Speaker Joe Straus
Opening Day Address
January 8, 2013
(Note: Remarks below are as prepared for delivery. Speaker Straus often deviates from written text.)
Members, I am humbled by your support …. grateful for the confidence you have placed in me … and honored to serve again as your Speaker.
I’d like to thank my fellow San Antonians, Secretary Steen and Chief Justice Jefferson for helping us begin this session.
And I deeply appreciate the kind words of Dr. Zerwas and the Members who seconded my nomination.
I would also like to recognize – and thank — all of the Members’ families, both those who are with us today and those who were not able to make it.
As surely as we serve the state of Texas, so do you.
You honor us — and you honor this state — by supporting our service.
I would especially like to thank my own family for being here today, including my parents, Joci and Joe Straus Jr., and my wife Julie and our daughters Sara and Robyn.
I couldn’t be more proud of the young women that Sara and Robyn have become.
And I am equally proud of the way that Julie has represented the House with grace and distinction over the last four years.
We gather today to chart a path forward for the state we love. We have a lot to be proud of in Texas, from leading the nation in job creation to leading an American energy revolution.
For eight straight years Texas has led the nation in exports, and our unemployment rate is well below the national average, despite a massive influx of new workers.
Our economy is so vast and diverse that if Texas were its own country – and no, don’t worry, that isn’t something we’re going to do this session – but if we were, we’d be the 14th largest economy in the world.
Other states envy our strength. But we should not allow our state’s many successes to hide some very real … and very urgent … challenges.
Instead, now is the time to get serious about solving those challenges, to take the next step forward and to lead Texas into a new era of innovation and opportunity.
We begin this work at a moment of significant change for this House. Today the largest class of new Members in 40 years took the oath of office, and nearly half our Members are in their first or second terms.
We welcome our new Members … we are glad that you’re here … and we value the perspective that you bring to this House.
Even more importantly, Texas itself is in the midst of fast, profound change.
Since the year 2000, our state has added more than 6 million people – or roughly the population of the entire Houston metro area.
Demographers project that by the time we celebrate our bicentennial in just over 20 years, about 36 million people – 10 million more than today – will call Texas home.
With balanced budgets, one of the lowest per-capita spending burdens in the country, and a pro-growth tax structure, our greatest challenges are not fiscal in nature.
Texas does not face a fiscal cliff . . . but we do face a demographic cliff.
Our rapid growth requires a steadfast commitment to the core responsibilities of government, such as a quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system and an honest state budget.
These are the priorities that you and I discussed around the state in recent months — the issues that voters expect us to address because they will play the largest role in determining our shared future.
Our priorities should begin where our future does – in public education.
More than 5 million children are enrolled in our public schools, which is more than the total population of 29 states.
More than 3 million of them are deemed economically disadvantaged, and almost 1 million of them speak limited English. The education of all our students will determine whether Texas is a land of prosperity or lost opportunities.
There should be no sacred cows when it comes to our children – including our accountability system. For more than a decade, this state has used an increasingly rigorous series of standardized tests to measure academic excellence.
But by now every Member of this House has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools.
Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization.
The goal of education is not to teach children how to pass a test, but to prepare them for life. The goal of every teacher is to develop in students a lifelong love of learning, and we need to get back to that goal in the classroom.
To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing – the Texas House has heard you.
We will continue to hold our schools accountable. But we will also make our accountability and testing system more appropriate … more flexible … and more reasonable.
I ask also that in this session we focus on making higher education accessible and affordable for more Texans.
Our institutions of higher education come in many shapes and sizes. We all realize the importance and prestige of our four-year and graduate universities, and the need to expand Tier One institutions in Texas to compete globally.
We will continue to strengthen them.
But in a state as large and complex as Texas, we need a range of educational options to empower students to reach their full potential.
Many of us have focused over the last year on attracting more manufacturers to Texas. Manufacturers and employers in every sector say that they cannot find the skilled workers they need, because many Texans simply do not know how to access appropriate training.
The Texans who could take these jobs don’t necessarily need four year degrees, but they do need to know their educational options.
In September I visited Texas State Technical College in Marshall, where students receive hands-on training for cutting-edge careers in manufacturing, information technology and health care, among others.
These programs respond directly to the needs of industry and offer the specific training that open high-demand fields to students.
Let’s expand opportunity in Texas this session by improving coordination among high schools … community and technical colleges … and the private sector, so that no young person feels destined to spend life drifting from one low-skilled, minimum-wage job to the next.
Employers need the workforce that improved technical programs will produce. But that’s not all they need. They also need a modern, innovative transportation system that is funded appropriately.
And, like all of us, they need water.
Our state continues to cope with historic drought conditions.
Over the last couple of years, severe restrictions have been imposed in both urban and rural areas throughout the state, and water has been trucked into a number of Texas communities whose wells ran dry.
The cost of this drought has been estimated at almost 8 billion dollars in losses to agriculture alone, with untold economic and environmental costs elsewhere.
And businesses wonder whether Texas will have the water supply necessary for short- and long-term economic growth.
There is no single or easy answer to our water challenges. But we know a 50-year water plan without funding is not the solution.
If we are going to applaud ourselves for attracting new Texans into our state, we have to be honest about the demands of such growth. I encourage the Members of this House to take action this session– bold, substantial action – to address our water needs.
Finally, we should work in this session to make our state budget more transparent. We may disagree at times about the size of government and the need for spending, but I think we can all agree that our budget should be honest and straightforward with taxpayers.
Soon after I was elected to the House, I found that a fee created in the early days of the Internet in order to expand online access was still being collected on the phone bills of Texas consumers, even though the program it funded had ceased to exist.
Hundreds of millions of dollars collected through this fee each year sat dormant in the treasury, so that the state could show on paper that it had the money to cover the rest of its spending.
In 2007, I worked with many of you to halt collections of that fee and erase all references to the program in state statutes. But that was just one fee.
The use of others to certify the state budget has grown for 20 years, and today almost 5 billion dollars in various fees and surcharges are not going toward their intended purpose.
Let’s reverse that trend this session and strive to use all fees as the law intends – or not collect them at all.
Let’s also reduce the amount of gas-tax dollars that aren’t spent on transportation and use that money to construct a system that will support the growth of our population and the strength of our economy.
These are the challenges – education, water, infrastructure, jobs and budget transparency – that will determine what kind of state we’ll be when 36 million people live here.
And these challenges require a spirit of consensus and collaboration from the Members on this floor.
Our capacity to work together is what distinguishes this body from Washington D.C.
In the Texas House, we don’t put the Republicans on one side of the room and the Democrats on the other. In our House, there is no aisle that divides us.
Instead, we work with our colleagues, regardless of party, because our mission transcends partisan politics.
We will work together this session, and we will remember whom we serve.
During the course of campaigning for this office, you said or did something that appealed to the hopes and aspirations of your neighbors, and you inspired them to entrust you with a seat in this House.
I ask that every day you walk on this floor, you think about all the people you represent — the business owner trying to meet a payroll, the farmer praying for rain, the parents trying to save money for college, and the child who is just beginning to read.
These are the people – the only people – whom you will owe any explanation for how you represent your district over the next 140 days.
And they are waiting to see if we are willing to confront the serious issues that will determine this state’s future.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
Improving education …. expanding opportunity, … and meeting the challenges of a growing population – this is work worth doing, and it is work that can no longer be ignored.
So let us be consumed by the urgency of the task before us.
Let us be bold.
Let us be visionary.
And let us focus on what Texas can be.
Thank you again for your support. Now let’s get to work for the people of Texas.