Be nice and carry a gun: Freshman of the year Rep. Tom Oliverson’s nuanced take on the special session

Freshman State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, at his office in the Capitol on July 26, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Good day Austin:

I wrote a story for Sunday’s Statesman that began as follows:

At the midpoint of this summer’s special legislative session, the political narrative seems clear. We are poised for a potentially ugly showdown in the final two weeks.

On one side are Gov. Greg Abbott, who called the special session and laid out its 20-point conservative agenda, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose Senate, in a furious burst of lawmaking last week, made quick work of passing 18 of those 20 items.

On the other side is Speaker Joe Straus, whose House is threatening to slow the session’s momentum and scuttle any chance of passing the full slate, including a transgender bathroom bill — divisive, yet popular among social conservatives.

It’s a stark and compelling storyline, and may prove true.

But it is not the whole truth. For that, Texans need to get to know the likes of Rep. Tom Oliverson, who was chosen by his Republican colleagues as the GOP freshman of the year, is admired by both Patrick and Straus, and welcomed the governor’s special session call.

“The vast, vast majority of those issues were issues that I understood very well, and I was sad we didn’t get them done during the regular session,” said Oliverson, from suburban Houston.

“I would like an opportunity to consider 20 for 20,” Oliverson said during a two-hour interview in his Capitol office last week. “I’m not sure 20 for 20 would pass, but I would at least like the opportunity to debate them all.

And yet, confounding the preconceived battle lines, Oliverson also trusts Straus and the ways of the House, even if that means the Legislature falls short of achieving many of the objectives he shares.

“I don’t think he inserts himself into the process personally as much as he could as speaker,” Oliverson said of Straus, a San Antonio Republican who in January was unanimously elected by the members of the House to a fifth term as speaker and has said he intends to seek an unprecedented sixth term in 2019.

“It’s just not a process that’s designed to pass things,” he said. “Statistically speaking, the legislative process is pretty efficient at destroying bills. It’s not so good at passing them.”

The genesis of this story was an interview I had with Oliverson last Wednesday.

I had talked to Oliverson for the first time at the end of the regular session thanks to his kids.

He subsequently was named freshman of the year by his Republican colleagues in the House.

I called him last week to see if I could talk to him, with a mind to doing a First Reading looking at the special session through the eyes of the GOP freshman of the year.

We ended up talking for more than two hours, and when I returned the next day with Statesman photographer Kamir Talifa to get some photos of him in his office, we talked for another hour.

When I arrived Wednesday, Oliverson was watching Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin,  testify before the House Appropriations Committee about House Joint Resolution 18, a constitutional amendment what would require the state to bear at least 50 percent of the cost of educating Texas students. Earlier, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, had testified about House Bill 82, “abolishing school district maintenance and operations property taxes by 2020, forcing the Legislature to implement a new way to fund schools for the 2020-21 school year.”

Oliverson:

Can we really come up with a good system to replace local property tax revenue for local school districts in two years that we’re going to agree on?

I don ‘t know

(Darby) is more experienced than I am. Two years seems like a short time … it gives us only one legislative session to get it right

Oliverson had been giving the issue a lot of thought of late.

We’re starting to hear a lot of that. That maybe this is the issue we should be focused on. Meaningful tax reform through school finance reform.

It’s been popular in my district and other members that I have talked to. That’s what people really would like. If you ask them what the number one thing they would want they say, “Man, do something about these property taxes.”

We spent the whole regular session talking about property tax reform and at the end of the day, we really couldn’t  find anything that the two chambers could agree on.

And here we find ourselves in a special session, when, on the list of things we’re supposed to be talking about is property tax reform and school finance and, to my way of thinking, that is the same issue.

That is the issue: public education finance that is more centered around what the state government does, what we are constitutionally obligated to provide, which is a free and an equitable and fair system of public education. And as long as we’re collecting taxes from the four corners of Texas with different property values, and that represents more than 50 percent of the money that goes into the school system, the public education system, how is it ever going to be fair? There’s just too much variation in property values.

That’s been something we’ve been looking at this session and really spending  a lot of time thinking about. It’s something the citizens are really demanding that we do.

I’ve had some conservative economists in here today, telling me you can do this. Just get control some of these exemptions to the sales tax, broaden the base a little bit. It’s achievable. You don’t have to raise the sales tax to 12 percent to do this.

Sales tax, people have said, that’s kind of a regressive tax, you’re penalizing the poor. Well I’m thinking, actually it doesn’t, it’s actually a very progressive tax because the more you buy, the more you pay; the less you buy, the less you pay. It’s the only tax I’m aware of where you can, midstream, mid-calendar year, you can experience a sudden change in income and you an adjust the amount of taxes you are going to pay.

Property taxes are so fixed. If I lose my job and I  need to cut back on my expenses I can buy less groceries, I can stop eating out, I can ride my bike to work, I can defer major purchases. I can do all of these hings but I have no ability  to modulate the tax I pay.re so fixed. If I lose my job and I  need to cut back on my expenses I can buy less groceries, I can stop eating out, I can ride my bike to work, I can defer major purchases. I can do all of these hings but I have no ability  to modulate the tax I pay.

It’s just a question of whether people are wiling to trade consumption taxation for property taxation. For me, I’d be wiling to pay taxes on doctor visits, hair cuts ,food, auto repairs, water, electricity, I’d be wiling to pay sales tax on all  that if I didn’t have to write a five-figure check to the school every year.

It is going to be tough, man. I am not naive that when you start talking bout repealing exemptions, when you ask people to exchange one tax for another – you wont’ pay property taxes but you might pay a sales tax on services you haven’t paid before  – there will be people who will line up outside my door to complain about that. Each one of those exemptions has a lobbyist and group that is 100 percent for that, that’s their deal and they’ll fight like hell to keep it. We’ll see how that goes

I know I’m just a freshman , and it’s not really my place or my area of expertise or even my committee. It’s just really something about it call it a God thing and on your heart thing, I just think that is the issue that’s the elephant in the room.

I’m actually working on something.

I’m hoping we can get something filed field before the end of the special session. I don’t know . It’s probably going to be more of a conversation starter.

We’ll try to get it done as quick as we can, but I’m trying to be deliberative about it and if I don’t get it done before the end of  special session and the clock runs out, I will go to the lieutenant governor and the speaker and say, “Here is an idea. I hope you will consider this as an interim charge or as part of this school finance thing.”

 

Oliverson isn’t keen on Gov. Greg Abbott’s call to create a commission to study school finance.

Commissions to me can get hijacked quickly. I’d much rather see a joint select committee. When you have a joint select committee you have elected officials who are responsible to the voters, to the taxpayers, not necessarily a group of individual who may represent different special interest groups.

(TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Oliverson has signed on to 18 bills aligned with the governor’s special session agenda.

I think his priorities are in the right place.

The tree one I’m not 100 percent sure of. I’m still trying to figure that one but it kind of hit me out of left field.

I work in The Woodlands. (Sen.) Brandon Creighton got that carved out of the Senate bill. The Woodlands as a community, they have all kinds of rules about minimally disrupting the forest. You’re not really even allowed to do a lot of landscaping.. You have to try to leave the natural appearance so that as you’re driving down the street the parkway is literally lied with tees and there are houses behind them.

Oliverson also recalled the case of Mr. T 30 years ago in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. He bought a mansion and immediately clear-cut some 100 trees on his property.

It made the news and they asked him about it and he said, “It’s my land. I hate trees. They’re messy. I can do what I want”.

From Jonah Meadows at Patch in March:

LAKE FOREST, IL — The former mansion of Mr. T was listed for $7.5 million last week, 30 years after an infamous arboreal “massacre” felled more than 100 mature trees and led to a preservation ordinance from the city council.

From the 1987 New York Times story by Dirk Johnson:

LAKE FOREST, Ill., May 29— In this wealthy old community, a bastion of gentility and reserve, the leading citizens would hardly be expected to greet Mohawk hair styles.

But in the case of Mr. T, the gruff, burly, television actor, it was not the way he trimmed his hair that sent this Chicago suburb into an uproar, but rather the way he trimmed his property.

In recent weeks, Mr. T, reportedly suffering from allergies, has already cut down more than a hundred of the oak trees on his English Tudor estate here, violating an unwritten code of esthetics in this picturesque town along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Angry residents here are calling it ”The Lake Forest Chain Saw Massacre.”

The telephones at City Hall have been ringing ceaselessly with complaints from neighbors. The local newspaper, The Lake Forest News/Voice, condemned Mr. T in an editorial last week for what it described as his ”arrogant, insensitive action.” And an alderwoman, Mary Barb Johnson, has promised to draft an ordinance to prohibit any further ”outrageous destruction.” Pride in ‘Tree City, U.S.A.’

”We take great pride in our trees,” Char Kreuz, the city’s spokeswoman, said earlier this week. ”You can tell that by the name of our town.”

“I don’t now about that one,” Oliverson said of the governor’s desire to ban local tree ordinances.

(TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

THE BATHROOM BILL

The bathroom issue to me is important. It’s not as important to me because of the bathroom per se but I don’t think its the proper role of local government to create protected classes. I think that’s the proper role for the state Constitution.

Oliverson blames the Obama administration’s 2016 directive for provoking the controversy. It was, he said, “a vast overreach.”

From the May 13, 2016  Dear Colleague letter to schools across the nation from the Obama Administration’s Justice and Education departments advising schools on the appropriate way to treat transgender students:

3. Sex-Segregated Activities and Facilities.
Title IX’s implementing regulations permit a school to provide sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing, and athletic teams, as well as single-sex classes under certain circumstances. When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.
– Restrooms and Locker Rooms
A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity.
A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender
identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.
The Trump Administration rescinded that policy, but, Oliverson said, they also suggested the states step in.

The State of Minnesota basically reinstated that over the weekend, the Obama directive, which to me felt more like shaming students who felt uncomfortable having to undress around their classmates who had different external genitalia than they did and showering with them, than it did about denying somebody the right to use a bathroom stall. I think that issue’s gotten kid of distorted.

The bottom line to me is it’s not the proper role for local government, certainly not school boards or cities, to create protected classes.

Pre -Obama directive, I think the status quo was working. I had not heard anything that this was a problem until after that letter came out.

Schools were not in the business of trying to make life difficult for their students or to shame or humiliate certain students whose needs were different than others.

I think that in general, a school board, a school district, a principal, a teacher generally tries to do what’s in the best interests of all their students. I think that that’s what they’ve been doing.

What was different about the Dear Colleague letter, the part I didn’t like, which was very characteristic of what I see as a pattern, which is why I’m supporting Ron Simmons’ bill.

The Dear Colleague letter said a transgender student had to be given full access to the communal changing, dressing, showering area of the gender that they identify with , without any privacy accommodations, so, in other words, it is communal, and that if another student who was genetically, biologically in the bathroom locker room of their gender felt uncomfortable changing around the transgender student, you had to pull them out of the bathroom and stick them into a  private accommodation. So we’re humiliating and shaming somebody because they are put into a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.

In other words you better get OK with this and if you’re not OK with that, we’re going to pull you out and segregate you and shame you. That’s how I read the letter.

There are some in our country who are intent upon creating protected classes by hook, crook or whatever they can so if they can’t get their remedy legislatively, they attempt to take over a small political subdivision and force their will there.

If that doesn’t work, they file lawsuits, they shame, humiliate, boycott, divest , sanction, all of the kind of strategies in order to affect the societal change they are looking for , instead of doing the one thing that I think is constitutionally appropriate, which is to bring that issue here and let us debate that at the Capitol.

If we wanted to create a new protected class for transgender individuals, the appropriate thing to do would be to amend the Constitution to add that to the list of protected classes alongside race, sex, religion. I don’t buy the argument that because sex is in there that that covers it. It’s very clear, you can go back to the 1950s, pre -64 Civil Rights, and at that point there was already a distinction in the psychiatric literature between gender and sex. Sex refers to biological sex, gender referring to their internal identity or what they perceive to be themselves. I don’t buy the argument that gender and sex meant exactly the same thing.

I don’t want to go in the opposite direction. I don’t want to micro manage.  I just don’t want school boards, city council, local entities creating and inventing ordinances and polices because they believe it’s their responsibility to create a protected class of individuals.

 If that’s what you believe is important, that we should add gender identity to the list of protected classes, then amend the state Constitution to do that.

Logan Oliverson, the young son of Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Dist. 130, sits in his father’s lap as he draws while his father conducts chamber business during session Friday May 5, 2017.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

BE NICE

Oliverson:

One of the attributes that works up here is the ability to be nice to everybody but not sort of fake or false, but to be legitimately kind and honest but friendly and I really think Trent Ashby does a good job of that. He’s not going to lie to you. If here’s something you want his help on but he can’t help you,  he’s gonna say, “You’re a good guy, but I can’t help you and here’s why.” But he’s nice. He works well with others, somebody I  respect.

So many of my colleagues I’ve really come to treasure and enjoy working with. It would be really hard for me to make a list of people that I felt like I couldn’t get along with or that I didn’t think there’s some issue that I couldn’t work with them on.

A BIPARTISAN ANSWER TO NURSING HOME ABSENTEE BALLOT FRAUD

Oliverson was able to put together a bipartisan coalition behind a measure, that was ultimately folded into an election reform bill, to deal with the problem of agents of different candidates fraudulently filling out absentee forms for unsuspecting nursing home residents.

Oliverson:

You’re not going to steal a presidential election with mail ballot fraud but you could affect a primary. You could win a school board race. you could perhaps win a county judge or a county commissioner race in a rural county.

We started the process with some very conservative stakeholders in Harris county Ed Johnson (senior director in the IT department of the Harris County Clerk’s office (and Alan Vera (former national poll watcher trainer for True the Vote).

The first week of session, Glenn Maxey (a former Democratic state representative from Austin and now legislative director for Texas Democratic Party) walks in this office – never met him before. He came to see me. He said, “I want to help.”

Any time we can get both parties to agree that there a) is fraud b) that’s right here and c) that we can fix it, it’s something we have to pursue.

Under Oliverson’s plan, borrowed form a successful practice in Wisconsin, “election judges go in as team to the nursing homes and manually the ballots are completed in front of them and they collect ballots from the residents. You’ve just removed the opportunity to commit fraud.”

Glenn suggested I go tot talk to (Austin Rep.) Celia Israel, she’s vice chair of Elections, and Glenn, he told me flat-out, he just said, “In my party she is probably the most respected name in terms of elections for us.” He said you should go talk to her I think she’ll really like this bill.

I did. She said, “Let me think about it,” and she got back to me the next day, “I really like it .”

“I’d like you to be my co-author,” Oliverson told Israel, who agreed. He talked with Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, who chairs the Elections Comitee, and she joined as co-author.

I talked Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas)  He walked me right over to Eric Johnson ‘s desk – “This almost got him in his election.”

Oliverson said Johnson, another Dallas Democrat, told him:

This is ground zero for me. Can I be a joint author? This is what’s happening in my back yard.

 

CARRY A GUN

I pretty much carry a gun everywhere.

I love to shoot and hunt and stuff like that.

I’m carrying right now. I usually have a Glock on my hip right here.

(Designed for professionals, the GLOCK 17 is the most widely used law enforcement pistol worldwide. It’s just what you need in high-pressure situations)

I got a custom shoulder holster for session and I had this beautiful .45, a Sig Sauer that is called the Texas Gold Edition. It said “Lone Star State” and had a quote from Robert E. Lee.

 

It’s a beautiful gun and I got this custom holster and the first day of the session I was wearing it and I was all proud of myself – this is great and it doesn’t stick out on my hip … and the leather totally stained and ruined that shirt.

So for the next week-and-a- half I was coming in and wrapping it with paper towels.

To no avail. He gave up and went back to the Glock.

Has he ever had to use the gun for protection?

Thank the Lord I have not had to do that. I hope to never have to.

It’s one of those things we try to prepare for and pray that it never happens, but I just don’t want to be a victim and it just seems like all that kind of stuff is on the rise and you just never know anymore.

Logan Oliverson, the young son of Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Dist. 130, sits in his father’s House Chambers chair during session Friday May 5, 2017.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

MISSION WORK

Oliverson, an anesthesiologist, is a partner in practice with Dr. John Zerwas, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

We’re good friends and colleagues. I don’t know that were 100 percent ideologically in line. On some issues, in fat, he actually worked against me. That’s fine. That happens.

When he was contemplating running for representative, he called to ask if she should run and whether Zerwas thought he’d make a good legislator.

His initial response, was, “Well, let me ask a question. What does you wife think?”

I said my wife thinks this is where God has called us to serve. She believes this is mission work and I do too. And we kind of came to this conclusion.

She sat me down one day and said, “God has done all these things in our lives and we’ve kind of moved in this direction.” She said, “I believe that He’s calling us to public service,” and (Zerwas) said, “I don’t need to hear any more. I think you’ll do a great job.”

(TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

STRAUS AND PATRICK

From Sunday’s story:

Oliverson is Patrick’s representative in the House.

They live next door to each other in Cypress, on the northwest edge of Houston — “across the fence, driveway to driveway,” Patrick said. (Patrick recently told Oliverson he was moving to nearby Montgomery County. The lieutenant governor’s new representative will be Republican Cecil Bell of Magnolia.)

Patrick and Oliverson got to know each other when Oliverson approached then-state Sen. Patrick in 2013 to talk politics and back him in his 2014 primary campaign for lieutenant governor.

“I had a good feeling that I knew who he was and what kind of lieutenant governor he was going to be, so he had my support,” Oliverson said.

“I think he’s been a good lieutenant governor.”

And he thinks Straus is a good speaker.

He has a good rapport with both men?

(TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

I like to think so. I respect both of them.

They’re kind of in different positions.

It’s interesting how we do it in Teas, I remember saying the speaker gets a lot of criticism because he’s not able to move things as, quote, quickly. I

The House is made up of many different groups of people. I think the House is very reflective of the people of Texas. It sort of shows the diversity we have in the state and I have yet to meet a House member who isn’t up her doing his or her level best to represent the people of his district.

So (Straus) gets a lot of criticism sometimes but I think that the process is meant to be more deliberative in the House because there is more diversity in the House. We are all over the place. I tend to be a pretty conservative thinker ideologically. Obviously, some of the things we’ve talked about puts me pretty far to the right. But I respect the process and I respect the people that I work with and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

So, might he be in a position to broker a truce between Patrick and Straus?

I’m just a freshman  OK. I may be freshman of the year, but I’m just a freshman.

But if there’s something I can bring them together on, an issue, if there’s a part I have, a role to play to be part of the process, I am here to work and do good for the people.

Whatever I can do to help.

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