With an expedited scheduled described as “unprecedented,” a special Texas House committee on Wednesday got down to work examining a wide variety of challenges facing the state as lawmakers study ways to preserve its economic edge.
The Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness heard from business leaders who argue that, among other things, immigration reform is needed now at the federal level and discriminatory legislation at the state level should be avoided like the plague.
Major developer Ross Perot Jr. told lawmakers robust economic incentive programs coupled with bolstering the workforce are both key, especially given an acute labor shortage made worse in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. “We’re running out of labor,” Perot said. “We’re 19,000 construction workers short” of meeting demand for housing in DFW, he said.
Asked whether Senate Bill 4, the “show me your papers” immigration crackdown passed this year by the Legislature, has created problems in the construction labor market, Perot said that has not been his experience. But, he did argue Congress needs to approve a guest worker program sooner than later.
“We need more legal labor,” Perot said, touting the immigration proposals put forward years ago by former President George W. Bush, including a path to citizenship for unauthorized workers who can meet certain conditions like passing background checks and paying taxes. “You’re going to have to come back with a bill like that to clean some of this up,” Perot said.
“I hope that in our lifetime Congress does something about this issue,” said Rep. Byron Cook, the Republican chairman of the committee. “If we don’t have that hard-working Hispanic worker for roadwork and meeting the housing needs in Dallas, it’s because we’re losing those workers,” Cook said.
One thing that is sure to drive major commercial construction projects to other states: Discriminatory legislation of the type debated in the Texas Legislature this year. That was part of the message from Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire investor Mark Cuban.
Cuban testified that discriminatory legislation like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s failed “bathroom bill” can create risks that the heads of major corporations don’t want to take when making decisions about locating their headquarters and other operations. Cuban and others, including Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, have pointed to the second planned Amazon headquarters as a prime example of a project Texas is likely to miss out on thanks to divisive social policy debates.
“Some of the political positions, particularly the bathroom bill, are going to cost us businesses, such as Amazon, from moving here,” Cuban said. “Coming to a state that has an extreme position, which fortunately did not pass…that’s a significant risk for them,” Cuban said of businesses with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees. “Our political positions can be a problem specifically for large organizations."
“I couldn’t care less where you pee,” Cuban said when asked by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, about whether his various businesses have implemented broad anti-discrimination policies including protections for transgender people.
In opening the hearings, Chairman Cook vowed his committee would take a broad-based look at the reasons Texas may have fallen a few notches economically as of late. “Although Texas has succeeded and flourished with a thriving economy for many years, this state is slipping in a direction that should be cause for concern,” Cook said.
“In July of this year, the America’s Top States for Business study found that Texas had dropped to number four in the nation,” Cook said, adding it’s the “first time in 11 years that the Lone Star State finished outside of the top two spots in the country for business ranking.”
“That should be alarming to all Texans,” Cook said.
The special committee is holding hearings this week and the first week of December. The committee is also due to issue a report in December.