Don’t mess with the Texas economy. That was Priority #1 as the Texas Legislature reconvened for its 83rd Regular Session, riding the momentum of an economic engine that continues to lead the nation in job growth, exports, business relocations and expansion. We have built the nation’s best economic climate by keeping taxes low and avoiding intrusive regulations – a philosophy worth protecting because it creates opportunities for families and businesses to succeed.
Having served as a budget conferee now in both of the last two sessions, it is clear our decisions in 2011 allowed our state to recover more rapidly than others, many of which are still struggling. We helped our economy produce significant new revenue for our state’s growing needs. The budget we passed this session bolters our schools, funds needed infrastructure and provides $1.4 billion in tax and fee reductions — all while staying more than $500 million under the constitutional spending limit. This budget will make Texas’ business environment even more attractive than it is today.
Of course, every successful economy relies on a strong education system. As a former teacher, I firmly believe that every child in Texas deserves a great education. Not only did we increase funding for education in the state budget, we passed much-needed reforms to change the way we measure student performance. Testing has reached the point that it is interfering with learning, so we reduced the number of tests while still maintaining the high standards we need for our schools. We also expanded the number of charter schools; ended the use of controversial lesson plans, putting the power back with teachers and parents; and — in response to hyper-political correctness — made it clear that it is OK for our schools to have winter activities that allow Santa Claus or other traditional themes.
As chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, I served as the Senate’s lead negotiator for funding our health and human services — which serve our children, seniors, Texans with disabilities and other vulnerable citizens. These programs, which account for nearly a third of the state budget, are growing at an unsustainable pace. This session we again focused our attention on delivering services more efficiently and in a way that actually achieves their intended results, with the goal of sustainability for these programs so they will be available for future generations.
With my SB 8, we tackled fraud, waste and abuse, which has reached epidemic levels, costing taxpayers more than $6 billion from 2004 to 2011. Through my SB 7, we transitioned our long-term care services into a managed care setting that provides more efficient and effective care and extends services to 12,000 Texans with disabilities who are currently waiting for care — and still achieving $8.5 million in savings over the next two years. Via SB 58, we also moved our mental health services into a managed care environment, which is expected to save the state $1 billion in the next budget cycle. We also added significant investments to our preventive health services for Texas women, enhanced our mental health services and added resources to improve programs operated by Child Protective Services.
We also preserved Texas’ historic mission to eradicate cancer. Having sponsored the constitutional amendment creating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in 2007, I found revelations about lapses in oversight in the way grants were being allocated unacceptable. In response, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved SB 149, which I authored, to create an iron-clad system of checks and balances that will ensure we can resume our effort to fight cancer in a way that makes Texas proud. That was my most significant legislative accomplishment because it ensures we keep searching for cures and treatments to this terrible disease that impacts millions of Texans.
There were also disappointments this session. SB 11 would have ensured recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — also known as welfare — are drug-free and using their benefits to get themselves back on the path to self-sufficiency, and I was sad to see it die in the House of Representatives. As a strong supporter of several bills to protect our second amendment rights – including the campus protection act I jointly authored – it stings that we were not able to pass bills that I believed were needed in light of the federal government’s overreaching intrusions into our right to self-protection. I will keep fighting for our constitutional rights, either in the special session or in future sessions.
Despite the unfinished business, I am proud of the overall results we achieved for the citizens of this state. Our work will ensure that future generations of Texans grow up in a state where they can succeed. Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact my office during the session. Your phone calls, letters and e-mails were extremely helpful because I rely on your input to cast informed votes in the Texas Senate. It is an honor to serve as your State Senator, and I look forward to continuing our work to build a better Texas.
Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, represents District 12, including portions of Denton and Tarrant counties.