EDITOR’S NOTE: After a rocky start with House leadership during his first legislative session in 2011, Hays County’s State Rep. Jason Isaac, a Dripping Springs Republican, has since made peace with Speaker Joe Straus. In the run-up to the 2013 session, Isaac pledged support his to Straus, a San Antonio Republican, despite an anonymous Facebook advertising campaign designed to put pressure on the conservative sophomore lawmaker to back Straus’ challenger, Longview Republican David Simpson. It is now clear that Isaac made the right call as Simpson’s speaker bid did not even make it to a vote. Simpson withdrew from consideration on Monday, the first day of the session. We will see in coming weeks whether Isaac will be rewarded for his loyalty with solid committee assignments. — Brad Rollins
by ROSS RAMSEY
After the last of his challengers dropped out Tuesday, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus was elected to a third term as speaker of the Texas House.
That last challenger, Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, never found enough support to threaten the incumbent. An earlier challenger, Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, dropped out weeks ago as Simpson entered the race.
Saying he wasn’t certain of victory and didn’t want to put other members at risk by forcing a vote, Simpson withdrew from the race. “Absent certainty at winning this contest, at the request of my colleagues, I withdraw from this contest,” he said in a speech to the full House.
When it came time for the House to vote Tuesday — the first day of the 83rd Legislature — Straus was re-elected by acclamation.
The seeds of Simpson’s challenge were planted two years ago. Simpson, in his freshman term, ignored experienced members who advised him to take a back seat and learn his way around, instead battling against legislation that would limit puppy mills and for legislation restricting security searches at airports. He lost both battles, but won a reputation for independence.
Simpson started his speech Tuesday by quoting English writer G.K. Chesterton: “I believe in getting into hot water. It keeps you clean.”
Straus, first elected in 2009, has been criticized by some Republicans as too moderate. But he buttressed his position in leadership during the last election cycle, supporting re-election bids of representatives who opposed him in his elections two years and four years ago. Straus became speaker with a coalition that included about four Democrats for every Republican. Two years later, he was re-elected with all but 18 votes; that total included enough Republicans that he would have won without a single Democrat.
After Simpson spoke, it was Straus’ show. The members nominating him for another term included Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who two years ago abstained from the vote for speaker. In spite of that vote — not in favor of the incumbent — he said he was “treated fairly and respectfully” and was able to pursue legislation he favored.
In the months leading up to this election, Straus had opposition on both ends of the political spectrum: conservative activists wary of his support from Democrats, on one hand, and Democrats who thought they deserve more power for that support, on the other.
With the election out of the way, Straus is now free to organize the House, naming committee chairmen and members. That generally takes a few weeks; two years ago, Straus made those assignments on Feb. 9.
Here is a copy of Straus’ prepared remarks after he was reelected:
Members, I am humbled by your support … grateful for the confidence you have placed in me … and honored to serve again as your Speaker.
I’d like to thank my fellow San Antonians, Secretary Steen and Chief Justice Jefferson for helping us begin this session.
And I deeply appreciate the kind words of Dr. Zerwas and the Members who seconded my nomination.
I would also like to recognize — and thank — all of the Members’ families, both those who are with us today and those who were not able to make it.
As surely as we serve the state of Texas, so do you.
You honor us — and you honor this state — by supporting our service.
I would especially like to thank my own family for being here today, including my parents, Joci and Joe Straus Jr., and my wife Julie and our daughters Sara and Robyn.
I couldn’t be more proud of the young women that Sara and Robyn have become.
And I am equally proud of the way that Julie has represented the House with grace and distinction over the last four years.
We gather today to chart a path forward for the state we love. We have a lot to be proud of in Texas, from leading the nation in job creation to leading an American energy revolution.
For eight straight years Texas has led the nation in exports, and our unemployment rate is well below the national average, despite a massive influx of new workers.
Our economy is so vast and diverse that if Texas were its own country — and no, don’t worry, that isn’t something we’re going to do this session — but if we were, we’d be the 14th largest economy in the world.
Other states envy our strength. But we should not allow our state’s many successes to hide some very real … and very urgent … challenges.
Instead, now is the time to get serious about solving those challenges, to take the next step forward and to lead Texas into a new era of innovation and opportunity.
We begin this work at a moment of significant change for this House. Today the largest class of new Members in 40 years took the oath of office, and nearly half our Members are in their first or second terms.
We welcome our new Members … we are glad that you’re here … and we value the perspective that you bring to this House.
Even more importantly, Texas itself is in the midst of fast, profound change.
Since the year 2000, our state has added more than 6 million people — or roughly the population of the entire Houston metro area.
Demographers project that by the time we celebrate our bicentennial in just over 20 years, about 36 million people — 10 million more than today — will call Texas home.
With balanced budgets, one of the lowest per-capita spending burdens in the country, and a pro-growth tax structure, our greatest challenges are not fiscal in nature.
Texas does not face a fiscal cliff . . . but we do face a demographic cliff.
Our rapid growth requires a steadfast commitment to the core responsibilities of government, such as a quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system and an honest state budget.
These are the priorities that you and I discussed around the state in recent months — the issues that voters expect us to address because they will play the largest role in determining our shared future.
Our priorities should begin where our future does — in public education.
More than 5 million children are enrolled in our public schools, which is more than the total population of 29 states.
More than 3 million of them are deemed economically disadvantaged, and almost 1 million of them speak limited English. The education of all our students will determine whether Texas is a land of prosperity or lost opportunities.
There should be no sacred cows when it comes to our children — including our accountability system. For more than a decade, this state has used an increasingly rigorous series of standardized tests to measure academic excellence.
But by now every Member of this House has heard from constituents at the grocery store or the Little League fields about the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools.
Teachers and parents worry that we have sacrificed classroom inspiration for rote memorization.
The goal of education is not to teach children how to pass a test, but to prepare them for life. The goal of every teacher is to develop in students a lifelong love of learning, and we need to get back to that goal in the classroom.
To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing — the Texas House has heard you.
We will continue to hold our schools accountable. But we will also make our accountability and testing system more appropriate … more flexible … and more reasonable.
I ask also that in this session we focus on making higher education accessible and affordable for more Texans.
Our institutions of higher education come in many shapes and sizes. We all realize the importance and prestige of our four-year and graduate universities, and the need to expand Tier One institutions in Texas to compete globally.
We will continue to strengthen them.
But in a state as large and complex as Texas, we need a range of educational options to empower students to reach their full potential.
Many of us have focused over the last year on attracting more manufacturers to Texas. Manufacturers and employers in every sector say that they cannot find the skilled workers they need, because many Texans simply do not know how to access appropriate training.
The Texans who could take these jobs don’t necessarily need four year degrees, but they do need to know their educational options.
In September I visited Texas State Technical College in Marshall, where students receive hands-on training for cutting-edge careers in manufacturing, information technology and health care, among others.
These programs respond directly to the needs of industry and offer the specific training that open high-demand fields to students.
Let’s expand opportunity in Texas this session by improving coordination among high schools … community and technical colleges … and the private sector, so that no young person feels destined to spend life drifting from one low-skilled, minimum-wage job to the next.
Employers need the workforce that improved technical programs will produce. But that’s not all they need. They also need a modern, innovative transportation system that is funded appropriately.
And, like all of us, they need water.
Our state continues to cope with historic drought conditions.
Over the last couple of years, severe restrictions have been imposed in both urban and rural areas throughout the state, and water has been trucked into a number of Texas communities whose wells ran dry.
The cost of this drought has been estimated at almost 8 billion dollars in losses to agriculture alone, with untold economic and environmental costs elsewhere.
And businesses wonder whether Texas will have the water supply necessary for short- and long-term economic growth.
There is no single or easy answer to our water challenges. But we know a 50-year water plan without funding is not the solution.
If we are going to applaud ourselves for attracting new Texans into our state, we have to be honest about the demands of such growth. I encourage the Members of this House to take action this session— bold, substantial action — to address our water needs.
Finally, we should work in this session to make our state budget more transparent. We may disagree at times about the size of government and the need for spending, but I think we can all agree that our budget should be honest and straightforward with taxpayers.
Soon after I was elected to the House, I found that a fee created in the early days of the Internet in order to expand online access was still being collected on the phone bills of Texas consumers, even though the program it funded had ceased to exist.
Hundreds of millions of dollars collected through this fee each year sat dormant in the treasury, so that the state could show on paper that it had the money to cover the rest of its spending.
In 2007, I worked with many of you to halt collections of that fee and erase all references to the program in state statutes. But that was just one fee.
The use of others to certify the state budget has grown for 20 years, and today almost 5 billion dollars in various fees and surcharges are not going toward their intended purpose.
Let’s reverse that trend this session and strive to use all fees as the law intends — or not collect them at all.
Let’s also reduce the amount of gas-tax dollars that aren’t spent on transportation and use that money to construct a system that will support the growth of our population and the strength of our economy.
These are the challenges — education, water, infrastructure, jobs and budget transparency — that will determine what kind of state we’ll be when 36 million people live here.
And these challenges require a spirit of consensus and collaboration from the Members on this floor.
Our capacity to work together is what distinguishes this body from Washington D.C.
In the Texas House, we don’t put the Republicans on one side of the room and the Democrats on the other. In our House, there is no aisle that divides us.
Instead, we work with our colleagues, regardless of party, because our mission transcends partisan politics.
We will work together this session, and we will remember whom we serve.
During the course of campaigning for this office, you said or did something that appealed to the hopes and aspirations of your neighbors, and you inspired them to entrust you with a seat in this House.
I ask that every day you walk on this floor, you think about all the people you represent the business owner trying to meet a payroll, the farmer praying for rain, the parents trying to save money for college, and the child who is just beginning to read.
These are the people — the only people — whom you will owe any explanation for how you represent your district over the next 140 days.
And they are waiting to see if we are willing to confront the serious issues that will determine this state’s future.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
Improving education …. expanding opportunity, … and meeting the challenges of a growing population — this is work worth doing, and it is work that can no longer be ignored.
So let us be consumed by the urgency of the task before us.
Let us be bold.
Let us be visionary.
And let us focus on what Texas can be.
Thank you again for your support. Now let’s get to work for the people of Texas.
And here is a copy of Simpson’s speech withdrawing from the race for speaker:
Fellow members, honored guests and citizens,
G. K. Chesterton said, “I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.” I concur.
Though choosing a Speaker is a momentous event, it need not be a fearful one. Unlike our fellow legislators in the other chamber whose presiding officer is determined by the people in a statewide election, we have the privilege and responsibility of choosing one of our own members.
During the last several weeks I have enjoyed speaking with all of you about the office of Speaker and how we conduct the business of this House. Our democratic republic, our system of civil government is honorable and perhaps the best ever devised.
However, as with all human institutions, from time to time reforms are needed when an institution becomes encumbered and unnecessarily burdened by practices that hinder its operations. Anytime we find ourselves at odds with the “principles of liberty and free government” espoused in the Preamble of our Texas Constitution, we should pause and reflect how we have allowed our system to be handicapped.
As is often the case, it is not so much the system that needs change as it is our own actions. Intimidation, payback, and uneven or outcome-based application of the rules are not demanded by our system and are at odds with free and open government.
Should we wait to enact such reforms? Should we wait until we are the minority and have no other option but to protest?
I say “no.” We must enact those reforms when it is most difficult — when we have the power. That is when we must use restraint, doing the right things in the right way even though we can get away with doing otherwise. How can we promote liberty and limited government in the state and within the districts that we serve if we do not ourselves also respect such in this House?
Every member here has been duly elected by his or her constituency and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and to have confidence that the promises we have made to one another in our rules will be fulfilled not merely when it is convenient, but most importantly when it is not — when our convictions differ.
After a divisive and close race for President, Jefferson in his inaugural address reminded us that “…though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
Proceeding further to unite the nation, he encouraged comity and warned against political intolerance saying, “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic . . . .”
I belong to the majority party, but I may not always. And even so, not all majorities are decided by party. We have also similar or dissimilar interests by region, by philosophy, and by disagreement over how to accomplish common goals. It is in all of our districts’ best interest — and the state’s — that the majority never undermine the rights of the minority. The majority may prevail in our decision-making process, but the majority is not sovereign. It cannot justly take away inalienable rights from a minority except by due process and for aggression.
Besides being faithful to the rules and respecting the rights of all members, there has been a third theme to my candidacy — ceasing retribution. No member of this body should feel like their decisions are subject to arbitrary retribution from those in leadership.
Many have experienced it and have come to expect it, but none should allow it. We must take a stand. That is our duty to our constituents. I sincerely believe that my constituents are best served when I fight for their interests rather than go along to get along. The same may be said for each of you.
I promised not to participate in such practice if I were elected and I invite you today to join with me in refusing to stifle the respectful and principled representation of members of our diverse districts and constituents.
If fear of retribution were not so very real, conscientious support for an alternative choice for Speaker would not cause such trepidation. But since it is, and absent a certainty of winning this contest, at the request of my colleagues, I withdraw my candidacy.
I have sought to point to a better way. Our system does not demand retribution and I think the best way to deal with it is to refuse to submit to it. Do what is right; explain why it is right; and love those who differ even if there is no reciprocation.
Finally, I would like to end with an encouraging note. A number of the reforms that were promoted are being seriously considered by the leadership and have been well received by many in the body.
I sincerely hope the leadership will prove through their actions that my candidacy was unnecessary. I hope that the 83rd Legislature will be honorable, one characterized by fidelity to the principles of liberty, free and open government, protection of minority rights, and where the rules of this House are evenly applied without regard to party, personality, seniority, or issue so that we may serve our constituents and come together to help address the challenges to this great state we all love so dearly.
Let us strive to unite our body on the higher ground of doing unto others as we would have others to do us — for Texas and liberty.
ROSS RAMSEY reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.