EDITOR’S NOTE: In the race to become the first representative of a newly created Texas House district stretching from Waco through ranch and farming country to Bryan, Robert Stem, 29, an area rancher and Waco attorney, faces Kyle Kacal, 42, a Bryan-area rancher who bested four others in primary bouts. These interviews are drawn from Trib editorial board meetings with the two candidates this month. These have been condensed for space and edited for clarity. Election Day is Nov. 6.
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Q You’re up against a candidate who has made public education an issue. The Texas Legislature will likely take up school vouchers next year. What are your priorities?
A Public education is one of my top priorities, as well. If we’re going to outline three, it’s going to be economic development and jobs, education and water. Education is a mess, but there’s got to be an easy way to fix it. There are certain districts in District 12 that are having success. It’s not about reinventing the wheel.
Q The real debate is about equity and adequacy of funding for public schools. There are several lawsuits over this, partially because the Legislature shorted school districts by $5.4 billion last session and failed to take into account enrollment growth statewide.
A Let’s tackle it in two ways. One, it’s going to be tied up in the courts, so we’re not going to figure out where we stand till May or June.
Q But does the Texas Legislature have to wait that long for the court to slap its wrist?
A I don’t think so, but that’s where we are. From my understanding, we’re going to have to sit on our hands and wait till May or June till a special session to take care of it.
Q Actually, you don’t have to wait.
A We’ll do what we can to get it out of there, but from what I understand as a freshman, I’m going to have to wait. From Day One, I’ve said, vouchers — I’m not for vouchers. Private vouchers are not the magic wand and will not fix the system. The public school system is one of the greatest assets the state has. We have to take care of it. We have to put good teachers in front of students. That’s the first point of contact. On school finance, it is the biggest bulk of the state budget. We have to find a way to fund (districts) fairly because we’re not.
Q You say you’ve been against school vouchers from Day One, yet you were quoted at a forum the other night as saying you would be willing to entertain vouchers as part of a hybrid package.
A I’m not going to be so shortsighted as to say we can’t do anything (about vouchers). Let’s look at what works. But, no, I don’t want to rob money from the schools by any means. It’s not going to be a magic wand.
Q The fear is there’s only so much money for public education and now we’re going to be funneling some of it into home schooling and private schools. Yet private schools don’t have the same challenges. One superintendent told us, “Sure, I could run a private school and do great because I wouldn’t have to worry about, say, special ed kids or educating poor kids.” The point is that private schools don’t face the same problems.
A Yes, and you’ll have teachers who will go there and work for less because they have less trouble in the classroom. And I think the debate the other night hit on discipline in the classroom. They’ve taken that away. But the heart of the discussion is I want those kids getting the best education, and we can do that. We’ve done them a disservice the last few years. We need to revamp our education system. I think we all agree on that. Funding — there’s no way we can cut the education budget.
Q Another issue in 2013 is the possible expansion of Medicaid. Should the state expand Medicaid to accommodate the Affordable Care Act to cover an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million more people in Texas? Or is this something so fiscally onerous we just don’t need to get into it?
A The governor is right. We can’t afford more.
Q If the state opts to accept Medicaid expansion funds, we could save substantially over the long run. We could well see the ranks of uninsured locals drop from 19 or 20 percent to 4 percent. Right now, some of the uninsured folks cost the rest of us in terms of insurance premiums, higher health care costs and taxes. If we don’t cover them, doesn’t that mean we’ll see more people flooding our hospital emergency rooms for uncompensated care?
A We get that in Bryan-College Station. Those hospitals advertise their waiting-room waits on billboards, and folks who need care will drive to the places based on those billboards so they can get in and out quicker.
Q Yes, but what is your thinking about what needs to happen with Medicaid?
A It’s a federal mandate. Where are we supposed to come up with this money? And the country is broke, as well. We’ve got to do a better job, just like education. But we can’t let Medicaid break the country and the state. That’s where I back up Gov. Perry. We have the option right now to opt out and take care of our citizens ourselves. It’s our responsibility and every citizen’s responsibility to do a better job. Everything I talk about, whether it’s education or medical, we don’t need to be tied to the federal government and be dependent on them. Now, I want to make clear that I do not know all the facts and I want to make sure that’s clear. I have brushed over the high points and, as I have been in a five-man primary, I’ve only got one side of the facts. My background obviously comes from education and agriculture, and I have not had to use Medicaid or Medicare so far.
Q You say economic development and jobs are a priority for you. What do you think we ought to be doing?
A Let’s get vocational education and technical curriculum available. And let’s look at companies coming in. Right now in Robertson County, we’re having a big debate about Union Pacific trying to build a big (railway) switch yard there, and it’s going to provide 1,500 jobs and then 200 to 300 jobs permanently. And some residents are fighting the location. We have to find a way to get the constituents and the company to work together because we need economic development in Robertson, Falls and Limestone counties. We must keep our state in the position of being able to bring jobs here.
Q How do we fund the state water plan? It calls for $53 billion in infrastructure and water management projects to ensure plenty of water for the residents and businesses expected in coming decades.
A From a straight economic standpoint, we got to keep water available to all constituents and it’s got to be affordable.
Q So do we, say, put a tax of a penny on a bottle of water to fund the state water plan, as some propose?
A Boy, that’s going to be hard when you got most of your constituents still in a panic about buying water in a bottle.
Q This race seems to have gone on forever.
A It’s been long but also rewarding. If you had run a more typical campaign, you might not be able to develop personal relationships like I have during this one. We have gotten to know the constituents. So maybe there is a benefit to a campaign this long. It benefits not only the candidate who wins but the constituents.