After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016, in order to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.
Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow senators and staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being “1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.”
“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an editorial board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”
Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said. Eltife said he would miss the work and comaraderie with members and staff but that he believes it's time for a fresh perspective representing the district.
“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure Northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”
Eltife entered politics in 1991 after a bad experience as a developer. He was denied a construction variance from the city of Tyler.
It wasn’t the denial but how he was treated that spurred Eltife to run for city council and work to change city policies.
He was elected to city council in 1991 and served as mayor from 1998 to 2002.
In 2003, Eltife announced he would seek the state Senate District 1 position soon after 15-year Sen. Bill Ratliff, of Mount Pleasant, announced he would leave office without finishing his term.
Eltife was elected to the Texas Senate in February 2004 in a special election runoff to replace Ratliff.
District 1 represents Bowie, Camp, Cass, Franklin, Gregg, Harrison, Lamar, Marion, Morris, Panola, Red River, Rusk, Smith, Titus, Upshur and Wood counties.
GOING TO AUSTIN
Seeking change in Austin proved more daunting amid 30 Senate colleagues and 150 House members than as mayor, when wrangling three council member votes was all Eltife needed.
But Eltife said he feels his time in the Senate was a success and that he slowly drummed what he considers a common sense, business approach to governing into the heads of the legislative establishment.
In business, he said, when times are flush, you pay off debt and invest. When times are lean, you tighten the belt and only borrow when you can’t pay cash, he said.
Eltife said when he arrived in Austin, his primary focus was to kill bad legislation, protect East Texas' interests and work to preserve local control. But he proved effective in steering bills and lending a helping hand to other legislators.
He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at The University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, passage of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.
Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.
Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope. Going into committee hearings, he didn't think he had the votes to see the bill move. But the families' stories gave it momentum, he said.
"Most of these kids have taken all the (traditional) drugs possible, and they're still having hundreds of seizures a week and the parents are just saying 'give us some hope; give us a chance to try this, so we don't have to move to another state,'" he said. "So that's a bill I will forever be proud of, because we helped some people."
Eltife’s drive to make a difference has left him as a lone wolf legislator many times.
Doing the right thing can mean going against the party line, he said. He’s proud to have worked with both sides of the aisle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.
But he also blocked legislation he felt were detrimental to the state. During this session, Eltife played a pivotal role in blocking two bills that have been a priority for Tea Party conservatives. He felt the bills were misguided attempts at governing based on ideology.
The “sanctuary cities” bill, which would have cut state funding for local governments that adopt policies forbidding law enforcement from asking the immigration status of people they detain or arrest, and a bill to repeal the Dream Act, which allows illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools to pay in-state tuition rather than out-of-state tuition, were blocked by Eltife.
Eltife said the sanctuary cities bill was a matter of local control — that cities, counties and local law enforcement were better suited to address the issue. He said the Dream Act did not give anyone anything for “free,” but only allowed Texas graduates with status issues the same in-state tuition rate at universities that other graduates pay. That keeps students and ultimately educated workers in the state, he said.
“People talk about the Texas miracle,” Eltife said. “No politician is responsible for the Texas miracle. It’s the Texas labor force that keeps the economy going, and the more children we have educated, the better off we all are.”
Eltife said it’s disheartening that when he entered his first session in 2005, all the talk was about addressing transportation and education funding shortfalls and securing more water capacity for the state — and 12 years later, the same problems persist.
He said legislators have done everything to squeeze and leverage revenue to avoid raising taxes, rather than using good business sense to address needs effectively and efficiently.
Eltife said “it’s hard to watch the smoke-and-mirrors games” of diverting funding and deferring costs.
He watched, not so quietly, as the state’s debt almost doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $42 billion from $17 billion.
The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.
Eltife said legislators could have made more fiscally responsible moves this session to provide long-range solutions.
He would rather have used portions of the $18 billion in higher-than-expected revenues and reserves to address lingering problems. Eltife said he would have used $1.5 billion to stabilize about $7.5 billion in unfunded liabilities within the Employee Retirement System. He would have written a $3 billion check for Tuition Revenue Bonds, which will be sold to fund capital improvements for Texas universities for the first time since 2006, rather than borrowing to pay $3 billion plus $1.5 billion in interest.
Eltife would have also put $2 billion more into Texas road projects.
But those decisions would have busted the spending cap and would have meant facing criticism and poor scorecards from conservative watchdogs — a risk his fellow Republicans wouldn’t bare, he said.
“I’d rather look you in the eye and tell you, ‘I’m going to raise your taxes and fix these things rather than go around and borrow a bunch of money,’” he said. “I totally understand taxpayers’ hesitation about any new taxes, because they’ve been hoodwinked so many times. I do get it. But we made a pledge, and we fulfilled it.”
The pledge he fulfilled was turning a new tax into zero debt and lower property taxes as the city of Tyler's mayor.
Eltife met considerable opposition in 1995 when, as Tyler mayor, he pushed a proposition to create a half-cent sales tax for capital improvements. He believed paying off debt and using cash for well-planned projects would lead to lower property taxes and more capacity to address necessities. The tax passed in a close election and, over the decades, Tyler’s debt plummeted, along with the property tax rate.
The property tax rate was more than 53 cents per $100 valuation when Eltife entered the mayor’s office. The city owed more than $30 million. The property tax rate was 23 cents per $100 valuation when he left six years later, and a few years after that, the city's debts were paid. Tyler has spent $188 million in sales tax revenue on 106 capital improvement projects in the 20 years since it was implemented, without taking on any general obligation debt.
“It’s taken 10 years to drill it into their heads,” he said. “I keep hearing, ‘Maybe you’re right, Eltife.’ But I’ve been saying that the city of Tyler has proven to be the model city of the state.”
Eltife said he is encouraged by new state leaders, who have admitted Texas faces serious challenges with regard to debt, transportation, water and public education and appear serious about finding solutions.
The field of candidates to replace Eltife will likely be deep. Eltife said he is announcing now to give potential candidates time to shore up their campaigns for the March 2016 Republican Primary, which would likely decide his successor.
Eltife has always considered himself the odd-man out in Austin. Choosing to march outside the drumbeat of the Republican establishment has drawn criticism from the right and meant being the lone GOP vote on some bills. But he feels history has validated his arguments.
Eltife said he’s not big on endorsing candidates and doesn’t expect to tie his support to one campaign. But he did want to impart some advice.
“Be an independent voice,” he said. “Be true to yourself. Since I arrived, I’ve voted my district and what I felt was in the best interest of the state.”
Eltife said independence and voting his district’s and personal conscience provided freedom and power in the Senate. He said political polling or who he was helping on a particular issue never swayed his decision making.
“It makes you dangerous in Austin,” he said. “If they think they can take you for granted, they don’t need you. I can promise you, they never took me for granted, because they never knew where my vote was going to be, because I look at every issue on a case- by-case basis.”
Eltife considers himself a behind-the-scenes bridge builder but it's made him a valuable member for state leadership to have out front on issues. Eltife has been appointed to a myriad of Senate committees under two lieutenant governors.
Under Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Eltife made a quick entry into the deep end with a committee vice chairmanship his first session, and he soon gained Dewhurst’s trust. Appointments to more powerful committees and chairmanships followed in subsequent sessions.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appointed Eltife to head Business and Commerce, a committee Eltife served on for a decade and had long-considered an important committee for industry, entrepreneurs, job creators and working Texans. He also maintained his spot on the Finance and Natural Resources committees, which he considered important positions at the political table to represent rural East Texas interests.
At the end of this Legislative session, Eltife’s colleagues elected him President Pro-tempore of the Senate.
Election to the position is largely honorary, but it puts Eltife third in line for the governorship of Texas. If the governor and lieutenant governor are both out of the state, the president pro tem is acting governor in their absence.
Over the next 18 months Eltife said he would continue to focus his legislative energy on Patrick's charge to address deferred facilities maintenance. He said the state put $500 million and established a six-year plan to improve and construct facilities that will be a long-term savings for taxpayers. He will also continue to champion bold action regarding funding and accountability in public education; meeting Texas' infrastructure needs and keeping the promises it made to state employees, including teachers.
Eltife said he wanted to be remembered for the way he treated colleagues and staff, and by the coalitions he helped build for the betterment of the state.
“I hope to be remembered as someone who was fair and open-minded and who treated everybody equally and was willing to work with everybody,” he said. “I think that’s what is lacking in government today more than anything, is the ability for members of both parties to work together to solve the voters’ problems.”