AUSTIN — Journalists and interested community members from around the state gathered on the University of Texas campus Tuesday for a sneak peek of the upcoming 85th Texas Legislature at a preview symposium hosted by The Texas Tribune.
Before a packed house of more than 500 at the Shirley Bird Perry Ballroom at the Texas Union Building, a series of panels featuring legislators from the Texas house and Senate discussed the top issues coming before the Legislature, including school financing, transgender bathroom access, foster care program improvements and mental health care.
The headliner for the event was House Speaker Joe Straus, who discussed the future of Texas politics in light of President-elect Donald Trump’s coming inauguration and the arrival of 28 new state house legislators — including House District 54 Rep. Scott Cosper, the former mayor of Killeen.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Straus said of Trump’s election. “It’s a different session every time, and we have a number of new legislators coming in.”
The general tone in light of Trump’s election was tentative for legislators from both parties, with most taking a “let’s wait and see” approach to the candidate’s many campaign promises.
“We all need to work together to ensure that this country will continue on a path that promotes progress,” said Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.
Meanwhile, the legislators also previewed some of the coming rhetorical battles surrounding hot-button issues in Texas — including the Women’s Privacy Act, trumpeted by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, which would make it illegal for men to go into women’s restrooms. The act has been called a response to the ongoing federal dispute over providing bathroom choice for transgender individuals.
Most of the legislators said the issue was not a matter on their dockets.
Hitting closer to home for Killeen residents was a discussion on the Hazlewood Act, which provides tuition benefits to military veterans and their families.
In 2015, the Texas Senate approved Senate Bill 1735, which amended the act in hopes of reining in the cost of a program that was predicted to cost $380 million annually by 2019.
Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, supported the measure, saying that the stiffening of residency requirements and limiting access to the relief measure were necessary to rein in the program’s cost. Davis did not predict the bill would be revisited in 2017.
During the last panel of the afternoon, journalists from the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman and The Texas Tribune discussed the issues most relevant to political reporting in the coming session, targeting Patrick’s ambitious 30-point plan for 2017 and a growing discontent with the “mainstream media” — fueled, in part, by the rise of “fake news” on social media.
“Be skeptical of everything,” said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of The Texas Tribune. “There’s an old adage in journalism that if your mother says she loves you, go check it out.”
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