Last Man Standing
Rick Perry and David Dewhurst are gone. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick have new gigs. But House speaker Joe Straus is sticking to his job—and his game plan.
Amid all the changes in state government brought about by the November election, Joe Straus remains the most notable constant. The San Antonio Republican was first elected speaker of the House in 2009 after widespread dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed leadership style of Tom Craddick, the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction, led to Craddick’s ouster. Today the 55-year-old Straus appears stronger than ever, despite entering a session where he will have to adjust to the priorities of a new governor and a new lieutenant governor—and face continued sniping from the tea party that he isn’t conservative enough.
Brian D. Sweany: Does the 2015 legislative session pick up where the 2013 session left off, or, given the tremendous changes we’ve seen in the political landscape, does it start an entirely new chapter?
Joe Straus: It’s a little of both. I think we’ve worked really hard to ensure that 2015 is a continuation of the way we approached our work and what we accomplished in 2013. And the way you do that is by building coalitions and working together. On the other hand, 2015 isn’t 2013. There is some turnover in the House but not a great deal. If we can maintain our focus on water, education reforms, and budget transparency, that will lead to more solution-oriented results.
BDS: Because of retirements or various election outcomes, you’ve lost several key members of your leadership team who served as committee chairs in 2013. Do you have a plan for how you replace them?
JS: I don’t have a good feel for leadership changes yet, and we may consider in our House rules some realignment of some committee jurisdictions. I don’t know yet what that will be, but there will be some change. I’m visited quite often by members—and even some people on the outside—who make recommendations about leadership and committee positions.
BDS: I bet you are.
JS: Yes, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those personnel decisions until the session begins and we adopt our rules. People forget that, at least under our current rules, the members select about half of the committee appointments. So I don’t go too far in my thinking about this until I see how the members have self-selected.
BDS: Looking at the broader picture, I’m sure you’ve heard the joke going around the Capitol that given all the new faces—new governor, new lieutenant governor, and right on down the line—you’re the only statewide leader who knows where the light switches are.
JS: I think that’s been a bit overplayed. Greg Abbott has been in state government considerably longer than I have. And Dan Patrick has been in the Senate about as long as I’ve been in the House. Am I comfortable in my position as the presiding officer of the House? Yes. Am I confident in the leadership team and the membership of the House? Absolutely. I think the House is coming together in a united way, and I feel good about the work we did in the previous session. And I also feel like they appreciate the interim work the members have done. I know that’s not high-profile stuff, but there have been a lot of issues that have been vetted and discussed.
BDS: How do those changes affect the priorities of the 2015 session?
JS: I think a change in leadership can be positive. Rick Perry was governor for a very, very long time. David Dewhurst was lieutenant governor for a long time. All of that can be positive and reinvigorate the debate on certain issues. I don’t know what the implication of that change in leadership will be for the party, but my focus is on the House. And I’m feeling very confident that we are going to continue on the path we have been on and focus on our priorities, which are improving public education, making sure we have a strong higher education system, dealing with infrastructure that can handle the state’s tremendous growth, and continuing to do good work on budget transparency. The House will continue to focus on the core fundamental issues of state government, and how the other leaders perform will be important but not something the House will dwell on.
BDS: What is your relationship like with Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick?
JS: I had lunch with both of them yesterday. I think there will be a tremendous amount of common ground.
BDS: A lot of people are wondering what kind of governor Greg Abbott will be. Did you work with him before the election?
JS: Sure, but not as close as we will going forward. The attorney general and I had very little interaction in our government positions, but we’ve had some productive discussions since the November elections, and I think he’s going to do a credible job.
BDS: I’m sorry, did you say “a credible job” or “an incredible job”?
JS: I believe Greg Abbott will do a credible job as governor.
BDS: You’ve been involved in Republican party politics your entire life, starting, I believe, as an advance man for George H. W. Bush when he was vice president. Can you tell me where you think the Republican party is right now and how it has changed?
JS: My mother was one of the Republican pioneers in Texas and a member of the state Republican Executive Committee, and she was very close to [the first] President Bush and Senator John Tower. I was an intern for Senator Tower when I was seventeen. I’m very optimistic about the state of the Republican party today, and I think the results from the November elections provide a great opportunity not only for the party but also for Congress to repair the damage done by gridlock and inaction that has led to very low approval ratings from the public, deservedly so.
BDS: The major issues facing the state lately have been about the size of the budget and what is responsible spending. You’ve said that you want to improve public education, and Abbott has said that he wants our public schools to be the best in the country. How much of that is about policy and how much of that is about the budget, particularly at a time when we are waiting on a school finance decision?
JS: There are policy decisions and there are budget decisions, and they are related. Then, as you point out, there is the judicial impact on this. My crystal ball is not very clear, but I do believe that we will address school finance to some extent, but I don’t think there will be a grand answer.
BDS: Is there a grand answer? The state has not been able to solve school finance for decades.
JS: I think you’re going to see some effort to try to define what adequate funding is for education, though I don’t know if that can be defined legislatively. Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the Public Education Committee, has done an admirable job of bringing together working groups of interested members to educate themselves about school finance in anticipation of addressing this again. I believe that what they have done is discuss various proposals—and found that none of them work. [Laughs.] It’s a very complicated, very difficult issue, but they are working on it, and I think there are going to be some proposals addressing the equity equation. But I don’t expect a grand fix to public school finance.
BDS: Another topic has been immigration.
JS: I think the right way to address immigration reform is to do so in Washington, D.C., and I think our new Republican majorities in Congress will address that topic, and they need to. I’ve always been one who recommends great caution in state-level immigration policy. It’s not really a state issue, and some states have made big mistakes by jumping in.
BDS: Fair enough, but what would you like to see Congress do specifically?
JS: I would venture to say that the bill that John Cornyn has supported in the past would be suitable, which includes border security addressed at the federal level along with a rational approach to immigration that encourages people coming here who are going to be productive and help build the economy. I’m a fan of Jeb Bush, and I think he’s talked quite intelligently about the issue. I grew up in San Antonio, so I’ve lived in a community that is majority-Hispanic virtually all of my life. I think we need to be very aware of changes, embrace them, and encourage them to be productive to our economy and the future of this state.
BDS: Does that mean you would support Jeb Bush if he runs for president in 2016?
JS: I’ve been a longtime and loyal friend of the Bushes. I think very highly of Jeb, and I would support him enthusiastically. Provided it doesn’t hurt him.
BDS: Another key issue during the election was guns, particularly open carry and campus carry. Do you have a sense of what legislation will come out of the 2015 session?
JS: I think it’s safe to say that the House will continue to be very supportive of the Second Amendment. Which bills will pass, I don’t know, but I do think there is a very strong pro–Second Amendment disposition.
BDS: Would you support open carry or campus carry?
JS: I try not to take positions on specific bills, but we’ll have the debate and we’ll be open to the various bills that have been filed. Again, I think you can expect pro–Second Amendment legislation to pass.
BDS: The price of a barrel of oil is under $60. What kind of pressure will that put on the budget, and how does it affect something like Proposition 1, which the voters passed last November to increase transportation funding but is tied to oil and gas severance taxes?
JS: This is an issue that I’ve been concerned about for some time. Every Texan knows that there are highs and lows, and you don’t have to look back very far to see them.
BDS: “Please, God, send us another oil boom. We promise not to screw it up this time . . .”
JS: Exactly. You know, this one is probably a little different. Texas should be proud of our role as leaders in the energy industry, but oil and gas isn’t a stable, dependable revenue source. It will help, but it’s not the answer and shouldn’t have been sold as the answer. We have to be very prudent when making decisions based on the strength of our economy. But I do think, regardless of our fiscal condition, which appears to be very strong right now, we have to be prudent. I’m proud of the fact that Texas is not known to be a profligate-spending state or one that raises taxes willy-nilly. The budget we do have has to be as open and transparent as it can be.
BDS: You have been the speaker of the House since 2009. How has your approach to the job changed during that time?
JS: I learn new things every day. I think it’s important to remember how much turnover there has been in the House. Each session has been different from the one before. In that first session that I became speaker, we had 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats, but we passed our budget unanimously, which is remarkable. The next session we had a supermajority of Republicans. But I’ve attempted to do the job fundamentally the same way regardless of the changes: I’ve tried to treat the institution and the members with respect and tried to play by the rules and build an atmosphere where every member can contribute something and do good work for his or her district. And the results speak for themselves. You’re always going to have a few bomb throwers, but I think the majority of the members feel very secure.
BDS: Let’s talk about some of those “bomb throwers.” There has always been a strongly conservative element in your party that has believed you aren’t conservative enough. In 2011 Leo Berman wanted to run against you for speaker, in 2013 David Simpson threatened to run against you, and now in 2015 Scott Turner plans to run against you.
JS: First, I’d say it’s not about me. I think the House is feeling really good about itself, and how that reflects upon the presiding officer is a positive thing. I think the House feels unified, but nobody gets everything they want—I don’t get everything I want. I try to be very practical and try to get things done, and I don’t worry about some of the outside groups or some of the scorecard keepers. I worry more about getting big things done for our state that has a lot of challenges to meet. And I want to do that in a practical, pragmatic, positive way.
BDS: Did you look to a former speaker to learn how to do the job?
JS: I don’t have a speaker role model. I just try to approach the job with a sense of fair play and try to be patient and even-tempered. I don’t take a position on every bill. I don’t try to micromanage the leadership. I just try to treat the members and the institution with respect. I don’t apologize for building coalitions or working across the aisle. I think that’s been a real disappointment in Washington in recent years: the “aisle.” We don’t have an aisle in the Texas House. We don’t divide ourselves by party, and I think very few members want to do that. The results are almost always better when everyone gets to participate. I think we have a good thing going in the Texas House and that we can be a model for others around the country. I’ve agreed to chair the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee for the ’16 cycle, and the members there look to Texas with great envy.
BDS: Where do you want your career to go from here? Is there something beyond being speaker that interests you?
JS: I’m not a long-range planner. At the end of every session I have members come to me and say that they’re not going to run again because they’re exhausted, or they’re thinking of running for another office, perhaps the state Senate, heaven forbid. But I tell them not to make a decision at the end of May in an odd-numbered year. Go rest, relax, and let it sink in what you’ve done. So I don’t worry about where I’m going to be in a couple of years. I don’t even consider myself a full-time politician, though serving as speaker does take up most of my time. I don’t have a long-term career plan in politics.