What kind of Texas are we leaving for the next generation?
I confess that the question has been on my mind a lot lately. My second granddaughter, Elizabeth Catherine "Birdie" Watson, was born last month. It was a profound moment, full of joy in the present and hope for the future.
It also was about two weeks after a winter storm knocked out power and water in most of Texas, giving millions of us a taste of the 19th century frontier that gave birth to so many myths.
The coincidence — a massive infrastructure failure, just before the birth of the next generation’s newest member — was hard to miss. So were the questions it raised: what kind of infrastructure will future generations of Texans inherit from us? Will we leave them a strong foundation to build their own lives and economy? Or will they get a weak, unstable one that they have to repair even as they create their own careers and families?
Those questions should guide every level of policymaking. They certainly guide us at the Hobby School for Public Affairs. We put creative, solutions-oriented policy to work for the world — practically and tangibly addressing the immediate needs of people in Houston, Texans and beyond. And we do so in ways that create additional capacity for Texans who will work to build up this state after we’re gone.
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the process that guides decision makers. Just look at the Texas Legislature, which is just weeks removed from unprecedented statewide blackouts and water outages.
Legislators are considering bills that might help prevent future winter infrastructure failures. But they haven’t taken up policies that would address the long-term, interrelated needs of the state’s water and power systems. Nor have they started growing Texas’ power grid to get ahead of coming population and climate challenges. Some legislators are even using the blackouts to undermine clean energy sources like wind and solar power — threatening to undo decades of innovation and investment in advanced, clean, affordable energy that strengthens Texas’ energy leadership.
There are many other areas where legislators should focus on the present and the future:
- In education, we have to ensure kids get the skills they’ll need for the jobs they’ll ultimately seek — without relying too much on local taxpayers. And facilities, staffing levels and funding strategies must up with Texas’ growth.
- In higher education, colleges and universities must be able to prepare Texans to create high-skill jobs, train students to fill those jobs, and conduct research and discovery that drives the state economy. We also need to grow universities so every qualified applicant can find a place in one.
- In health care, we need to address the health coverage crisis that cements Texas’ status as the state with nation’s most uninsured people and highest percentage of uninsured people. We also need to find new ways to keep people healthy and help them avoid chronic diseases that take such a toll on themselves and the state as a whole.
- In housing, we need to find humane solutions to the homelessness that plagues almost every community. We also need to balance supply-and-demand economics to ensure everyone can find a safe place to live and communities can keep the qualities that make them special.
I could go on and on — policy areas like transportation and public safety also desperately need solutions that address present challenges and future needs.
Further, those solutions must work together to address equity issues, which structurally run through each area of need. We must ensure that all Texans — no matter their background, and no matter our state’s history — can thrive and contribute to Texas’ economic success.
And we must set aside the cheap, counterproductive politics that would demonize fellow Texans — or, worse still, try to push them out of the political process altogether. These are tough problems to solve, and we need all the help we can get.
I love Texas. I love much of the Texas mystique. But let’s be candid: while Texas was built on that mystique — and on many myths of rugged individualists and their sweat, strength, and vision of the horizon — it also was built on reality. The reality is that my generation inherited an enormous amount of excess infrastructure and capacity to grow this state into an economic powerhouse.
We see it every day in our schools and universities, our hospitals and clinics, our commutes and errands, and even in the dead of winter when we try to turn on the lights. We have very nearly grown to the limits of the systems we inherited.
We can solve today’s problems and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges. We don’t have to choose between one or the other. We only have to act.
Founding Dean, Hobby School of Public Affairs
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