Last week I attended the first annual policy conference put on by the relatively new Texas Conservative Roundtable. Talk about refreshing! Being in a room with people that were discussing serious policy concerns in Texas versus people spewing hot button rhetoric is rare these days. No black helicopter talk, no finger pointing, no one thinking that TSA pat downs are the most important topic, just serious discussions about serious issues. Very nice.
Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about providing a blow by blow recap because Karen Brooks Harper did that directly from the meeting in the popular Trail Blazers blog. I’ll link to each of her posts below. Two things about Ms. Harper: one, her fingers were flying over the keyboard. Dang, if I could do that, I’d be a lot more productive. Two, about those boots she was wearing. Hmm. How do I say this? Um, I think that there is probably a homeless person walking around Austin barefoot…
The conference was opened by Speaker Joe Straus. Obviously, being a fan, I enjoyed this as it was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to meet the Speaker. His speech set the tone for the day as he continued to push his vision of dealing with serious issues this session: education, roads, and water. On education, he noted that we must prepare students for life, not to pass a test. And regarding the state’s water plan, he said that it had been sitting in the dust on the shelf of inaction for far too long.
Brooks Harper: Up early at the Texas Conservative Roundtable
The first panel, the education panel, was probably the best of the day. The panel consisted of Rep. Dan Branch, Chair of Higher Education, Bill Hammond, President and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, moderator Brian McCall, Chancellor of the Texas State University System, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, Chair of Public Education, and Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The panelists interacted with each other very well and there was a lot of back and forth. Both Chairman Dan Branch and Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock were well versed on the problems plaguing our schools. One of the points that Bill Hammond made was that Judge John Dietz ruled against the taxpayers of Texas in declaring that our school finance system was unconstitutional. And Chairman Branch noted that the judge announced that he was going to rule from the bench prior to hearing closing arguments, indicating that the judge didn’t listen to the case presented by the state.
One of the most important topics discussed was that we must stop the chance of “buzz” getting out that Texas doesn’t have educated students or infrastructure if we are to continue to attract businesses. We’ve seen that play out this week in the “feud” between Gov. Rick Perry and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Commissioner Paredes noted that California has nine Tier 1 universities to Texas’ three and that California funding for higher education is two and a half times higher than ours.
When my wife asked me what the one thing I remembered most from the day, it was Chairman Aycock’s statistic that 47% of Texas 10th graders are not on track to pass their End of Course exams and have no reason to stay in school. That represents 100,000 students, a staggering figure and something that should be in the forefront of any discussion on education reform. I know that most pundits are saying that Aycock will not let any form of voucher or tax credit out of his committee but he seemed to me to be reasonable enough to at least entertain the limited system of tax credits that Sen. Dan Patrick will be proposing. We desperately need reform and I hope that Chairman Aycock can be persuaded to think out of the box. Like I said, he seemed to be very passionate about education, so perhaps he will at least consider it. More on that when I post about a school choice forum that I attended in Houston this past Saturday.
- Brooks Harper: Straus says school finance decision is on the House radar
- Brooks Harper: Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, says school funding may need a special session
- Brooks Harper: House Public Ed Chairman on testing: 47 percent of Texas 10th graders on track to fail
- Brooks Harper: Hammond: Publish secret STARR tests, reform them to an extent, but don’t lose the accountability
Next up was a transportation panel, consisting of TXDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson, Moderator Brigham MCCown, Port of Houston Authority Executive Director Col. Len Waterworth, and Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation Rep. Larry Phillips.
It was scary from a taxpayer’s standpoint to hear them talk about the funding necessary to build the infrastructure needed for future growth. Chairman Phillips said that we needed an additional $3 billion a year MINIMUM, with an estimated $7 billion a year in real needs. Wow. He also talked about the “diversions” that are currently taken away from the 20 cent per gallon gasoline tax, noting that in reality, only about $300 million was diverted from the $1.2 billion Dept. of Public Safety budget for non-DPS functions, mentioning counterterrorism, immigration, crime labs, etc. The 25% diversion for school funding is in the state constitution, so it isn’t a true “diversion”.
One interesting factoid presented was that drilling one single fracking well was the equivalent of adding eight million cars to the roads in that area. Holy pothole, Batman! Think of the number of wells being drilled in the Eagle Ford Shale find and it is no wonder that traffic accidents and deaths are rampant.
- Brooks Harper: UPDATE: Diversion of transportation funds subject to debate
- Brooks Harper: No appetite in Lege for higher gas tax, says House Trans Committee Chair
The panel on healthcare consisted of too many lobbyists for me. John Hawkins is with the Texas Hospital Association, Thomas Kowalski is President of the Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute, Moderator Dan Howle is a lobbyist for Lilly, USA, Lee Spangler is VP of Medical Economics for the Texas Medical Association, and Rep. John Zerwas, who is a M.D. in real life.
I honestly didn’t hear a lot of policy discussion, just a series of talking points. Rep. Zerwas did oppose Medicaid expansion, saying that the biggest problem with it was that the system itself was byzantine and overwhelming for physicians and their staff to navigate. From a policy perspective, his priority was to keep Texas medical students in the state for their residency. Apparently, many of them leave because there aren’t enough slots for them to fill.
- Brooks Harper: Health panelists answer: What can the government do?
After lunch, we heard from Dale Craymer, President of the Texas Taxpayer and Research Association, moderator Rep. Dan Branch, Mike Morrissey, Senior Advisor to Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. John Otto, Vice Chair of Ways and Means. This was a fascinating discussion and I learned a lot about the budget process and the priorities that we will see.
Mr. Craymer echoed the warning from earlier in the day that he is hearing that companies are afraid to commit to Texas because they are afraid that there will not be enough water. Rep. Otto noted that 82.5% of all General Revenue funds are dedicated, leaving only 17.5% to legislator’s discretion. Mr. Morrissey said that if the franchise/margins tax were repealed or cut back, other funding would have to replace it because of the way the Property Tax Relief Fund was created in 2006. Possibly the most interesting comment was from Rep. Otto about how he would handle school financing – see Brooks Harper’s second link below.
- Brooks Harper: First World Problem: Does spending the Rainy Day Fund count against the constitutional spending cap?
- Brooks Harper: Another idea for that $5.3B in public ed cuts from last time
- Brooks Harper: Effect of school finance ruling on 2013 session = Some. Maybe. Or not.
- Brooks Harper: Budget panel: A hefty rainy day balance is attractive for bond ratings
- Brooks Harper: Judge Dietz’s “wave goodbye” – a light moment at TX Conservative Roundtable
Another informative panel discussed the future water requirements for Texas. The panel consisted of Robert Mace, Deputy Executive Administrator for the Texas Water Development Board, Rep. Lyle Larson, moderator Carol McGarah, lobbyist for a bunch of companies, Rep. Allen Ritter, Chair of Natural Resources, and Sen. Kel Seliger, Chair of Higher Ed and on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.
I must have a thing against lobbyists because it seemed to me that Ms. McGarah tooted her own horn too many times, talking about past attempts to fund the water plan that she spearheaded and praising the three lawmakers a bit more than the conversation seemed to merit. Nevertheless, the panel was very informative and I must say that I really liked Dr. Mace, who also gave a presentation about this over lunch. He seemed pretty level headed for a bureaucrat and understood that not everything he wants funded will be funded.
I also thought that Chairman Ritter came off as level headed and not crying wolf about the current and future water needs. Frankly, I was concerned about that because it was only two years ago that he switched parties in order to keep his elected position. Some party switchers never understand that Texas Republicans really are conservative and demand that from the people we elect. What I saw at the conference allayed my fears about that.
This was a very technical discussion but from a taxpayers point of view, all three politicians on the panel agreed that we need at least $2 billion put into a revolving account to finance water projects that will address our needs for the next 50 years. You can read the 2012 State Water Plan by clicking here.
- Brooks Harper: Water project funding: Who prioritizes? Lawmakers: ‘Not me.’
- Brooks Harper: Sound science key to getting it right on aquifers, says House Natural Resources chairman
The last panel was on energy. Panelists were Jeffrey Clark, lobbyist for The Wind Coalition, David Blackmon, also a lobbyist, moderator Brigham McCown, former Texas Secretary of State John Fainter, now a lobbyist, and Rep. Jim Keffer.
Much of this discussion was about taxes being too high on energy companies, natural gas continuing to play a major role in Texas energy, future exports of Liquid Natural Gas, and fracking. One interesting round was about friendly lawsuits, where a company goes out and gets a “fake” environmental group to sue them, then “settles” the suit with favorable conditions. Apparently, the EPA looks at these settlements as legitimate and backs off enforcing strict regulations. Interesting. Not a lot of policy discussed, unless you consider the “high” taxes these companies pay.
One of the audience members asked if a portion of the current tax could be dedicated to repairing and building roads that are being torn up by the heavy equipment used to drill new wells. I don’t think I heard an answer to that but earlier in the day, Transportation Chairman Phillips had basically ruled that out, allowing TXDOT to determine priorities.
- Brooks Harper: Keffer: Controversy over fracking “overblown”
Capping a long but productive day was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. I know that most pundits are predicting that he will not run again or that if he does, he’ll lose, but I don’t know about that. He seems to have more fire in the belly now than when I first met him last year and tells me that he is definitely running. I guess we’ll see. As for this speech, he reiterated many of the things he said last year, especially that one of the primary reasons for our success as a state has been the consistency among the leadership of low taxes and reasonable regulations. In fact, he predicted that he would add another tax cut to the 51 he has already achieved as Lt. Gov. and he ended his speech by saying that he is bullish on Texas and that we should be too.
It was a very enlightening day for me. I was impressed by the knowledge and passion that the legislators on the panels displayed. I was especially impressed by Rep. Dan Branch and can see why many people around the state want him to run for Attorney General.
All in all, a very successful first annual policy conference for this relatively new group, the Texas Conservative Roundtable. I thought that their ranking of legislators in 2012 was the most reasonable and accurate of the groups that do rankings and look forward to their future work.