By Emily Banks Wooten
Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of Livingston where he provided a “State of the State” for those in attendance. First elected to the Texas Senate in 2006, Nichols represents 18 counties in East Texas.
He currently serves as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He also serves on the Finance, Business and Commerce, Local Government and the Select Redistricting committees. He is a member of the Texas Judicial Selection Commission, the Legislative Audit Committee and a former vice chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Most recently, he was appointed to chair the Senate Committee to Protect All Texans in June of 2022.
Nichols said his grandfather was a Methodist minister in Livingston in the 1940s and that his grandmother grew up on the bank of the Kickapoo Creek.
“We’re really doing quite well. Fifteen years ago, if you thought of it as its own country, the State of Texas was the 12th largest economy on the planet. Seven or eight years ago, we moved to number nine, which is larger than the Russian economy. We’ve since moved from ninth to eighth. Usually, our problems in the state are federal issues. We meet every two years for 140 days, beginning in January of odd-numbered years. The only thing we are constitutionally required to do is pass a balanced budget.”
Commenting that the legislature is usually scrambling for funds or trying to avoid a shortfall, he said, “This session was just the opposite. I’ve never seen so much money in my life.
“The budget surplus estimated by Comptroller Hegar was $32 billion. On top of that, we also have a ‘rainy day fund’ created years ago from oil and gas money and it’s up around $15 billion. The Senate started working in November before the session started to come up with a framework. First, what caused this surplus? The Texas economy is doing well. A large portion is revenue from the state’s sales tax. That’s where the greatest amount came from. Also, federal money was given to all the states following COVID.
“We asked, where do we need to invest this money for long-term benefits? We locked up a big chunk for infrastructure, highway construction, and making sure East Texas is getting its fair share. We wanted to make sure other infrastructure was broadband. Six years ago, I passed a bill to allow for electricity distribution lines across the country, these are the homes that don’t have broadband internet, but all the easements were for electricity only. Three sessions ago, we solved that. Rep. Trent Ashby and I began working on it. We have now mapped every single residential address and every single commercial address and asked, is it high speed? This session, with that map, we applied for federal grants and we got them. We got $3½ billion. We did really well. I think our plan of how to use that money worked well. It has to be spent for high speed internet.”
Nichols said school security was also a primary concern, in light of the May 2022 Uvalde tragedy.
“The lieutenant governor called and said, ‘I not only want you on the committee, I want you to chair it because people trust you.’ We put in $1½ billion to protect your children,” he said, adding that it can be used for fencing, steel doors, locks on doors, improved windows. “We want to vet vendors and make sure they’re on a registry.
“We also wanted to make sure we didn’t spend all the money, so we kept $12 billion and gave raises to retired teachers and there is a proposed cost of living adjustment on the ballot for the constitutional amendment election in November.
“We put more money into waterways. Billions and billions of dollars flow in and out of that port at Beaumont and that’s something I sometimes have to remind my colleagues from Amarillo. Those are the kinds of things we did.”
Addressing teacher pay, Nichols said, “Teacher pay is tied to vouchers. I’ve been trying to separate them. I’ve had teachers tell me, ‘If you have to vote vouchers or teacher pay, forget about us, just don’t vote for vouchers.’ They call it school choice, but we already have school choice. Do you want your tax money to go to private school tuitions that aren’t under state oversight? There’s no oversight whatsoever. We had a state constitutional amendment back in the 80s that didn’t want tax money to go to church-related schools. Once you open Pandora’s box, there you go. It’s really an urban issue, but why mess us up in the rural areas. I like Gov. Abbott but I think he’s getting bad advice on this.
“We’ll have another special session after the impeachment trial (of Attorney General Ken Paxton). This is a big deal. It’s been over 100 years since we’ve had a statewide impeachment trial. There’s 20 articles of impeachment. It’s very serious and I’m doing my due diligence. I’ve read Volume 1 which is 350 pages. I’ve started Volume 2 and I have Volume 3 waiting for me. General counsel informed me earlier in the week they just came out with 3,800 more pages. It’s going to be a high-profile case. It will probably be three or four weeks, all of September. We’re going to do a dry run in the Senate. It’s going to be national news.”
In closing, Nichols said, “It’s not my Senate office. It’s your Senate office. It’s been one of the greatest honors in my life to represent you in the Texas Senate.”