Texas’ youth are at the top of House Speaker Joe Straus’s priority list for the next legislative session.
Straus said Tuesday that he wants to help improve the embattled child welfare system, find a better funding system for public schools and ensure that college-bound youths can make their higher-education journey no matter what their family’s financial situation.
Rounding out the top of his 2017 early to-do list are improving the state’s approach to mental health illnesses, encouraging entrepreneurship in Texas and considering property tax reform.
The challenge will be getting both chambers to agree on how best to address these issues, particularly in a year where dollars may be tight due to slumping oil and gas revenues.
“Members of the Texas House certainly aren’t going to agree on everything,” Straus told a crowd of hundreds gathered for a Dallas Regional Chamber luncheon at the Fairmont Dallas hotel. “Texans don’t agree on everything.”
But there is “plenty of common ground.”
And while there has been plenty of political fighting this year as the presidential race continues to dominate news cycles, Straus said there’s one thing he can guarantee.
“This election season is going to end,” he said. “And that is a promise I know I can keep.”
Texans are going to want to see some results.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus
He said he’s ready to prepare for the 85th Legislative Session because after Nov. 8, “Texans are going to want to see some results.”
The Texas Legislature goes back to work Jan. 10.
Top of the list
Already, top state officials have asked state agencies to cut their budget requests because of concerns about waning oil and gas revenue.
Some say needs ranging from school financing to border security likely will demand top dollar, and no one knows how much money will be available.
One of Straus’s top priorities is to improve the state’s embattled child welfare agency — Child Protective Services.
We can absolutely do better.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus
Concerns about this agency have grown as the number of child abuse and death cases in Texas has risen, leaving children sleeping in state office buildings and even prompting a judge to rule that the foster care system here is “broken.”
Top state officials earlier this year named new leaders to the state agency that oversees CPS and said improving the system geared to help abused children will be a top priority for the 85th Legislature. And recently, a handful of CPS regional directors across the state — from Austin to Corpus Christi — were let go as the effort to revamp the agency continues.
“There’s no more important place to start than with the safety of our children,” Straus said, adding that he’d like to look at the stability of the CPS workforce and at prevention and early intervention programs to help Texas families.
“No child should feel unwanted in their own home or unsafe,” he said. “We can absolutely do better.”
Straus noted that he wants to encourage entrepreneurship and small business growth in Texas and work to find ways to reform the state’s property tax system, which has drawn concern and criticism from residents statewide.
Other top concerns:
Public education: The Texas Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that the state’s public school funding system is constitutional but noted that “there is immense room for improvement.” Justices asked lawmakers to take steps to put in place “top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.” Many lawmakers have said they hope the Legislature as a whole will properly address the issue and funding formulas. Straus asked House committees to study the issue and come back with recommendations to reform the system. “This is not an easy problem to solve nor is it inexpensive,” he said. “Great communities are built around great public schools.”
Higher education: The goal is to make sure that Texans who want to continue their education in college can make it there and that the cost doesn’t keep them away. He said colleges and universities “need to be accessible to students … regardless of their economic backgrounds.”
Mental health issues: Texas’ mental health care system doesn’t have the capacity to handle all those who need help, leaving hundreds of people at a time on waiting lists — and without the services they desperately need — to gain access to help at aging facilities across the state. “There is a lot of work to do,” Straus said. “But members of the House are working … to deliver better outcomes … and use money already in the system.”
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, was among the lawmakers who attended Tuesday’s luncheon and said he is encouraged by Straus’ early priority list.
“I love what he laid out,” Romero said. “He has given us a leader we can believe in.”