Incumbent state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said he built strong coalitions and learned a great deal in the Capitol Building during his first legislative session. Now he wants to take District 6’s conservative values back to Austin and fight for common-sense solutions to statewide problems.
Schaefer, 37, an attorney, developer, Naval Reserve lieutenant commander and former East Texas Regional Director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, defeated longtime District 6 Rep. Leo Berman in the 2012 Republican primary.
Schaefer said legislators moved forward on a few key issues, including education, roads and water, but much work remains if Texas is to stay an attractive state to business and individuals and a bastion for free enterprise and personal liberty.
Schaefer was questioned about his vocal opposition to House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and whether it lessened his effectiveness in Austin. Some political observers viewed Schaefer’s early opposition to Straus as detrimental to local bills, including legislation to bring a pharmacy school to The University of Texas at Tyler. He was criticized in a June 2013 Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial.
Ultimately, the bill was carried by fellow freshman Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, and became law. Clardy credited the entire East Texas legislative delegation, including Schaefer. Schaefer said he was an important voice for the bill among reticent, staunch conservatives.
“I stand by my work in the House. I stand by the positive relationships that I built,” he said. “I believe my entire role in the pharmacy bill was positive from day one.”
Schaefer said he effectively fought for and against legislation, worked with Republicans and Democrats to shape legislation, offered successful bills and amendments, played a lead role in juvenile justice reforms and joint authored legislation to allow active military members the ability to vote in combat zones.
He said 20 House members traveled to Tyler for his campaign, and many others have publicly supported him.
One knock against Schaefer his opponent touched on was the representative’s delay in opening a district office in Tyler. Schaefer said he was delayed until summer 2013 by the bureaucracy within the House Administration Office, which handles furniture and equipment for representative offices; the number of true freshman in the House the Administration Office handled at the time, 39; and renovations by Smith County inside the Courthouse Annex Building, where his office is located.
Schaefer said he made his personal cellphone and office contact available and he felt his office was accessible to constituents.
“My situation wasn’t uncharacteristic from many other freshmen,” he said. “I’m certainly sorry if anyone was inconvenienced by that. Maybe we could have gone to more extraordinary lengths, but overall I think we were very accessible.”
Schaefer continues to voice opposition to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. He pledged his early vote to fellow 2013 freshman Rep. Scott Turner, a Tea Party-backed representative from Frisco.
He said his personal relationship with the speaker is cordial and that they work together where there is common ground, but it is his responsibility to question the speaker on matters important to his district. He said he was open about his feelings regarding the speaker’s race and that it was right to be honest with Straus and District 6 constituents.
Schaefer said he believes he, as a freshman legislator, probably “didn’t rank too high” on Straus’ worry list.
“When the leadership takes positions and actions that stand in stark contrast to the values that represent this district, then I have an obligation to state my feelings about that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s alienation. I have a good rapport with the speaker and have had many conversations with him.”
Transportation means economic development, and there is little disagreement on that fact among legislators, he said. The disagreements stem from how to fund projects and maintain state infrastructure, he said.
Schaefer said there was extraordinary growth in state revenues and that legislators should focus on prioritizing general revenue dollars before considering tax or fee increases.
The state must deal with the fact that it has used debt to fund road projects for more than a decade, he said. He expects much of the transportation funding decision will rely on the economy leading up to the next legislative session.
“Leadership chose not to add additional funding to transportation out of a record amount of new revenue coming in,” he said. “Had we done that this past session, we would have a smaller problem to deal with in 2015.”
He offered legislation to allow local municipalities an option to access untapped revenue.
Schaefer said about $800 million was sitting in city economic development half-cent sales tax accounts across the state. He introduced legislation to give voters the opportunity to widen the scope where those dollars can be spent to include roads. He said professional economic development groups resisted the idea, but many cities struggling to fund infrastructure projects were receptive. He said the decision should be made locally.
“It gives (cities) more flexibility to use the fund,” he said. “Some small towns’ streets and water are underdeveloped and they’re looking for options.”
Meaningful changes to public education were made, he said, including deemphasizing standardized testing and opening the door to vocational training as part of graduation plans.
The policy emphasis on preparing students for college has shortchanged students who might choose not to pursue university and contributed to dropout rates, he said. Schaefer would like to continue pushes for meaningful vocational training to prepare students who are not interested in college for jobs in high-paying trades.
“I think it’s going help the dropout rate and get kids interested in things that will teach them skills and help them earn a living after high school,” he said.
Schaefer said public education would continue to be topic with regard to funding, finding innovative ways to teach and returning some decision-making control to the local-school district level. He said he wants to find ways to give districts the resources they need, to cut bureaucratic ties to Austin and give local districts options that work for them.
Another big funding battle will be regarding the teacher’s retirement fund and its unfunded liability. He said teachers deserve assurances their work is important and the state fund is actuarially sound.