Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, the keynote speaker at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce luncheon held Wednesday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, listed education, transportation, business and mental health investments as top priorities for the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature that opens next January. But first the San Antonio state representative has to fend off two challengers in the March 1 Republican primary elections, the first time he has faced multiple challengers since winning office in 2005.
Most political observers expect Straus (R-D121) to win without a runoff and return to the state capitol for his fifth consecutive term as House Speaker. Straus, accompanied by his wife, Julie, was in friendly territory Wednesday as other local legislators and business and civic leaders gathered to hear him speak. He thanked colleagues from both parties for their support and attendance.
Straus said that some politicians, including his two opponents in the race for House Speaker, have given Republicans a reputation for mudslinging.
“I’m not worried, and I’m not going to run a negative campaign,” he said. “It just appeals to the lowest common denominator, and I have confidence that voters are better than that.”
The two challengers running against Straus both come from the Republican Party’s far-right tea party ranks, even if neither one is officially running under that flag. Jeff Judson, a former San Antonio tea party director, former Olmos Park city councilman and onetime executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is the best known of the two names. The other is Sheila Bean, a newcomer to the political arena, former school teacher, and “true conservative,” according to her campaign website.
Most Texans, Straus told the audience, want to see lawmakers working together to create a stronger economy.
“We continue in Texas to grow twice as fast as the rest of the country,” Straus said, adding that Texas was recently named the top exporting state for the 14th year in the row. Texas also has shown growth in new businesses and businesses owned by women and minorities, while the number of national businesses has shrunk.
Still reeling from the Great Recession, Texas lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in public education spending in the 2011 legislative session. More than 600 school districts joined in a lawsuit challenging the cuts, which led to a ruling by District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin that the state’s method of funding public education is unconstitutional. The state is appealing the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court later this year.
Straus said more than $5 billion was put back into public education funding in the two most recent legislative sessions, but additional funding is needed to keep up with enrollment growth, which includes 80,000 new students each year.
“It starts in our public schools,”said Straus, adding that a new approach to funding education was necessary for the student success. “How that money is allocated and what we receive in return matters also.”
Texas lawmakers have shifted the focus to higher education and workforce training. Rather than advocate for undergraduate degrees for all students, lawmakers are supporting efforts to help many students pursue two-year degrees or certification for jobs in technology, health care and engineering.
“What our schools can do and are trying to do now is give students a better sense of the opportunities that are out there, and connect them with student interests,” said Straus. The recent passage of HB-5 will bring computer science to all San Antonio ISD high schools next year, and vet science internships for Northeast ISD.
Texas is spending more on mental health, Straus said, but there must be better coordination between health care agencies throughout cities and the state. He praised Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau’s efforts to integrate mental health training in law enforcement training.
“Mental health issues are extremely important to nearly every family in the state,” said Straus, adding that a health committee recently appointed by the House will hold its first meeting on Thursday.
After the luncheon, Straus told reporters that legislators are discussing new approaches to address te state’s mental health care needs before the session meets in January. Recent tragedies such as the death of David Molak, a 16-year old teen in Alamo Heights who committed suicide after enduring months of unchecked cyberbullying by classmates, have spurred lawmakers to consider a bill that would address the lines dividing free speech and bullying.
“It’s going to take some time, but we have time before January,” Straus said. “All of our hearts go out to the family, and I want to show respect to the way they have reacted, and the way the community supports them.”
Accomplishments in San Antonio
Chamber CEO and President Richard Perez thanked Straus for his dedication to San Antonio, and highlighted recent accomplishments, including the accelerated expansion of Highway 281 without toll roads, additional funding secured for facilities at UT-Health Science Center and A&M-San Antonio, the $31.5 million in state funds secured to preserve the Alamo, and an additional $1 billion in funding opportunities for water conservation and management programs across the state.
Perez and Renee Flores, the chamber’s 2016 chairman of the board, concluded the luncheon with a gift presentation of a watercolor painting of the Alamo. Earlier in the program, Straus had cited the $31.5 million Alamo funding as a recent success for San Antonio and jokingly instructed City officials to “use it wisely.”
*Top image: Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus (R-Dist. 121) waits for his next photo opportunity as he stands next to an American flag. Photo by Scott Ball.