By Bill Hammond
Just a few months ago, it looked like the state’s coffers would be overflowing with money. Thanks to plunging oil prices, that’s no longer the case. We’ll have to work hard to ensure that priorities that will benefit all Texans, not just business, are funded.
At the top of that list must be transportation. Our cities have long been choking on traffic, and maintaining the funding status quo is not an option. As we all know, the money provided by the passage of Proposition 1 in November is only part of what we need to maintain our current level of congestion, let alone make things better. Given the new state revenue estimate, we support ending all diversions from the State Highway Fund. We would also support a new constitutional amendment that would send 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation construction and maintenance rather than to the general fund.
Education must also be a priority. The Legislature likely won’t take up the state’s school finance system until the Texas Supreme Court has ruled on the issue, and that probably won’t happen until after lawmakers adjourn. This session, we need to focus on strengthening our education system.
One way to do that is by instituting an A-F grading system for every campus. No one really knows what “meeting expectations” is. Everyone knows what an A means, and certainly everyone knows what an F means.
Once our students graduate from high school, we must help them attain a college education. We should construct an affordable and efficient higher education system by fully funding the TEXAS Grants program, while also holding four-year institutions accountable by tying at least 10 percent of their funding to increasing the number of students who complete their degree programs.
The Texas Association of Business will also oppose the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented students who are attending higher education institutions, are in the process of obtaining legal status and have graduated from a Texas high school. It does nothing for this state to put more people into poverty by denying them a higher education.
We should also advocate for additional incentives for quality pre-kindergarten, as Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has proposed. Another way to break the cycle of poverty is to ensure that our youngest have the best start possible, instilling a love of learning from the beginning and making sure that they start kindergarten fully prepared.
We must take steps to create a more affordable and accessible health care system. To do that, we should increase the number of primary care doctors and advanced practice registered nurses as well as increase the use of telemedicine. We also must take steps to reduce prompt pay penalties that result in increased litigation and do nothing but raise insurance premiums, costing businesses and consumers alike.
It’s my hope that lawmakers will consider ending the state’s involvement with Texas Mutual Insurance Company, allowing for a level playing field and letting the policyholder owners fully determine the direction of the company.
While we have an incredibly good business climate, we can always improve. We must streamline the environmental permitting process. What can take weeks and months in other states can take years in Texas. We should also maintain the state’s economic incentive programs, like the Texas Enterprise Fund, and incentives for film and television productions.
There are also too many people serving time for minor, nonviolent offenses. We should take a hard look at this issue and pass legislation that will give offenders the tools to get a job and employers the tools to hire them.
Our full list of business priorities for 2015 is much longer, but our message is this: Only when Texans succeed will business be able to succeed.
Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, the state’s largest business organization. Hammond previously served on the Texas Workforce Commission and as a member of the Texas House in the 1980s.