When Dallas attorney and longtime public servant Tom Luce launched the nonprofit Texas 2036 in 2016, he was thinking aspirationally and strategically, envisioning a time 20 years down the road when Texas would celebrate 200 years of independence.

Luce knew the state would grow by 10 million people or more in that time, and that all trend lines pointed to a crisis in projected public education outcomes and the impact a shortage of smart workers and good jobs would have on the state’s economy and competitiveness.

After a career spent building the powerhouse Hughes & Luce law firm and serving in public policy leadership roles for five different Texas governors and in the administration of Pres. George W. Bush, Luce was driven in equal parts by data and a personal sense of civic obligation.

The team he has assembled at Texas 2036 is focusing on transformational change in six key areas of public policy: education and workforce, equal opportunity, government performance, health, infrastructure, and natural resources.

The plan was to spend a few years gathering and analyzing data and by 2019, recruit a statewide brain trust of individual “thought advisors” to serve on the Texas 2036 board. Luce said he took 89 flights on Southwest Airlines last year to recruit board members and spread the word throughout the state.

By October 2020, according to Luce’s original timeline, Texas 2036 will release its strategic framework for implementing change across those critically important six areas.

“I don’t think you turn the Queen Mary overnight, and we aren’t going to change the way we do things in Texas overnight,” Luce said in an interview this week. “We can achieve these aspirational goals if we attain 5 percent change every year for 20 years. We can’t redraw that map overnight. We have to have a long-term plan.”

The coronavirus pandemic and its deep impact on the Texas economy and the public life and health of Texans has caused the team Luce built to pivot to the present moment. Earlier this month, he called on Gov. Greg Abbott to form a bipartisan Economic Recovery Task Force of civic and business leaders in the state.

“This collection of Texas’ top talent should come together with one focus in mind: how to get Texans back to work,” Luce wrote in an April 8 op-ed published in the Austin American-Statesman. “There is no American recovery without a Texas recovery, and Texas can lead the way if we act quickly.”

Abbott held a press conference Friday and named a 41-member “statewide strike force” to focus on reopening the state’s economy. Luce is one of several Texas 2036 board members named to the strike force. James Huffines, chairman of PlainsCapital Bank in Central and South Texas, will serve as chairman. Veteran Republican lobbyist Mike Toomey will serve as chief operating officer.

Several notable San Antonians were named to the strike force:

  • Graham Weston, the former chairman of Rackspace, San Antonio real estate developer, entrepreneur, founder of the charitable 80/20 Foundation, and a Texas 2036 board member.
  • J. Bruce Bugg. Jr., who serves as chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, and in business is the chairman and CEO of Southwest Bancshares, Inc., the holding company for the Bank of San Antonio. He also serves as chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment.
  • Elaine Mendoza, Founder, CEO and President of Conceptual Mindworks, the current chair of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, and a Texas 2036 board member.
  • Balous Miller, one of the principal owners of Bill Miller BBQ in San Antonio.
  • Dennis Nixon, CEO and Chairman of International Bank of Commerce.

Abbott’s strike force appears to be heavily weighted with Republicans and business leaders, and less diverse than what Luce called for.

Luce has his own strong team in place, led by Pres. George W. Bush’s former secretary of education and domestic policy advisor Margaret Spellings who now serves as president and CEO of Texas 2036. His 36-member board of directors is a diverse mix of statewide heavyweights.

Tom Luce, founder and chairman of Texas 2036, (left) with Margaret Spellings, president and CEO of Texas 2036. Credit: Courtesy / Texas 2036

“Our board is not the usual suspects,” Luce said. “Each time I met with someone I said I wanted them as thought partners. This is not a fundraising board. It’s a thought board. We want to be an independent, nonpartisan organization that helps build coalitions. The fundamental thing the legislature does is pass a balanced budget, and the strategic question is how do we allocate $250 billion in the budget to help the most people achieve their personal potential and thus make the state grow economically?”

In addition to Weston and Mendoza, the board includes Scott McClelland, the Houston-based president of H-E-B Food/Drug Stores, and Sheryl Sculley, the former San Antonio city manager and a senior consultant with Strategic Partnerships.

“In Texas, the action is going to take place at the state and local level,” Luce said in advance of Gov. Abbott’s Friday press conference. “Austin has different regulations in place than San Antonio, for example, so I think you will see mayors stand up and say what is best for San Antonio or other cities.”

Luce cited the continuing battles between the state and city and county leaders as an issue that has to be addressed to change the governing dynamic in Texas.

“Clearly there is too much tension between the state and the cities and the counties and we need to address that,” Luce said. “There also are regional issues and I know those are sensitive, but we have regional economies and hubs. If you look at our state we probably have six or seven regional economies in the state.”

Getting past the coronavirus outbreak and thinking long-term remains the primary mission of Texas 2036.

“We want to deal with the tyranny of the urgent, but also look at where we should be in the future,” Luce said. “I see those pictures of the food bank lines in San Antonio and I just want to weep, and the unemployment claims statewide are heartbreaking, but we have to make sure as we are putting band-aids on people and giving them emergency plasma we also are think about where will be in 25 years.

“I think we can bridge the partisan divide. The reality the state faces is that even if you are purist in terms of economists and are not focused on the human side, businesses cannot grow with a more educated workforce. How do we make sure that every single human being in the state has the opportunity to realize their full potential?”

The Texas 2036 Data Lab offers users free, unlimited access to statewide and national data on all six of the policy areas, allowing city and county comparisons, among other features.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.