The Texas Tribune Co-Founder and CEO Evan Smith speaks with Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus at a Symposium held on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Nov. 29. Credit: Katie Walsh for the San Antonio Report

Texas lawmakers gathered Tuesday at the University of Texas at Austin campus for a public symposium to discuss how this year’s State budget will affect the issues brought up during the 2017 Legislative session. The event was hosted by The Texas Tribune.

The hot topics lawmakers discussed included foster care and Child Protective Services, mental health care, the “bathroom bill,” sanctuary cities, public education, taxes, and transportation.

The event, which drew hundreds of people, began with a 50-minute conversation between The Texas Tribune Co-Founder and CEO Evan Smith and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. Despite Smith’s best attempts, Straus staunchly and politely refrained from asserting explicit opinions, but confirmed that this legislative session, foster care, mental health care, and higher education will take priority.

Regarding foster care reform, an issue he described as “truly bipartisan,” Straus called for more caseworkers, better pay, and more accountability. This statement took some by surprise considering the $350 million cut to children’s therapy services that State lawmakers ordered in 2015. Straus said he considered the cut “well-intentioned,” but in the end, “it did not work and it will be addressed in our supplemental budget.

“Maybe we made a mistake,” he said.

Straus took less pointed stances on issues such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s controversial “bathroom bill” or proposals to hinder the efforts of “sanctuary cities.” In terms of border security, he said it’s time for the federal government to assume its responsibility.

The apparent disparity between the Speaker and Lt. Gov. was reiterated by State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), who was a part of the next group to take the stage. He was joined by State Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) and State Reps. Sarah Davis (R-West) and Joe Pickett (D-El Paso).

“The primary issue (of the upcoming session) is how are the House and Senate going to get along?” West said. “There are going to be different priorities. Suffice it to say that the Lieutenant Governor has laid out what his priorities are and I have not seen what the Speaker thinks, but I know there has always been some sort of tension between the houses.”

Hundreds gather inside the Texas Union on the University of Texas at Austin campus Nov. 29 to hear from state lawmakers on the upcoming legislative session. Credit: Katie Walsh for the San Antonio Report

Another issue discussed was the tight budget for the 2017 Legislature. During the second segment of the event, which focused on the biggest issues of the upcoming session, Pickett and West agreed with Straus, and Pickett said foster care should be on Gov. Greg Abbott’s high-priority list.

“This is one of those things where the House and Senate need to come together,” Pickett said. “We just need to decide that (foster care reform) is a priority and get it done.”

Higher education is another sector competing for funding from the State. West said lawmakers will have to decide where the money will go – into research or into financial aid. Set-aside tuition grants, which Patrick has proposed to eliminate, and the Top 10% rule also will be issues weighted heavily during the legislative session.

Budget concerns were echoed during the third part of the symposium, when State Sens. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and State Reps. Donna Howard (D-Austin) and Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) convened to discuss spending, taxes, and the economy.

Across all parties, everyone on stage agreed on one thing: the tight budget is not going to make things easy.

“We will be saying ‘no’ to a lot of requests in this legislative session,” Bettencourt said.

For the event’s fourth and most heated section, State Reps. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) and State Sens. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) and José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) took the stage to discuss the future of politics under the Trump administration.

Hunter took a back seat to Burton and Rodríguez, who battled it out over education and the role of the federal government. When Burton said she wanted to remove the federal government from education, leaving it to the states, she was met with an overwhelming roar of boos from a crowd that had remained relatively quiet throughout the event.

Rodríguez fought back, but no consensus was reached.

After sharing a lengthy story about his recent 64-lb. weight loss and current physical resemblance to Bernie Sanders, Hunter said the public needs to give President-elect Donald Trump a chance and see how he does during the first few months in office. The one thing he said he could guarantee was that, “Texas will survive and do well.”

Burton, who expressed her concerns about Trump’s flip-flopping opinions, saids she too would wait and see what happens before making any predictions about the future of American politics.

Rodríguez, the only Democrat of the bunch, was more wary.

“The implications and consequences of this election are that you have a president and administration that is going to be harmful toward public education, those who are lacking health care – especially the uninsured – (and the) environment,” he said. “I would say to my colleagues in the Texas legislature: if we really mean what we say, we should work together both in House and Senate.

“I think both parties and the Tea Party are going to have to reassess how we can work together to address some of the concerns I have about Trump and his ideas about the world. And if we don’t, I fear we will be in for a very dark time in our history.”

Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.