TribFest Friday Highlights

Building for the Future Panel

One of Friday’s premier panels focused on Texas’ future and the steps we need to take to extend the state’s prosperity through its bicentennial in 2036 and beyond — so Texas 2036 founder Tom Luce was a natural fit. Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith moderated the panel with state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, Rep. Donna Howard and outgoing Rep. John Zerwas; Smith described Tom as the “godfather” of data-driven policy solutions in Texas.

On this panel, Tom discussed many of the urgent statistics that led him to create Texas 2036:

  • Our population will grow by 10 million in less than two decades.
  • In Texas’ 21st century economy, 77 percent of jobs will require a college degree or certificate, but just 23 percent of Texas 8th graders are meeting that qualification within six years of high school graduation.
  • Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states in overall health system performance, and last in accessibility and affordability.

“That’s a reality we have to talk about,” Tom said. He also stressed the importance of building an audience and constituency for future-focused, data-driven solutions: “We need to present a big vision for people to buy into.”

TribFest Open Congress Highlights

The Future of Education Panel

Texas 2036 President and CEO Margaret Spellings — the former U.S. Secretary of Education — joined a Saturday panel with Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith and, Juliet V. Garcia, former President of UT Brownsville and Texas 2036 Board member, to talk about the present and the future of Texas education.

Sitting under the Texas 2036 tent with the State Capitol as a backdrop, Spellings said she is “pleased but not satisfied” when it comes to Texas schools. As a large, young, growing, diverse state, she added, Texas has a big advantage and a real opportunity to extend its prosperity into the 21st century — “We best not screw it up.”

Spellings and others discussed the importance of maintaining the focus on accountability that Texas pioneered. They also stressed the need to create clear pathways from high schools to community colleges to the workforce and four-year universities — with a vision of turning high schools into community colleges.

And Spellings emphasized the need to tailor education to the needs, skills and goals of individual students. In some cases, that means highly skilled technical education that helps people fill a needed role in the workforce. In others, it means thinking about advising, mental health services, small grants to help economically vulnerable students cover emergencies, and other solutions that meet students’ specific needs.

She compared educational offerings to the way Starbucks prepares every cup of coffee based on every customer’s order.

We’ve got to start thinking about every specific person. -Margaret Spellings, Texas 2036

The Future of Jobs Panel

The Future of Education panel transitioned seamlessly into a discussion of The Future of Jobs. Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez III, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, San Jacinto College Chancellor Brenda Hellyer and Texas 2036 Board member and H-E-B President Scott McClelland all met under the Texas 2036 tent to discuss the changing state workforce and demands on it.

The speakers focused on the need to make sure public schools, community colleges and industry work together to prepare students not just for jobs, but for careers. They also emphasized the growing need for workers who at least get a two-year college degree, if not a diploma from a four-year university — and to create opportunity for every Texan.

What zip code you were born in shouldn’t dictate the quality of education that you have. – Scott McClelland, HEB

Community colleges play a critical role in teaching skills that students need to fill vital jobs in the economy, speakers noted, and they meet students where they are — whatever that requires. Hellyer said San Jacinto College teaches a welding class from 11 pm to 2 am “because that’s when students are available.”

The Future of Transportation Panel

When you’re sitting in rush-hour gridlock on the way home from work, the prospect of 10 million more Texans by 2036 may seem like a waking nightmare. Texas 2036’s Future of Transportation panel addressed steps the state can take to ensure Texans can continue to move even with all of that growth.

The panel featured Rep. Terry Canales, who chairs the House Transportation Committee; Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee; Carrin Patman, Chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County; and Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.

“We’ve got to be focused on transportation,” Canales said at the outset. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

Even without millions more people, the data says that Texas has significant issues when it comes to traffic:

    • The state’s per-capita fatality rate on highways is higher than the national average. Texas had 3,722 deaths on highways in 2017. Ryan pointed out that the last day someone did not die on Texas roadways was 4 years before Facebook and 7 years before the iPhone.
    • Traffic congestion continues to increase in urban areas. Congestion costs across Texas’ urban areas increased by 8 percent from 2014-2017, causing the average urban commuter to spend 54 hours in traffic each year – at an estimated cost of $981 per year.
    • Texas already has the most trucking freight bottlenecks of any state. Trucking freight in Texas is projected to nearly double by 2045.

Addressing these issues, and preparing for what’s coming, will require a mix of resources and innovation. As Patman noted, Texas can’t simply build its way out of this problem. And Canales said the state needs to transform its transportation portfolio.

Texas also needs to decide how it feels about toll roads. After the moderator, Tribune Night News Editor Brandon Formby, declared that “People hate toll roads,” Nichols countered that he doesn’t like paying tolls, but he really dislikes paying taxes and sitting in traffic.

How to Fix American Politics Panel

Politico’s Tribune Festival tent was set up right next to Texas 2036’s, its sessions broadcast on CSPAN. One session, titled “How to Fix American Politics,” played off a recent feature in Politico Magazine asking thought leaders from across the country to offer specific steps that would improve civic engagement in the country.

In the magazine, Texas 2036 President and CEO Margaret Spellings offered the idea of using actionable data to set long-term strategic goals for the country. On Saturday, she sat on Politico’s panel to discuss that and other ideas to fix American politics.

Current politics, she said, are structured to “deal with the tyranny of the urgent.” That doesn’t allow for thoughtful planning, or the collection and analysis of data to enable it.

Spellings told the audience in the tent, and the national audience on CSPAN, about Texas 2036’s work to gather hundreds of data sets that demonstrate where Texas is and where it’s going, and to inform decisions that will help extend our prosperity into Texas’ bicentennial year and beyond.

The goal, she noted, is to get sensible folks to think long term about big issues and opportunities.

When it comes to policy solutions designed around long-term issues and opportunities, Spellings said, “Civic leaders have failed to build demand.”

The Future of Health Panel

At a Friday TribFest panel, Texas 2036 founder Tom Luce noted that rising healthcare costs represent a major concern for both Texas families and state government — “we have a sick-care system, not a healthcare system,” he said. 

A panel on Saturday in the Texas 2036 tent took up the question of what to do about it.

The panel featured state Senator Kel Seliger; Mini Kahlon, vice dean for health ecosystem at the Dell Medical School at UT Austin; Mary Dale Peterson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Driscoll Children’s Hospital; and Avik Roy, co-founder and president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. They discussed a wide range of health challenges that Texas currently faces, and what to do about them as the state’s population and economy grow.

“Until we address the cost of healthcare,” Seliger said, “nothing is going to be done.”

Solutions ranged from a greater emphasis on improving the health of patients (as opposed to simply treating them when they are sick) to increasing competition in the system to relying more heavily on technologies such as telemedicine. Roy pointed out the potential value of artificial intelligence in helping to improve diagnoses, while Kahlon noted that physicians and other individuals will continue to play a key role in creating the personal connections that people need to create in the system.

Much of the discussion centered on what are known as social determinants of health — the factors such as education, housing and transportation that help drive health outcomes in people’s lives. That’s part of the reason Texas 2036 focuses on a half-dozen key issue areas — education & workforce, health, infrastructure, natural resources, government performance, and justice & safety: by taking a broad-based look at major issues and pulling in data and ideas from other areas, it will be easier to address difficult challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

Texas vs. California Panel

Texas 2036 wrapped up TribFest 2019 with a conversation between Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. It contrasted how the two states approach key issues ranging from education to climate to regulation, but also illuminated areas where both states have faced similar challenges.

Hegar said that due to California’s great size, the state already faces challenges that could appear in Texas as it continues to grow. He noted that every day, there are roughly 1,100 new Texans, and Texas 2036 estimates that between now and Texas’ bicentennial in 17 years, 10 million more people — equivalent to the combined population of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — will call Texas home.

Such growth, Hegar said, will make affordability an increasingly important issue going forward. Padilla noted that California has seen such growth impact infrastructure, as millions more people have tried to live with the same networks of, for instance, power, water and sewer lines.

Other topics included the states’ differing levels of support for their social safety nets, approaches to education and workforce training, broadband access and technology literacy, energy, voting policies and general political dynamics.

The panel’s moderator, Alexandra Suich Bass, a senior correspondent at The Economist, noted that strong data platforms can help create common ground and effective solutions, and she cited Texas 2036 as a valuable data resource.

And she closed with the hope that leaders, influencers and policy experts in Texas and California will continue looking to each other for lessons in how to respond to these difficult policy challenges — both states, she said, can learn a lot from each other.

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For all of us who care deeply about Texas’ future, we know the challenges that face us today will go well beyond the next election or legislative session – they require long-term strategic framework and planning.  

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