They were the most talked-about class of House freshmen in years—and they came ready to change the system. The newly-elected Tea Partiers spent months on the campaign trail promising to shrink government and move the agenda to the right. Then they had to govern—in a year with an unprecedented budget shortfall.
Before the session, the Observer interviewed three of the most visible and strident Tea Party freshmen: Republican Reps. James White of Lufkin, Charles Perry of Lubbock and David Simpson of Longview. At the time, they were optimistic about the impact their movement would have. Five months later, we contacted the three to see how their legislative journeys went.
James White of Lufkin arrived at the Capitol full of energy. The African-American former high school teacher, 46, beat a white veteran lawmaker in deep East Texas—no easy feat. In January, he told the Observer that the Republican supermajority was “a mandate.” The election results, he said, should be a “signal for us to be bold, to be transformative.” White aligned himself with veteran social conservatives who tend to rankle the current House Republican leadership. He voted for an amendment that would require public universities to devote 10 percent of classes to “Western Civilization.” White’s own policy goals did not make it very far. His version of school finance failed to get out of committee.
“When I look at a bill, [I ask]—is it contrary to the Bible? Is it contrary to the state Constitution? Is it contrary to the U.S. Constitution? And then you jump from there.
“Now, when you do that, you do find yourself in some odd circumstances. As a proponent of school choice, you’re presented with a piece of legislation like the taxpayer savers’ grant—the vouchers amendment. You say, ‘Yeah, that’s what you’ve been waiting for’—but wait, hold on. You’ve got Article VII Section 1 of the [Texas] Constitution that says the state will make suitable provision for efficient, free and public schools. So … in this instance you can’t take public monies and give it to a private school because that’s contrary to the Constitution. Not to say you’re against choice.
“You have to be honest with yourself, too. Sometimes you find yourself being that one or two or three votes out of 150. But you know, such is life.”
On his vote for the first version of the House budget
“[My vote] was conflicted to a certain extent because … you saw where there were some other spots, some other places in the budget where we could have been more efficient. Because of vested interests or that sort of thing, you couldn’t [cut certain things]. I’ve often said in this tough budget environment, you kind of want to circle the wagons around public safety, public education, and health and human services for our most needy and deserving Texans. You’re looking at economic development funds that are funded or are in the budget, and you’re saying, ‘If we have a low-cost state with a well-educated citizenry, fair legal justice in the courts, fair and certain regulation, then you shouldn’t need these economic development pots of money.’ … But you want to stay relevant. I think it was important to keep the process moving forward.”
Using the Rainy Day Fund
“Well, it’s the Economic Stabilization Fund. … Take a family business, a family household. At some extent, when you’re trying to get a mortgage or a car note, they factor in your savings as part of your means. I don’t want to signal to agencies, governmental people that, ‘Yeah I’m ready to go into the Rainy Day Fund,’ because it jades the budget process. But I don’t think we need to be stupid or not prudent about this. At the end of the day, I think if the decision is funding for our nursing homes versus the Rainy Day Fund, I think it’s necessary to go into the Rainy Day Fund.”
After making a splash with a vote against House Speaker Joe Straus, Charles Perry, a 50-year-old Lubbock accountant, kept his head down for most of the session. He focused on Medicaid inefficiencies, and he created a few cost-saving pilot programs. Otherwise he followed the freshman rule and was seen but rarely heard. Then he discovered he was a casualty of redistricting. He and another Tea Party freshman had been drawn into one district, meaning they would have to run against one another. Perry wound up getting his district back, but not before he went on the offensive, accusing the House leadership of “political gerrymandering.”
“You prioritize your time. You have this huge agenda, and you want to solve all the world’s problems tomorrow, and you find out that this system’s incrementally slow. That it’s designed to move slow. Most things are pretty complicated. You may have a vision of why they’re messed up, but when you get into the details, it’s complicated. So you really kind of start becoming an expert in some area. You have to kind of focus your attention on something you can be effective at. I think there’s probably very few people on the floor that are experts on all areas because the areas are too complicated.”
“We just came out of a national economy and a statewide economy that threw us into a $27 billion shortfall. In other words, what we projected and what we got was $27 billion short. In that environment, you either make huge cuts, or you raise a tremendous amount of pressure on your tax side. Neither one are smart. You have to find a balance on the cuts side. To tax people in a consumer-driven economy, when they’re unemployed, wages are under pressure, jobs are not being created at the level they should be … you’re just depressing your consumer spending again. So in our environment, what you’re doing is trying to buy a little time to smooth out the peaks and valleys that we just had. There’s never been a valley this deep.
“We came down here, and the House was on fire. So for a whole session, we’ve been putting out fires. Now, going forward over the interim, we owe it to the state, to our schools, to our Medicaid, to determine what our funding sources should look like, how they should work and hopefully a more stable environment to fund government in.”
“We have root, hardcore systemic, structural funding issues that have to be corrected over the next two-year cycle. This was not the session [to do that] for lots of reasons. … We walked into a situation where the state didn’t have money to pay its bills other than the savings account. … For the first time in history, we were looking at being $13 billion short, underfunding current needs based on the law we operated under. So we had a whole lot of work to do. You know if you change your root and your core during distress, you usually make bad decisions. We’ve got past the slump. I think you’re going to see some really good work done over the next 18 months… I think everybody knows that we’ve got a shortfall before we ever walk in next session, and over the interim there’s going to be enough work done to figure out how do we fix the shortfall and where do we go.”
“The only reason we were paired was politics. It was speaker politics—it really was. Those issues bled into the redistricting, there’s no denying. And I’m good with that. You know, when you vote, there’s consequences to your vote. But we knew at the end of the day that that map wasn’t right.”
David Simpson of Longview worried he would become part of the establishment. “I fear this even myself,” Simpson told us in January. “Once you’re in power, you tend to protect that power.” It’s safe to say Simpson retained his anti-establishment tilt. Probably the most visible and controversial freshman this session, the 49-year-old timber executive was the lone Republican “no” vote on the initial House budget. He argued that there should have been more cuts to economic development funds—like the governor’s Enterprise Fund—rather than deep cuts to education. He took on a powerful veteran lawmaker, Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and forced a debate on a “puppy mill” bill she had intended to pass without discussion. Freshmen don’t normally take on senior members, and there was a backlash from others on the floor. Simpson plowed away and almost got his big bill of the session passed. The bill would have prohibited groping by airport security personnel. The measure died in the Senate, but it’s safe to say Simpson left a mark.
“I’m grateful for the cutting of the budget as far as it’s gone. I just disagree with the priorities. It was really hard when you leave a half billion dollars of corporate welfare in there that could be going to schools or to nursing homes. That’s the reason why I voted against the budget. I agreed with the general perspective of what my party was doing, but they lost the moral high ground when they saved those projects. … I probably don’t operate the way a lot of people do. I don’t think a whole lot about expectations. I just think about what’s right and do it—and then seek to explain it. So I thought the right place to start on the budget was corporate welfare. We gutted the libraries. I’m not that surprised. It is frustrating when you see it face to face. I came here knowing it would be difficult.”
Going up against Rep. Senfronia Thompson
“It was a very lonely day, and I was painted … the black sheep or whatever. But I haven’t felt that way at all. Lots of people from both parties, both freshmen and senior members, have come up alongside me and encouraged me and said what I did was right.
“At the time, it was lonely, but I think I won their hearts and consciences on the matter. And while they may not agree with my principles, I do think they respect me.”
Education funding and the structural deficit
“I am a little concerned that we’ve not really tackled some of the biggest issues. Next session, I hope to work on eliminating property taxes and replacing it with a consumption tax. I’ve spoken with a senator about that who wants to work with me on that, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. Part of that could be a better, equitable way of funding public education. I mean, the Constitution does call to provide for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools. So we need to do that. I think we need to introduce freedom and responsibility and then make it very equitable based upon a head count.”
Voting against the speaker
“I’ve put that behind me and sought to work with him. I haven’t seen any resistance. I got one bill passed. I had another one in Calendars [Committee] ready to come to the floor. I did see some resistance by some of the chairmen, but not by him.”
“That’s the way politics works. I’ve gotten to know them. I think I’ve won their hearts. They see that I’m in it for the right reasons. If they choose to hold it against me, that’s their decision. I’ve done what’s right. I’ve tried to explain it. I think most people respect me for that.”