Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Straus criticizes tone of higher ed debate, questions value of state's job funds

"One of the real disappointments of the session to me was the assault on higher education and I’m hoping that that tone of wanting to tear down some of our very fine institutions of the state is over,"



Aman Batheja | Star Telegram PoliText Blog
November 1, 2011

In a wide-ranging interview with the Star-Telegram's editorial board Tuesday, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus touched on several hot-button political topics including the state's jobs record, higher education reform and the state's program of offering in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.

Straus criticized the tone of a recent debate revolving around reforming the state's universities as "negative" and "almost demeaning" in tone.

"One of the real disappointments of the session to me was the assault on higher education and I’m hoping that that tone of wanting to tear down some of our very fine institutions of the state is over," the San Antonio Republican said.

An intense debate on the future of public higher education in Texas erupted earlier this year when Gov. Rick Perry appointed a new chairman to the UT System Board of Regents with a record of being dismissive of much academic research.

Straus said he agreed with many of the goals touted by critics in the debate such as promoting greater efficiency at the schools but was concerned about how its tenor impacted the state’s image.

"I think that our state’s image to the rest of the country and the world really is important and nowhere can we make a stronger statement about what’s good about Texas then having strong higher education institutions," Straus said.

When asked if he felt Perry deserved some of the blame for encouraging the debate, Straus said, "I'm not really blaming anyone. I'm just disappointed that it occurred but moving forward. I want to see us more productive in our discussions when it involves higher education."

Straus expressed optimism that a new joint committee devoted to higher education reform issues launched earlier this year will address the issues brought up in the debate while still attracting the best minds to Texas.

Straus' title, if not his name, has come up on the national stage in recent weeks as Perry has pointed to the oversight the Texas House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor provide to the state's Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund. On the campaign trail, Perry has touted the two programs as key job boosters but has faced questions that some grants went to campaign donors.

Straus said he has no concerns about how the programs have been governed but questioned their effectiveness.

"I’m not sure that the Enterprise Fund is what it needs to be to be competitive going forward," Straus said. "I'd like to see what other states are doing to encourage job growth...If there’s a better way to attract business here and create jobs, we ought to try and do that."

Added Straus: “I think not having a state income tax has been a lot more powerful incentive than the Enterprise Fund."

Straus has been outspoken of late about the need to tackle the state’s structural deficit. He said he and other House leaders were upfront about the state’s financial issues at the start of this year’s legislative session.

"I’m not going to name names but others were out there talking about how rosy the economy was," Straus said. "While it’s better than other states, we were under no illusion that our budget was going to be a simple task to balance."

Along with the deficit, Straus said lawmakers are also likely to see efforts to repeal in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants next session. Perry has defended the program in recent weeks in the face of conservative criticism.

Straus would not say whether he supports repealing the program, a position recently voiced by some local Republican candidates for the state senate.

"My understanding is most of the children of illegal immigrants who are eligible for the in-state tuition are going to community colleges, helping them be trained for the work force...for the most part," Straus said. "I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

"We just have to take a look at what the facts are and how it’s working."

-Aman Batheja

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