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State Rep. Phelan working within fiscal limits

By Ken Stickney

ken.stickney@panews.com

BEAUMONT — Dade Phelan can recount wins and losses in the Texas legislature last year, but at least one victory may prove to be a lifesaver.

The Beaumont representative, a Republican, who will return to Austin for the next session starting Jan. 8, was particularly pleased that lawmakers passed legislation in 2017 to ensure seatbelts will be placed in new Texas school buses.

Speaking to the Beaumont Rotary Club on Wednesday, Phelan, 43, said “the first time anyone tried to put seatbelts on buses was before I was born.”

“It’s unbelievable the pushback you get,” Phelan said, although most people can agree seatbelts improve safety. “Going forward, every school bus in the state of Texas will have seatbelts on it.”

Legislation authored by Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and sponsored in the House by Phelan will ensure “three-point seatbelts” on all new school buses. Both lawmakers represent districts where there have been severe school bus accidents.

“It’s sad when California and New Jersey beat you on that,” he said of the seatbelt law, while nonetheless defining the bill’s passage as a “watershed moment” in Texas.

Phelan represents House of Representatives District 21, which includes portions of Jefferson County, including Nederland, Port Neches and Groves and a portion of Port Arthur, as well as many rural areas of the county. He also represents Orange County.

Elected in 2014, Phelan’s committee assignments, including on Appropriations, have been favorable. He said lawmakers worked hard to trim the state budget, cutting every agency by at least 4 percent.

“We spent within our means,” he said, noting that, sometimes, constituents aren’t always pleased with the results of fiscal conservatism. For example, he told the Rotarians, his niece spent long hours awaiting her driver license exam, the result of cutbacks and longer lines for the Department of Public Safety.

“That’s the product of conservatism,” he said. If voters don’t want such cuts, he said, they’ll need to tell lawmakers “what tax you want to increase.”

Nonetheless, he said, lawmakers did some wise things in shaping the current budget, including funding growth in public school enrollment in Texas.

“We added money to pre-K,” he said. “It’s not cheap to teach young children.”

But the benefit, he said, is “fantastic.” If children can ready in grades 2 and 3, he said, “they will not drop out.”

He also said there were no draconian cuts in higher education, which he must safeguard especially because of public campuses in Jefferson and Orange counties: Lamar University, Lamar Institute of Technology, Lamar State College Port Arthur and Lamar-Orange. He said proposed large cuts might have cut 14 programs at those campuses — but that didn’t happen.

“We had new buildings that would have been empty,” he said.

He said when he returns to Austin, he wants to promote more state assistance for local governments affected by Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey and wants to promote school finance reform, returning financing for schools closer to a 50-50, state and local share in funding.

But the House will elect a new speaker next year, he said, and his committee assignments may depend on who rises to the speaker’s chair.

“If I don’t play my cards right, I’ll be parking cars next session,” he quipped.