With students about to head to the polls for the first day of early voting in Texas on Tuesday, candidates running for Texas House District 18 participated in a forum last week to give students a chance to hear their stances on various issues directly impacting Sam Houston State University.
Hosted by SHSU’s Student Government Association, topics included state funding for SHSU and capping tuition increases, how candidates would represent their constituents in Austin, adding a polling place on campus, and their views on religion at public universities in Texas.
The other topics discussed were the Hazelwood Act, a proposal for a new high-speed bullet train in Texas and repairing the state’s deteriorating highway system.
The six candidates – Wesley Hinch and Keith Strahan of Liberty County, Van Brookshire and Ernest Bailes of San Jacinto County and J. Turner and James Morrison of Walker County – are all running as Republicans and none have served in the House before.
Currently, SHSU ranks second-to-last in state funding per student despite being the 12 largest public university in Texas, according to moderator and Student Body President Phill Lund.
When asked how they would address the issue, the six candidates called for rewarding the value SHSU delivers, suggested teaming up with other representatives and made commitments to delivering additional funds.
Brookshire recognized the challenge in battling for more of the state’s higher education funds, but said that he would deliver by teaming up with other state representatives from rural districts in similar situations.
“They’ve got colleges in their districts and they’re feeling the same twinge about the big money going to the certain big schools. So we’re going to join with those other rural state representatives and fight for our money,” Brookshire said.
Brookshire added bringing funds to SHSU would be a fundamental part of his job.
As a long-time resident of Huntsville, Turner said he understands the special relationship citizens have with SHSU and that the state should use SHSU as an example and be more efficient with its higher education funds.
“We need to make government work in such a way that the citizens feel like they’re getting value for their money and to me, Sam Houston State University is a perfect example of value for that money,” he said.
All of the candidates agreed that they would fight for every available dollar in the higher education fund, but according to Bailes, this wasn’t just political rhetoric for him.
“You need a state representative that fights tooth and nail for funding universities like this…And I’m not going to simply say that ‘yea, we’re going to look at it.’ I will tell you that I will commit to bringing as much resources as possible here to this university,” Bailes said.
All six candidates were strongly opposed to having the Texas Legislature place caps on tuition increases at the state’s public universities, including SHSU.
Hinch and Morrison diverted back to the students, who need to realize the necessary financial sacrifices college students are required to make.
“The government can help defray some of the costs of education, but I also believe that students need to make some hard choices,” Hinch said. “Yes, I think we can look for ways that we can help…but the students need to take some responsibility as well.”
Bailes and Strahan mentioned the availability of other colleges and universities for students to attend as a cost-effective alternative to more expensive universities.
“As a business person, I don’t feel comfortable saying that [the government should regulate tuition], there is no replacement for free enterprise. If one university charges too much, then there are other universities out there,” Bailes said.
Public universities and religion
Some of the most impassioned responses of the evening came when the candidates shared their views on religion at public universities in Texas. All six men supported the free expression of religious beliefs at public universities but maintained that it must be done respectfully.
Alluding to his own religious beliefs for direction, Morrison said that he would not force his beliefs onto others but would instead pray for them.
“But at the same token, you don’t have any right to tell me not to pray,” Morrison said. “You have no right to tell me that I can’t pray, just like I can’t force you to pray.”
Public institutions like the state’s universities should allow individuals to practice their religion freely without embracing institutionalized religion, according to Hinch.
“My recollection of history is that people came here to get away from institutionalized, state-sponsored religion. And yet at the same time, I think people in our district don’t want to have the state saying we can’t exercise our religion freely,” he said.
Expecting a university and its students to ignore their/its religious principles is unreasonable and is based on political correctness, Bailes said.
“I think political correctness will be the demise of both our country and our state, we worry too much about possibly offending someones,” Bailes said. “As long as we are respectful of all parties and conduct ourselves respectfully, then I don’t think this is an issue.”
Taking it a step further, Strahan said that a university is a place for a diversity of ideas, not political correctness.
“The [politically correct] culture, especially in your generation, where you have ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger words,’ is a devaluing of your humanness,” Strahan said. “We need to create a culture where these diversities can come out.”
Representation of all residents
Given that all of the candidates running for House District 18 are Republicans, Lund asked the candidates how they would represent all of their constituents, including those who don’t necessarily share their views.
Sometimes people begin to alienate those who they disagree with, but Hinch said he has demonstrated the ability to work with people and would be eager to listen to their concerns.
“Those [who disagree] are the people I want to talk to because I want to figure out how we can come to a solution and how we can help those people either understand what we’re doing or maybe take into consideration their concerns and figure out how to solve the problem. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding the issue or maybe I don’t have all of the information I need,” Hinch said.
As a state congressman, listening to the opposing views of your constituents is a practical matter more than anything else, according to Turner.
“If you don’t listen to all points of view, you’re not prepared to defend your own views,” Turner said. “So as your state representative, I will represent all of the people.”
The primary duty of any lawmaker, according to Strahan, is to serve the will of the people and the residents of District 18 voice their opinions when they decide who to vote for.
“I’m telling you my principles and I’m going to tell you how I’m going to vote on an issue based on my principles…And so that is being a servant of the people, is by coming back here to this district and telling you the truth about what’s going on,” Strahan said.
Polling place on campus
In the past, students have advocated for a polling place on campus but their efforts were denied, according to Lund.
All of the candidates, with the exception of Turner, were in favor of bringing a ballot box to SHSU.
Candidates in favor of adding a polling place on campus were largely focused on increasing voter turnout among students.
“It’s important that you guys are able to stand up and speak and that your voices are heard, so I think it’s important to have access where you’re able to vote right here on campus and stay engaged in that process,” Bailes said.
However, adding a polling place on campus is not going to completely solve the larger issue, which according to Strahan, is the complacency of young, student voters.
“You need to rise up and coalesce around other like-minded students because you feel like you’re being disenfranchised because of your age and where you are. These are major issues that are so far deeper than needing a polling place on campus,” Strahan said, who was in favor of the idea.
The dissenting candidate, former Huntsville Mayor Turner, commented that the Walker County Annex is the polling place for the entire county and is only three blocks from campus.