Tuesday afternoon, members in the Texas House of Representatives opened the legislative session by unanimously reelecting Rep. Joe Straus as House Speaker. This will be the fifth time they’ve chosen the San Antonio Republican to lead their chamber.
Straus’ re-election Tuesday was part of the ceremony that’s marks every first day of a legislative session…. But this time was different
In the past tea party conservatives have aggressively campaigned against the more moderate Straus- they’ve tried to unseat him. This time Straus had no opponents.
In the end, 150-state lawmakers cast their votes, all for Joe Straus.
During an interview, Straus acknowledged the tight budget lawmakers will be dealing with this time. There’s an estimated gap of $4 to $6 billion just to pay for continuing current services in the next two-year budget.
“And that’s going to be a very tall order with the fiscal constraints we have due to the downturn in the oil and gas industry economy over the last several years," Straus says.
Straus says one of his priorities is to do something the Texas Supreme Court opted not to do - reform the state’s system for funding public education. The Justices said the system doesn’t work, but ruled it constitutional. Straus doesn’t give details but wants to do away with the so-called Robin Hood plan. That’s where the state redistributes tax money from property wealthy districts to help pay for schools in property poor districts.
“I think our parents and taxpayers out there know it, several hundreds of school districts now are in the recapture system, in the Robin Hood System, sending far too much of their taxpayer dollars to the state, that needs to be addressed," Straus says.
Straus also wants to reform the state’s mental healthcare system so those suffering from mental illness get help instead of getting lost in local jails. He believes programs in his own county may serve as models for the rest of Texas.
“Bexar County has been a leader in this policy area, I think the State of Texas and other areas of the state are going great work too, but I think great improvements could be made to our mental healthcare system," Straus explains.
Straus will no doubt bump heads with Lt. Gov Dan Patrick who presides over the senate . Patrick is promoting school choice legislation that would allow some students to attend private schools and pay for it with state tax dollars that would normally go to public schools.
That’s something Straus may oppose.
Then there’s the Lt. Governor’s support for a so-call bathroom bill. It would limit the public and school bathrooms that could be used by transgender people.
Straus has said that’s not a priority for him- and he’s apparently concerned that type of legislation could drive away business and big events as it did in North Carolina.
“We can encourage economic growth by setting and acting on the right priorities. If someone wants to invest in Texas, if they want to bring commerce and opportunity to our state we should welcome them, this state should invite economic activity, not turn it away," Straus says.
Political Scientist Mark Jones at Rice University's Baker Institute of Public Policy says if Straus doesn’t support a bathroom bill, or a certain school choice bill he can as Speaker prevent it from ever reaching the House floor for a vote.
“He’ll send the bill to the place where many bills go to die in the Straus House and that’s the State Affairs committee, where it will sit and languish until the end of May, the session will end and there it will be with whole host of other bills that never made it out of committee," Jones explains.
Jones says Straus, more moderate on many social issues than the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, is in the unique position to oppose and stop some of their efforts. And that may make Straus the most powerful lawmaker in Austin this session.