Speaker Joe Straus: "I Expect To Be Reelected"
Tomorrow, when the Texas House of Representatives gavels in for its 140-day session, members are expected to elect Rep. Joe Straus III of San Antonio to a fourth term as Speaker.
In 2009, fellow representatives chose Straus to lead the Texas House following a political coup of sorts. Lawmakers were complaining bitterly about the heavy-handed way in which Republican Tom Craddick presided over the chamber. So, a small group of dissident Republicans, and nearly all the House Democrats, quietly secured enough votes to replace Craddick with Straus.
The soft-spoken San Antonio native accepted the job saying he wanted to change the tone in the chamber.
“The Texas House of Representatives cannot conduct the people’s business if it is divided and this is why I became a candidate for Speaker,” he told representatives and guests who gathered in the chamber for his first swearing in. “We will create an atmosphere where everyone's voice can and should be heard. A place where we respect each other’s points of view.”
Biggest Accomplishment: Bipartisanship
Six years later Straus, 55, says building a more bipartisan environment is one of his biggest accomplishments.
“I expect to be reelected mainly because we’ve proven that when you reach out to other people, and you are willing to work across party lines, especially on issues critical to the future prosperity of this state, people will respond in a positive way,” he said during an interview on Jan. 6.
However, the life-long Republican is still a target of some vocal, tea-party activists who claim he isn’t conservative enough. They’ve recruited Rep. Scott Turner, a Frisco Republican, to oppose Straus for the Speaker’s job, though Turner isn’t expected to get many votes.
Straus characterizes the opposition as “a loud, very small minority, who have an interest in seeing that Texas becomes more like Washington, D.C.”
“I think a huge majority is resistant to that,” he said. “I’m resistant to that.”
Straus says the negative noise won’t distract him from his priorities which include more money for roads. He says the House budget will call for $600 million from gasoline taxes to be spent solely on transportation. Some of the money is now “diverted” for other expenses.
He backs greater investment in colleges and universities and wants to ensure they’re affordable.
“I think more than just the dollar amount is getting back to a more productive, positive conversation regarding helping those with tuition needs; helping campuses that have some building and infrastructure needs; and concentrating again on the importance of research at our higher education institutions.”
Straus says he also wants to “build up” the research capabilities of universities across the state-not just the University of Texas and Texas A&M- so more can achieve the coveted Tier One status.
Some lawmakers want the legislature to reclaim the authority to set tuition rates, because universities have raised tuition sharply since lawmakers gave them the right to set rates in 2003. Straus doesn’t seem to think re-regulation is a good idea.
“I haven’t been one to call for over-regulation in tuition. The legislature has not been able to keep up with the growth in higher education in terms of funding. And, I personally thought it was a little hypocritical to say you must not raise tuition at the same time we [state lawmakers] aren’t keeping up with any kind of significant increase in the funding,” Straus said.
“I’m not so much hung up on the regulation side as much as I am in helping institutions become as efficient as they can be, and helping students who have tuition needs in terms of student aid,” he said.
School Choice Vouchers
Straus questions whether another education proposal supported by the incoming lieutenant governor, Sen. Dan Patrick, will get very far. Patrick wants to use public tax dollars to fund private school scholarships or vouchers for children in low-performing schools.
Patrick tried unsuccessfully to pass the measure in 2013. Now, as the presiding officer in the Senate, he may have more luck in that chamber.
But in the House?
“The Texas House historically has not been the friendliest territory for a voucher approach,” Straus observed.
Straus says he supports tax relief, something the governor and lieutenant governor have also promised, but he hasn’t gotten behind any specific plan.
“The business margins tax, for example, is a tax people would like to eliminate. I’d like to eliminate it. But I’ve yet to see a proposal where the numbers add up.”
As state representatives file thousands of bills and jockey for positions on influential committees, Straus says he’ll remember the oath he’s taken three times before and a guiding principle: to make sure all lawmakers –Democrats as well as Republicans- get a fair chance to pass their bills.