Speaker Straus Hints at What’s to Come in Texas Legislative Session


Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said this past week that he is “personally” against repealing in-state tuition for undocumented students, he wants to work with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on border security, and that The Legislature should avoid “gimmicks” when deciding how to pay for critical infrastructure like roads.

In a wide-ranging interview with James Henson of the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin, Straus talked about all those subjects and more, including the push for “open carry” of handguns this session and the constant threat Republican House members seem to be under from certain groups.

“Texas House members aren’t gonna be bullied,” Straus said – a sentiment that could apply to the tactics of Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans as well as the actions of Kory Watkins, who heads up Open Carry Tarrant County. Watkins has threatened lawmakers by saying “death” should be their punishment if they don’t pass an open carry law.

Straus called Watkins a “wild man” who has been fortunate, at least so far, not to run afoul of law enforcement in the course of his recent activism. The Speaker said Watkins’ comments were most certainly a death threat. “I don’t see how anybody who saw that video could take it as any other way,” he said.

On the issue of open carry itself, Straus said the Texas House is a deliberative body where Second Amendment proposals are welcome. It will no doubt be a point of discussion during this legislative session, Straus said.

During the interview, Henson described a tense 24 hours at the Capitol surrounding Gov. Patrick’s push for uninterrupted deployment of the National Guard along the Texas-Mexico border. Hours after a brief Patrick speech calling for millions more dollars for the deployment, Straus said “I appreciate Governor Patrick’s remarks, but Governor Abbott is the Commander in Chief and he will decide whether to extend the National Guard’s deployment.”

Straus in no way deflected or demurred about his terse response to Patrick’s announcement. The comment came from Straus personally, not his office, and he told Henson he thought he was just stating an “obvious fact” that Patrick isn’t in charge of the National Guard. “We only have one governor at a time,” Straus said.


Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, during an interview at UT Austin.

He also pointed to the Wednesday morning House Appropriations testimony of Maj. Gen. John Nichols, commander of the Texas National Guard, in which he talked about the long-term effect on his forces during a protracted deployment. Border security is absolutely essential and should ultimately be law enforcement-driven instead of centering on the “optics” of a military action, Straus said.

Straus said he has not asked House members how they feel about repealing in-state tuition for undocumented students at public universities. On a personal level, however, Straus said he agrees with former Gov. Rick Perry, who believes investing in those students will help to create a generation of “givers not takers” in our society.

Straus also said it’s important to think about the way in which a policy of investing in young people – without regard to the illegal actions of their parents – sends a signal to other states about the way Texas works to mold those individuals into contributing members of the economy instead of becoming a drag on it.

Speaker Straus does not seem consumed with what observers might call “red meat” issues in quite the same way many of his fellow Republican officeholders might be tempted to be.

“My concern is that we pass a budget that balances, that addresses our key priorities, and adds up,” Straus said. Tax relief and debt relief should be among those priorities, he said.

When it comes to infrastructure investment, Straus said lawmakers should avoid “gimmicks” like moving money from one pot to the other. He clarified that he was specifically talking about proposals like Sen. Robert Nichols’ plan to constitutionally dedicate roughly half of vehicle sales taxes to the highway fund. That proposal has the full-throated support of Lt. Gov. Patrick and Senate Republicans.

The plan includes sending to voters a proposition, which Straus said is a “California style” of governing in which all big decisions are sent to voters instead of being dealt with by their elected representatives. He did not foreclose on Nichols’ plan being eventually adopted, but Straus said if the state has the money to deal with an issue it should be appropriated by budget writers at the capitol.

When Henson asked Straus about the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the response was that there should certainly be such an ethics watchdog.

“The base budget in the House continues to fund a public integrity unit,” Straus said while making it clear that it might not be in the form it is in now. Straus indicated he does not agree with the Senate’s budget proposal to zero out the office. “To say that we’re gonna defund the ability to investigating corruption among public officials is not the message the Texas House wants to send.”

In response to a question about whether the PIU could potentially be housed in the Office of the Attorney General, Straus said “I believe that’s a constitutional issue and I don’t see that happening.”

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, by the way, has not ruled out funding for the PIU but she and others have maintained it is “too political” to have it housed in the Travis County DA’s Office.

You can watch the entire interview with Straus here:

Copyright February 11, 2015, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission. 

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