Edmond Ortiz / Rivard Report
Education spending, gun control, and toll roads were the hot topics at a Tuesday night discussion among four Republican candidates vying to succeed House Speaker Joe Straus as the next representative of Texas House District 121.
All seven candidates – six Republicans and one Democrat – were invited to the forum at MacArthur High School, located in the solidly Republican district that includes much of Northeast San Antonio, Olmos Park, Alamo Heights, and Terrell Hills.
Republicans Matt Beebe, Charlotte Williamson, Marc Whyte, and Steve Allison agreed Tuesday that Straus' successor has a chance to keep District 121 and San Antonio at the forefront of leadership in the Republican-led State house.
First elected to the Texas House in 2005, and selected by colleagues as Speaker of the House in 2009, many lawmakers, constituents, and the media deemed Straus a moderate Republican who touted a bipartisan approach to most statewide issues. He announced last fall this term would be his last.
Beebe, who challenged Straus in the 2012 and 2014 GOP primaries, sought to demonstrate his conservative credentials. The Air Force veteran and business owner said government has only one basic rule – to protect citizens' lives and liberty – and "to get out of the way and let us pursue our own happiness."
"It's important to us that we send a representative to Austin that not only will abide by that, but will champion that," he said, touting endorsements from organizations such as Texas Right to Life, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas Values, and the San Antonio Life Association. Organizations carefully vet their candidates, he said, and "they know I'm a consistent conservative."
Though this marks her first run for public office, Williamson touts "experience on multiple campaigns" and dedication to "supporting and electing Republican candidates" on her website. A graduate of St. Mary's Law School, Williamson has worked for her family's oil and gas business.
Because she is not a career politician, Williamson said she does not view this election as a professional "stepping stone," but rather as a chance to continue a tradition of conservative leadership in District 121.
Whyte, who owns a law firm, struck what he called "a practical conservative tone," saying he and fellow Republicans should concentrate on daily issues most important to Texans, rather than engage in ideological debates.
"I don't want to go to Austin and focus on bathroom bills," Whyte said. "I want to go there to focus on the issues that really matter to all of you, to all of our neighbors – property taxes, the economy, creating good-paying jobs for every Texan that wants one – and education."
A business attorney, Allison was a board member with the Alamo Heights Independent School District for 12 years, having served as board president for three years. He also served as vice chairman of the VIA Metropolitan Transit board.
The Texas Legislature needs a new representative "who has experience, exercises common sense, has maturity, and has a record of getting things done," he said.
Moderator Chris Forbich said two other Republican candidates, Adrian Spears and former San Antonio City Councilman Carlton Soules, were unable to attend due to illness, according to emails sent o organizers ahead of the forum. Celina Montoya, the lone Democrat in the race, had a prior engagement, she had told organizers.
Montoya will face the winner of the March 6 GOP primary in November.
Forbich relayed questions from audience members, some about public education financing, school choice, and teaching religion in public schools.
Regarding school finance, Whyte said the key to the State adequately funding public schools is to better prioritize overall spending habits.
"We've got to take a look at the budget, we've got to cut, cut, cut – cut frivolous spending," he said. He also suggested school districts reduce the number of non-instructional positions and focus on hiring more teachers.
Allison agreed that the State should prioritize spending on public schools and, "if that requires cuts in the budget, so be it," though he did not name specific budget items for possible reductions.
Beebe said school districts must increase efficiencies through their own reduced expenditures.
"What we've seen over the last 20 years is the rate of administrative expenditures. The rate of non-teaching expenditures have far surpassed both the growth of teachers and the growth of students," he added.
Williamson agreed with Allison's and Beebe's points, adding that, if elected, she would "fight for the students in my district." The State should evaluate all of its revenue streams to see how best to improve public school funding, she said, including a slight tax hike in some areas if needed.
Addressing school vouchers, Allison described himself a staunch advocate of public education and an opponent of vouchers.
"I'm opposed to the current system of charter schools because they're not on an equal footing," he said. "If we put charter schools on an equal footing with public schools on accountability and truly open enrollment, perhaps there'd be an argument to support charter schools."
Beebe supports school choice, saying all Texas children should have the opportunity to get a quality education, no matter where they live. He lamented the level of opposition to a bill proposed in the 2017 Legislature that called for facilitating parents of disabled or special-needs children's access to State funds to homeschool their children or place them in private schools.
"Folks, I don't know how heartless you have to be to tell the parent of a special-needs child that their public school is failing them and that I will not support that child's right to an appropriate education," he said.
When asked about gun control, all candidates affirmed their commitment to protecting law-abiding citizens' right to own firearms and that said right should not be hindered.
Given the circumstances surrounding most mass shootings – such as the November tragedy in Sutherland Springs that claimed 20 lives – candidates said law enforcement agencies must close gun access to criminals, the mentally ill, and people with a history of domestic abuse.
Because many mass shootings have taken place public settings, Whyte said, "We need to ensure public facilities have adequate security and that we support our law enforcement officials."
"Our laws are sufficient, and there should be more enforcement," Allison said.
More government regulations will not prevent mass shootings, Beebe said. "When we look to the government for a solution on some of these things, I think we cast our lot the wrong way."
"If you have firearms in the house and a history of domestic violence, this is something we should be talking about," Williamson added.
Despite their unpopularity with many conservatives, Allison said the idea of toll roads should not be discounted entirely, especially given increasing traffic congestion in growing Texas cities.
"We need to look at mobility concerns as the best way to move people around," he said.
Whyte generally opposes toll roads, he said, so the State should evaluate alternative funding options for road improvements.
"We've got to get creative and look at different ways to bring revenue into the State to build some of these roads and highways," he said.
Williamson said "toll roads should not be part of our funding" for traffic solutions.
Beebe joined in opposition of toll roads: "We should not be paying twice and paying perpetually to use the roads already built with our tax dollars," he said, adding that he would fight for more State transportation funding for the San Antonio area.
In closing statements, Williamson said Straus' successor in District 121 would face a learning curve, but said is the most qualified candidate to best represent the district.
"We agree on a lot – solve our skyrocketing property taxes, fix our broken school finance system," she added of herself and her opponents.
Allison said he wants to apply his knowledge of various issues, especially education and transit, in Austin.
"I want to continue to use my experience on behalf of the citizens of this district and this state," he added.
Republican voters in this primary will want a candidate who reflects their conservative values the most, Beebe said, and believes he is that person.
"I am the best candidate to take your values to Austin, to fight for those values and be successful from Day 1," he added.
Whyte said District 121 needs someone committed to working up the chain of leadership over many years – not just one term – to ensure San Antonio retails strong leadership in the Texas House of Representatives.
"... So that we have power back in San Antonio," he said. "So that we have clout to get things done for our neighbors, for our friends, and for our families."