(From left) Steve Allison and Matt Beebe, candidates in the GOP runoff for Texas House District 121, prepare for a voters' forum.
Steve Allison (left) and Matt Beebe, candidates in the GOP runoff for Texas House District 121, prepare for a candidate forum. Credit: Edmond Ortiz / San Antonio Report

The two Republican candidates vying for the legislative seat of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, Steve Allison and Matt Beebe, both tout their conservative credentials, but found a few points of disagreement Thursday night at a forum hosted by the North East Independent School District Council of PTAs.

Allison and Beebe will face off in the House District 121 GOP runoff election May 22. The winner advances to the Nov. 6 general election to face Democrat Celina Montoya. Straus, who is giving up his seat after 13 years, has endorsed Allison to represent a Repubican-dominated district that stretches from Northeast San Antonio to the Alamo Heights area.

How State House Republicans will select a new House Speaker in the 2019 legislative session has become a divisive issue between Allison and Beebe.

Beebe has challenged Allison to commit a backing a conservative Republican for House Speaker. Beebe points to the March 6 primary, where on a non-binding ballot proposition 85 percent of Republicans statewide expressed their approval of a proposed change in the nominating process for House Speaker, using a secret ballot in a binding caucus before the vote on the open House floor.

Such a new nominating process would enable the majority party to coalesce behind a single speaker candidate, likely a more conservative member than the moderate Straus. At Thursday’s forum, Beebe told the audience of more than 30 people that Texas House Democrats and moderate Republicans wielded their influence in electing and re-electing Straus as speaker.

“We are better served as conservatives in this state if we bind together as Republicans and make sure that names contributed for nomination reflect the values – reflect the priorities – of the Republican caucus,” said Beebe, who challenged Straus unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2014.

Allison pledged to vote for the most conservative Republican nominee for House Speaker, but disagreed with Beebe on the selection process. He added that Straus as House Speaker had strengthened the standing of District 121 inside the Texas House.

“I don’t think that complies with the [State] constitution and … I just don’t think that’s appropriate,” Allison said. “That gives up the district’s vote, which is so vitally important.”

When the discussion turned to education, Allison and Beebe agreed that Texas teachers and students are generally performing well, but could use more resources.

Both agreed that the Legislature should address educators’ retirement and health insurance issues and criticized the so-called “Robin Hood” system of distributing revenue from wealthier school districts to poorer ones.

Allison, an attorney and former Alamo Heights Independent School District trustee, lamented how state education funding cuts over the years has resulted in higher taxes on local school district taxpayers instead of being adequately funded by the Legislature.

“That’s not right,” Allison said. “The burden needs to be shifted to where it belongs, with the State.”

Beebe, an Air Force veteran who owns an information technology business, said that simply pouring more State funds into education is not the solution. He advocated taxpayer relief and cutting wasteful spending in public school districts.

“I want to make sure we’re giving relief to taxpayers, but we’re also making sure dollars are going into the classrooms where they belong, and and not wasted on programs and big stadiums like we’re seeing across the state,” he said.

Beebe and Allison addressed accountability in charter schools and other alternative forms of education. Beebe said he feels charter schools have more accountability than traditional public schools do – a reason why he thinks more parents are sending their children to charters.

“If you have a charter school that’s failing, you’ll get the State on you pretty quick,” he said. He also said charter schools are proving grounds of educational innovation and cost-effective operations.

Allison said he believes in the promises and potential offered by charter schools, but repeated his fear that charter schools may siphon more money from traditional public schools.

“My concern is that if we continue down the road we’re on, both the traditional public schools and the charter schools will be affected,” he said.

Allison and Beebe also differed on the issue of school vouchers. Beebe said he hopes to reframe discussions about vouchers to stress the value of empowering parents by giving them more educational choices.

“Empowering parents to make a choice that’s right for them and their child is something we ought to be in the business of doing,” he said. Beebe added that he would oppose anything that could be perceived as giving the wealthy “tax breaks under the guise of school choice.”

Allison expressed opposition to “anything that undermines public education,” including vouchers.

In his closing remarks, Allison said that he feels that his time as a school district board member has prepared him to address education and other issues as a state legislator.

“We should all get back to making sure each one of our children will have the tools and essentials so they can succeed to their maximum ability,” he said.

Beebe took a parting shot at his runoff opponent, describing Allison as an establishment Republican who’s out of touch with a growing number of unhappy conservatives.

“Is it going to be the choice of Austin insiders that feel you have to … be on the right team to get the support to go to Austin?” Beebe said. “Or is it going to [be up to] ordinary voters – Republicans who agree 80 percent on the Speaker selection, migration from [reliance on] property tax or 80 percent who agree with issues around school choice?”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.