,” Straus said. “I don’t see how you can grow in political strength and influence if what you’re doing is threatening people, that, ‘If you don’t support me, I’ll come after you.’ That’s not how you build coalitions, and that’s not how you get things done when you’re in the Legislature, so I’ll leave the threats and the intimidation to others.”
Earlier in his speech, Straus acknowledged the House and Senate members present and said their bipartisan efforts helped the City of San Antonio secure the NCAA Final Four tournament for 2018, the city’s 300th anniversary year.
*Featured/top image: Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-Dist. 121) was keynote speaker at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
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