Joe Straus: As session starts, the Texas House is ready to get to work

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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus

The Texas House will convene Tuesday for the first time in 17 months.

Over the course of our 140-day session, the House will focus on providing responsible, thoughtful solutions to issues that shape our economy and our future.

Fortunately, we won’t be starting from scratch.

House committees have held dozens of hearings over the last year and spent many hours studying the challenges and opportunities Texas faces.

Members of the House have been living and working in the communities we represent, listening to the concerns and aspirations of our neighbors.

Just as importantly, the House had a very successful session in 2013. We maintained our commitment to fiscal discipline while addressing issues of fundamental importance to our economy, such as education and water.

The Texas population is growing twice as fast as the rest of the country. This growth has fueled much of our economic success, but it presents challenges that we as legislators must address.

Growth and drought have put a severe strain on our water supply. In 2013, the House addressed that issue by establishing a fund to help communities launch needed water projects.

This solution, which did not require a tax increase, was later approved by 73 percent of voters.

Growth also drives another key priority heading into the new session: transportation. The House will propose using all of our gas-tax revenue and other money in our state Highway Fund for transportation, which will create an additional $1.3 billion for mobility — again without a tax increase.

While using the Highway Fund for highways may sound like a rather simple and obvious idea, the state has for decades spent some of that money on other programs.

Combined with voters’ recent decision to direct some of our oil-and-gas revenues toward transportation, using Highway Fund dollars correctly is a meaningful, practical step toward improving mobility.

But other steps are needed to fully meet this challenge. Members will continue developing transportation solutions in the months ahead.

The health of our transportation system directly relates to our ability to attract job creators. So does the quality of our workforce, and building a quality workforce begins in our public schools.

Two years ago, we reduced standardized testing and reformed our high school curriculum to help students better prepare for college and career success. We will build on those efforts this session by making education, including higher education, a top priority.

Finally, the House will continue the work we began two years ago to make the state budget more transparent and efficient.

For more than two decades, the state has collected taxes and fees for a stated purpose but held onto that money so it could be counted to certify the rest of the state budget.

The state assesses a fee on drunk drivers to help pay for hospital trauma care, for example, but much of that money never reached hospitals as intended.

Two years ago, the House reduced the amount of so-called dedicated revenue sitting in the state treasury, and we will reduce it further this session.

Another part of our responsibility is making sure that state resources are used appropriately.

A House committee has spent months studying ways to reform state economic development programs. The committee’s work will provide important guidance as the full House works to make these programs more effective and more accountable to all taxpayers.

To be sure, some new issues have arisen since we were last in session. Perhaps none is more important than the sharp decline in oil prices, which underscores the need for a sober and disciplined approach this session.

The House knows that a growing state requires serious solutions, and we know how to deliver them. Come Tuesday, that work will begin again.

Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is speaker of the Texas House. Members will decide whether to re-elect him to that office.

 

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