AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said Friday he's committed to pumping billions of dollars back into the state's public schools, even though the Legislature approved historically deep cuts just last year.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the San Antonio Republican said "we will fund enrollment growth going forward," which he estimated will be a $2 billion item when lawmakers head back to work Jan. 8.
"The good news is we're dedicated to doing that, committed to doing that," Straus said.
Texas' booming population means its current 5 million-plus public school enrollment increases by as much as 80,000 every year. But the 2011 legislative session failed to provide enough new funding to keep up with enrollment, instead passing $5.4 billion in overall cuts to public education and classroom grant programs for things such as pre-kindergarten programs — sparking the state's first decrease in per-student spending since World War II.
Straus wouldn't say he will push to find the additional $5.4 billion necessary to roll back all of those funding cuts. He did say, though, that since Texas' economy has weathered the recession and is strong again, lawmakers have more options.
"Growing economy, growing revenues, growing population," Straus said. "There's an ability to keep up now, but how far we can go in restoring certain decisions that we made last time remains to be seen. I hope we can. We're certainly going to try to do everything we can to improve public education."
More than 600 school districts have sued the state for failing to meet Texas constitutional mandate to fund public schools. Most observers expect them to win, but it could be years before the case works its way through the appeals process.
Straus said his other top priorities will be increasing investment in state infrastructure and resources like reservoirs to ensure Texas has enough water for the future. He also wants to put an end to accounting tricks that have for decades let lawmakers claim to have balanced the budget by simply moving money around, and to pass legislation that will encourage growth in the state's manufacturing sector.
The speaker said he was encouraged by a number of water proposals, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently floating the idea of taking $1 billion from the Texas Rainy Day fund to start a water infrastructure development bank, which would help cities and counties pay for environmental studies, permits and other groundwork for new construction.
"I think it's very encouraging that the discussion is beginning now and in advance of the session to address one of the issues that we absolutely have to seriously address," Straus said.
In the past, maintaining the Rainy Day fund's $8.1 billion has been a top priority for Gov. Rick Perry and many tea party-backed lawmakers who often oppose Straus. Last session, Democrats called for spending some of the fund rather than cutting public education so much — but many Republicans said doing so was fiscally unwise.
The tea party has been largely silent on the Dewhurst proposal, however, and Straus said he doesn't expect the issue to inflame them.
"Tea party, liberals, conservatives, everyone lives because of water," he said. "Every industry relies on it, and if there's an overarching theme for this session for the House, it's 'how do we prepare for growth, growth that's already occurred, growth that is continuing.' "
Even though 2011 was perhaps the Legislature's most conservative session ever, Straus has been criticized by some grass-roots groups for failing to get behind a few of their pet projects. Now, he faces a challenge from the right for the speakership by Rep. Bryan Hughes, a tea party favorite from Mineola. Straus has spent weeks traveling the state and meeting with lawmakers, however, and says he has broad bipartisan support for a third term.
If he retains his post, Straus will preside over a House where inexperience is almost the norm. The 150-member body will have 44 first-term lawmakers, more than any Texas House in 40 years.
The speaker said he was excited about working with new legislators, but noted they'll have a lot to learn.
"It's easier and it's more difficult in some ways," Straus said. "This is the second cycle in a row of significant turnover and new faces, and it brings with it some new ideas, fresh faces, fresh thinking and a lot of members who don't know what's impossible."