Construction Leaders Tell Texas Lawmakers More Legal Workers Are Needed, Infrastructure Investment is Key

Texas construction executives told state lawmakers this past week that there is an urgent need for more legal workers in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a storm that worsened an already acute labor shortage along the Gulf Coast. 

The CEOs of various companies were asked to testify before a special legislative panel studying ways to preserve Texas’ economic edge. The Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness was created a couple months ago by Speaker Joe Straus, who said it's critical for lawmakers to understand what policies should be enacted – and which polices should be avoided – to ensure the state remains an economic powerhouse.

“A skilled and readily available workforce is key,” said David Zachry, CEO of Zachry Corporation, who spoke about the need for the public and private sectors to team up to meet workforce challenges. 

Stan Marek, CEO of Houston-based MAREK, focused a large portion of his testimony on immigration and workforce challenges. Arguing that Senate Bill 4, the state’s immigration crackdown passed into law this year, has already been detrimental, Marek said “a lot of our labor, legal and undocumented, really thought this was right in their face.”

“It’s a mess,” said Marek, who has served on the boards of various community organizations in Houston including the Catholic Charities. “Never have I seen a community more stressed,” he said. 

"The state of Texas has to get together with our leaders at the national level” to enact immigration reform aimed at identifying and taxing those who are currently in this country without legal status, Marek said. Marek has often argued for a system that would ID and tax those who are currently unauthorized to be in the country. “We can’t just let parts of our party say, ‘well you can’t do that,’” said Marek, a Republican.

“Getting people to understand this issue would drive you crazy sometimes,” said the committee's chairman Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who carried a guest worker bill in the Legislature several years ago. “The reality of the fact is we need the workers."

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told lawmakers the “show me your papers law,” Senate Bill 4, has also made the job of law enforcement more difficult. The law has created a perception among many immigrants – both documented and undocumented – that they cannot trust law enforcement. 

“It is detrimental to community policing,” Chief Acevedo said, adding that the immigration crackdown has also been economically damaging as well. For example, 550 of Acevedo’s employees lived in homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey and many of them are still unable to return to those homes because rebuilding has been delayed largely by a lack of a sufficient workforce, Acevedo said.

Chairman Cook also asked business leaders if it would be beneficial for Gov. Greg Abbott to make a public statement saying the so-called “bathroom bill” is a dead issue. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this year unsuccessfully pushed a proposal to restrict public restroom access based on gender. It was a debate that consumed much of the time and energy of Texas lawmakers throughout the year. Business leaders agreed with Cook that the governor should put the issue in the state's rear-view mirror. In fact, Rep. Cook had the support of construction executives, leaders in higher education, law enforcement and others. 

When Speaker Straus created this economic committee he said divisive legislation like the "bathroom bill" could cost Texas large commercial construction projects, pointing specifically to Amazon's proposed second headquarters. Per Amazon's website, the company's "HQ2" would be a $5 billion construction project and bring up to 50,000 high-paying jobs to the state that ends up hosting it. 

“It (the bill) was the wrong thing. It is not going to create benefits,” said Zachry, the CEO of Zachry Corporation. Marek agreed, saying “I second that.”

Rep. Cook pointed to a recent Forbes article that reported North Carolina has made a “stunning turnaround” economically and beat Texas in business rankings after lawmakers in that state retreated from similar bathroom legislation. “The article states ‘The controversial Bathroom Bill, which required people to use the public restroom that corresponded to their biological gender, detracted from the state’s business-friendly climate,’” Cook said.

“Further, the article highlights that Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had placed a major priority on social issues during the 2017 legislative session, including introducing a bathroom bill in Texas,” Cook said. “He (Patrick) promised he would push for multiple special sessions until it passed, but strong opposition against the bill from business interests and House leadership led to the bill's demise twice.” 

“Worldwide competition is so severe that when any instability is injected it threatens the economy,” Chairman Cook said. “The Lone Star State should be ranked #1, but when social issues create uncertainty for its business climate, it hurts us.”

“Texans should wonder where the state's business rankings would be if that bill and other bad policies had not been stopped,” Cook said. 

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