DALLAS — Ensuring that children and other vulnerable Texans are not left behind as the state grows should be the focus of the next legislative session, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said on Tuesday.
"In 2017, enabling our citizens to pull themselves forward will be a major point of focus in the Texas House," Straus said at a luncheon for the Dallas Regional Chamber, adding that the state's troubled child welfare system is an urgent place to start.
"Children have been failed by a system that is supposed to protect them from abuse and neglect," Straus continued. "We may not be able to stop every instance of child abuse in Texas, but we can absolutely do better."
Texas is currently plotting a major overhaul of its foster care system after a federal judge declared it broken last year, increasing pressure on lawmakers to address the issue in the interim and during the 2017 session. Straus said legislators must seek to lower case worker turnover — "We need to keep them on the job," he said — and look at prevention and early intervention programs.
Straus said children can also be helped by fixing the state's public school finance system, which the Texas Supreme Court upheld earlier this year. He suggested lawmakers should not be complacent with that ruling, which found the system constitutional but "undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement."
"I did not see that ruling as a victory or a cause for celebration," Straus said. "Certainly, it was not a license to do nothing.”
Also topping Straus' list was mental health — he appointed a select committee last year to take a comprehensive look at the state's behavioral health system — as well as higher education. He said lawmakers should work to make the state's colleges and universities as accessible as possible to all students who want to learn, regardless of economic background.
Straus underscored the preview with a note of caution, bringing up the state revenue projections released last week by Comptroller Glenn Hegar. The comptroller announced the state budget outlook has been pared down by almost $1 billion, largely due to the still-shaky oil and gas industry.
"We’re going to have to be very strategic and very prudent in the use of taxpayer resources," Straus told business leaders. "Some difficult decisions and difficult choices will need to be made, and we will make those choices hearing from you, I hope. We need to hear from you."
Straus reiterated his desire to see changes to the Texas Enterprise Fund, which the state uses to lure businesses to Texas — and has been denounced by conservatives as corporate welfare. The fund, Straus said, "shouldn't just be a corporate relocation fund for large companies that are probably already coming to Texas" for its business-friendly climate.
Straus also said the House can assist the state's economic situation by looking at the cause of growing property tax rates, particularly whether the process of setting the rates is open and transparent.
Straus, who has not expressed any support for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, ended his speech by looking toward the end of the rowdy campaign for the White House.
"I know this has been a season of discord and division in American politics, but I check the calendar every single day, and Nov. 8 is still on it," Straus told business leaders. "This election campaign is going to end, and that is a promise I know I can keep. When all the campaign chatter finally stops, Texans are going to want to see some results, and the Texas House will be ready to deliver those results as long as we have your input."
Asked about Trump after his remarks, Straus continued to offer no support, reiterating that he is focused on helping down-ballot candidates in his role as chairman of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. He said he was not too worried about Trump hurting those candidates, and that he imagined there would be more split-ticket voting than usual this November.
"I’m down ballot," Straus told reporters. "Whatever I do at the top of the ticket doesn’t matter. I’m happy to do my part helping focus some attention down ballot on these races that are very, very important. Plenty of people are obsessed with the presidential campaign.”
Straus began his remarks on a lighter note, ribbing former Gov. Rick Perry over his poorly reviewed debut the night before on "Dancing With the Stars."
"I want to give Gov. Perry a lot of credit," Straus said. "During his career, he has competed against Kinky Friedman, Donald Trump and now Vanilla Ice."
"Take it from me, I served as speaker" when Perry was governor, Straus added. "Trust me when I say I have seen him dance a whole lot better than he did last night."
Read related coverage from the Tribune:
- The new chief of the state's beleaguered child welfare system had a clear message for Texas lawmakers: Time has run out for business as usual.
- Texas must continue drafting court-ordered plans to fix its broken foster care system, according to a new order from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
- The fault lines that will define efforts to improve the state's system of funding education came into sharp focus Wednesday as a Senate panel began studying how to improve the "efficiency" of public schools in Texas.