There is a path out of the current COVID-19 crisis for the state of Texas. But it’s not the path our state is used to traveling.
Government will not be able to bring back the lives lost or replace the painful void left in families across this state. The loss and suffering likely haven’t peaked yet, so preventing and treating the spread of the virus is what’s most important right now and will be for many weeks to come.
Still, it’s not too early to be thinking about the path forward, about how our state responds to the many crises, disruptions and changes that COVID-19 has put in front of us.
The Texas Legislature is scheduled to convene in less than nine months, and the 2021 legislative session will be one of the most high-stakes, consequential sessions ever. The decisions state and local leaders make between now and then will carry significant weight as well.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar says we are already in a recession, and he’s wisely advising agencies to reduce spending now, as his agency has. The small businesses that every Texas community relies on are faltering, and the federal government’s effort to support them with forgivable loans has sputtered out of the gate. Whether Texas businesses and government can access and make the most of the trillions in relief Washington has approved will largely determine the success of our state’s recovery.
With state revenues plummeting and our health and education systems under tremendous strain, the old way of doing things in Texas isn’t going to be sufficient. We will need new approaches and new thinking as we work to turn the page on this pandemic.
First, policymakers need to approach the future with open minds and with an open dialogue. That spirit requires putting a range of ideas on the table, evaluating them fully, and trusting sober and objective forecasts about what’s best for the state. They must not allow politics as usual to set strict boundaries on what can even be debated and considered.
It could be — in fact it’s probably likely — that this moment requires sacrifice from many corners. Arriving at such solutions won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible if elected leaders agree to prioritize the good of our state and are willing to make difficult decisions. It could be not only a chance to move past the pandemic, but also to start a more collaborative and solutions-oriented chapter in the way our leaders govern. Debates don’t have to fall along predictable partisan lines.
Secondly, it’s time for state officials and local governments to recommit themselves to a productive and positive relationship. Local elected officials in communities across Texas have provided strong, decisive leadership in this crisis. Along the way, the state has often been an able and helpful partner. But it’s difficult to imagine that the contempt for locally elected officials that has often emanated from the Texas Capitol in recent years has helped. It’s time for various forms of government to treat each other as partners and not adversaries — during crises like this, for sure, but also in more normal times.
Finally, this is a time to reexamine how Texas carries out the basic functions of government on a daily basis. It’s going to be imperative that legislators closely scrutinize and consider the expenditure of every taxpayer dollar. Maybe some state regulations that have been temporarily waived do not need to come back at all. And there may be potential for delivering services differently and more efficiently given that many Texans are now more comfortable connecting over technology. For example, many colleges and universities have adapted well to these circumstances by expanding and accelerating their use of online instruction.
That’s not to say that the latest innovation will always be the answer; for example, parents with school-age children tell me they now have an even greater appreciation for the in-person instruction educators deliver in Texas classrooms. But where technology is needed and advantageous, we now have roadmaps that we didn’t have before.
It’s going to take our state years to recover from this pandemic. Given the scope and magnitude of that recovery, our elected leaders owe it to all Texans to leave prior political constraints behind and trust that voters will reward those who think creatively and collaboratively about what’s best for our state’s future.
Joe Straus is chairman of the Texas Forever Forward political action committee and a former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.