Ahead of red meat special session, Straus says Texas House remains laser-focused on public education

Originally published in The Quorum Report.

SAN ANTONIO – To thunderous applause by school board members from around the state gathered in the Alamo City, the presiding officer of the Texas House of Representatives last week said that despite a laundry list of red meat special session topics offered by Gov. Greg Abbott, the lower chamber remains laser-focused on improving classrooms from El Paso to Beaumont and everywhere in between.

“The Texas House still believes in public education and we’re not giving up on our kids,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the Texas Association of School Boards conference at the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel.

Straus began by joking that it was nice to be surrounded by a group of people who support public education, which is “quite a change for me,” apparently taking a jab at the Texas Senate. Speaker Straus said that during the regular session, the upper chamber was wrongly focused on school vouchers. In broad bipartisan fashion, the House has repeatedly rejected school vouchers in any form.

Striking what was perhaps his most defiant tone yet, Straus took multiple swipes at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who suggested earlier this year that school finance – the centerpiece of Straus’ speech in San Antonio – could only be addressed in a special session. Patrick had said there would not be sufficient time in a regular session to tackle school finance, which of course has historically been among the heaviest of legislative lifts at the Texas Capitol.

"Until we get it right, the House will always have time to work on school finance,” Straus said.

The speaker talked at some length about the high property taxes paid by people around the state and noted that the largest portion of those bills goes toward paying for local school districts.

Pointing to the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s method of paying for public schools is barely constitutional, Straus reminded the audience that the high court also said the system needs to be improved significantly.

“The call for improvement was not a surprise in the Texas House,” Straus said. He added that for the first time ever, recapture payments are soon to exceed $2 billion.  

“It isn’t difficult (to address school finance) but it does require leadership,” Straus said, arguing the state should be carrying more of the freight and offering relief to local taxpayers in that fashion. Senate leadership, naturally, prefers legislation that would include rollback rates for cities and counties.

“Somebody’s going to be paying for public education,” Straus said, adding that the “somebody” is either going to be the taxpayer at the local level or the state picking up the slack.

The bottom line for Straus on property taxes, the issue that has most energized Lt. Gov. Patrick’s base of support for more than a decade even before he ever ran for public office, is that the system of paying for public schools must be reimagined from top to bottom.

“If we want real property tax relief then we need real school finance reform,” Straus said.

When it comes to proposals to restrict public restroom access based on gender, another of Patrick’s pet causes, Speaker Straus said the people who run school districts at the local level are well-equipped to deal with any tensions that may arise.

“I’m pretty sure you can handle them and I know that you have been handling them,” Straus said to the school board members. Wasting the bandwidth of lawmakers on such a divisive issue “sends the wrong signal about our priorities” and sends the wrong message to business, Straus said.

Certain leaders in Austin, Straus said, seem to be rushing to make the mistakes that have already been made in places like North Carolina.

Straus said the regular session of the Legislature did see some successes, including improvements to the beleaguered Child Protective Services agency as well as investments in mental health. “These achievements are going to help a lot of Texans,” he said.

As to his philosophy for handling the upcoming special session, Straus told a joke that was often used by President Ronald Reagan about an optimistic young boy who was treated by a psychiatrist.

The story goes that the doctor tried to dampen the optimist’s mood by taking him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of becoming disgusted, the optimistic kid was excited and climbed to the top of the pile.

Yes, members, this was Joe Straus telling this story.

The boy, on top of the pile, started happily digging into the manure, scoop after scoop with his bare hands.

"What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked.

"With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, "there must be a pony in here somewhere!"

Straus said that his approach to the special session, facing a pile of so many things, would be similar. He said he would be an optimist “looking for that pony.”

In the meantime, when asked by reporters what House members should be doing in the run-up to the special, Straus said they should be spending time with their families and running their businesses.

Copyright June 14, 2017, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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