Republican candidates for Texas House District 6 faced off for the first time in what is expected to be a divisive, contentious race pitting Main Street and Tea Party conservatives against each other to become the Republican primary winner.
Libertarian Joel Gardner announced his candidacy, and no Democrat is running, so odds are the candidate who emerges with the GOP nomination will represent District 6.
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, faced challenger Skip Ogle during their first clash of campaigns to represent Tyler in Austin. Both candidates put their conservative foot forward before about 250 attendees at the Grassroots America – We the People sponsored event.
Schaefer, 37, an attorney, developer, Naval Reserve lieutenant commander and former East Texas regional director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, stuck to his unapologetically conservative message. He said freedom and common-sense conservative solutions would revitalize the state and nation. More resources to stop illegal crossings and protect Texans, vocational training in public schools rather than teaching to tests, protecting life and encouraging free enterprise and responsible state spending were among positions he wants to champion in Austin during his second term.
Schaefer defeated longtime District 6 Rep. Leo Berman in the 2012 Republican primary.
Ogle, 47, a former lobbyist and small-business owner, introduced himself to the crowd as the best person to represent and advocate for Tyler, East Texas and the state. He said the state faces major challenges because of a booming population. He said transportation, water and education would be strained and that Tyler and East Texas needs a leader who can build coalitions and provide solutions.
He said he has lobbied for businesses and entities in Tyler, including those in education, healthcare and his current employer, Suddenlink, for more than a decade and wants to take his knowledge to Austin on behalf of residents and the region.
During the hour-long debate, candidates were asked to give their perspective and possible solutions regarding four topics, illegal immigration and border security; transportation, the effects of the federal healthcare law; and Texas’ debt and spending and what it means for future Texans.
THE STATE OF TEXAS
The question surrounded the state’s trend in spending, which has risen more than 300 percent in the past decade; its rising debt, the state borrowed more than $20 billion for transportation funding alone; and reliance on federal dollars, around $69 billion in federal money went into the state budget in 2013.
Ogle said people want to move to Texas because it is a state of opportunity. He wants to foster those opportunities and face the challenges in areas such as water, transportation and education.
He said legislators “punted” the transportation problem with a temporary influx of money, but $4 billion in annual spending is not enough to meet statewide needs for the future. Ogle said the state needs more water resources and protecting the region from urban areas will be critical to East Texas’ future and place at the table in Austin.
Ogle said opportunities exist to trim the state budget and legislators must address shortfalls in education and water.
Schaefer said he was among the largest contingent of House members in decades to oppose the budget because it relied on accounting gimmicks and was littered with irresponsible, wasteful spending.
He said government should start with a zero-based budget for all agencies that would have to justify spending rather than ask for more money each session. He said state subsidies to business interests should be scrutinized because financial assistance for businesses is not within the scope of government. He proposed support for a constitutional amendment that would limit state spending to population growth plus inflation.
Schaefer said the best way to reverse the trend is economic growth and pursuing a truly free market where businesses are able to thrive because of successful entrepreneurs.
“More money came into Austin than ever before, but (state) leadership didn’t have the fortitude to address the problem,” he said. “There is a way. Businesses drive the economy and the government is blessed. Government is able to do what it can because of businesses.”
Both men agreed the Affordable Care Act is trouble for employers and the state’s budgeting ability.
Schaefer said the state already was struggling to keep up with Medicaid demands and expanding those benefits would have a crippling effect. He said the best solution for health care is not government but rather a truly free market.
He said government should show compassion for those who cannot support themselves but opening the marketplace to competition would drive down costs, which are the root problem.
Schaefer said residents should be able to shop for insurance in other states and that competition would drive rates down.
Ogle said he agreed with Schaefer.
He said the law was an unconstitutional requirement and legislators need to stand for doctors who are receiving reduced reimbursements from Medicaid patients. He said the state could do a better job educating the public and promoting healthier choices.
Ogle said state funding is not meeting the demands of a growing state. He said establishing the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which can fund road projects through borrowing and tolls, is a good tool outside of the regular state funding mechanism.
“I don’t want toll roads, but we have to meet congestion problems around the state because they are detracting from commerce,” he said. “Everything should be on the table.”
Ogle said the state should look at opportunities to charge high capacity trucking companies, such as those associated with major degradation of state roads near active oil and gas areas, to recoup damages.
Schaefer said additional costs to businesses should not be on the table and that he would not support additional charges for oil and gas interests.
“Oil and gas companies are more than pulling their weight,” he said. “Why tax them further? That’s a Democratic mentality.”
Schaefer said transportation is a core function of government and that legislators should look at spending and find more money within the current budget before considering asking for more money.
Schaefer said he recently visited the border area and was shocked at how porous it was. He said illegal crossings and criminal element along the border are a danger to Texans.
“We want people who want to be here and work here and contribute to a vibrant state, but there is no order,” he said. “The reality is far more grim than I imagined.”
Schaefer proposed additional resources for the Texas Department of Public Safety to curtail illegal crossings and drug and human smuggling. He said legislators also should stand against cities that turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants.
He said Ogle’s calls to secure the border as a solution are fundamentally misleading because the border is too porous.
Ogle said state leaders must do something to secure the border and Schaefer did not follow his predecessor, Berman, in filing bills designed to curtail illegal immigrants. He said illegal immigration is an economic “killer” because it drains state resources and private businesses such as hospitals.
He said he would introduce legislation to close holes in the border and end sanctuary cities.
Schaefer said he deferred immigration legislation to more senior House members and that Berman’s legislation never made it out of committee because of Republican House leadership.
Schaefer continued his stance against House Speaker Joe Straus and offered his support to Rep. Scott Turner, a Tea Party-backed freshman representative from Frisco. He tried to get Ogle to go on the record about whom he would support in January 2015.
Ogle said it is far too early to pledge his support for any single candidate, especially with only Turner and Straus in contention. He said he would support the best conservative choice for speaker.
GOING ON OFFENSE
Schaefer and Ogle went on political offense during the forum. Each poked at underlying events in each other’s past.
Ogle continued to fashion himself as a political bridge builder who can advocate for the community after Schaefer’s name was replaced on a local bill to bring a pharmacy school to Tyler. Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, ultimately carried the bill with support from the East Texas delegation.
Schaefer said he was a positive influence on the process and opponents are “looking for failure in the midst of success.”
Schaefer continued to attack Ogle’s past as a corporate lobbyist. While Ogle packaged his past as an asset, Schaefer said interest groups are a major problem with how the legislature governs. He said there is difference in “pro-business” and “pro-free enterprise” and that lobby groups are “pro-business for them.”