Ross Ramsey

Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, discussed controversies regarding the UT System Board of Regents and 2015 legislative session at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

Held on campus at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, the discussion was moderated by Ross Ramsey, executive editor at The Texas Tribune, who posed a wide range of questions, opening with the upcoming 2015 legislative session.

“Why do you still want this job?” Ramsey said.

Straus, who is facing a challenge for the speakership from Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, said he does not think his work is done.

“We have a lot of work still ahead of us,” Straus said. “This is my fourth election as speaker. It will be the fourth, very different House of Representatives than the first time I was elected as speaker.”

According to Straus, the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the House is vital to the legislature's success.

“I try to help manage the House to set an example that is unlike Washington, D.C.,” Straus said. “I don’t worry about politics too much, as long as we get our job done.”

Ramsey posed a series of questions about the current relationship between the Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature. Straus said he thinks there is a disproportionate focus on the goings on at UT.

“I’m sick of [UT] being the only campus in the state of Texas that gets this much attention,” Straus said. “It’s crazy. It’s too much focus on UT-Austin, too much turmoil here. It all ties back, I believe, to the disfunction of the Board of Regents.”

In 2013, Straus authorized the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to open an investigation into Regent Wallace Hall. In August, the committee censured Hall.

Also in August, the UT System hired a risk mitigation response firm to conduct an external investigation into UT’s admissions process after questions where raised about whether letters of recommendations sent directly to President Powers from state legislators or other influential individuals had any impact on admissions decisions. The System previously conducted its own investigation and found no structured system of wrongdoing.

Straus said he does not have a problem writing college recommendation letters for college applicants.

“I’m happy to do it, but very clearly there’s no expectation that [the student] will get in because I write a letter,” Straus said. "I don’t think another investigation is necessary. People write letters. Every letter I write I expect to see it on the front page of the newspaper – I’m not embarrassed about it.”

Straus said he is hopeful the turmoil on the board is coming to an end.

“It think it’s a manufactured issue,” Straus said. “You have to have some faith and confidence in your administrators...I think it’s an excellent thing that [Admiral William McRaven] is coming in and I have very high expectations for everyone. Our new governor will be making some appointments to the board. I think we’re, hopefully, about to work our way through this.”

Government junior Shalaka Joshi said she was intrigued by Straus’ discussion of the current state of the regents.

“His thoughts on what’s happening at UT and with the Board of Regents were interesting, and I agreed with him when he talked about how the process needs to be depoliticized and that the quality of the University should be the most important thing,” Joshi said.

If the 2012 Republican primary were held today, Herman Cain and Gov. Rick Perry would be statistically tied among Republican primary voters in the state of Texas, according to an online survey conducted by the University and the
Texas Tribune.

The survey ran from Oct. 19 to Oct. 26 and included 800 respondents from around the state. The results were part of a much larger survey of political attitudes using a popular online system called YouGov Polimetrix, said government professor James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, who co-runs the polls.

According to the poll, Cain led with 27 percent, Perry followed with 26 percent, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul held 12 percent, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney held 9 percent and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich followed with 8 percent. Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson and Rick Santorum each received 2 percent or less, while 11 percent indicated they “don’t know.” The margin of error in the poll was listed at 3.46 percent, while for voters listed as Republicans the margin of error was 4.93 percent.

While Perry remains a front-runner, the fact that he is running into such stiff competition in his own state has intrigued pollsters, said Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

“It looks like the Texas governor is in a dead heat in his own state,” Ramsey said. “Cain has risen from his performance in polls and debates through October and voters have clearly taken a notice in him. The wax and wane in the popularity of Republican candidates has created a current lineup that’s very interesting.”

Cain has only recently been given extensive media coverage following his 9-9-9 plan for a simplified, flat tax and success in the Florida straw poll, and this surge appears to correlate with the results from the survey, Henson said.

“I think Herman Cain’s appeal for Republicans is that he seems to use common sense and straight talk,” said Jenna White, chairwoman of the Young Conservatives of Texas UT Chapter. “Rick Perry has performed poorly in the debates and has doubled down on some policies that are unpopular among Texans. I don’t think it’s especially surprising that Cain and Perry are at the top.”

The results differ significantly from polls taken earlier in the year, when Sarah Palin was a popular candidate for the 2012 election, Ramsey said.

“There aren’t a lot of polls going on in Texas, so we do see a lot of distance [between poll results],” Ramsey said. “Here we are a few months down the road, and it looks like we have the whole field.”

Pollsters are careful to not interpret the results of the poll as indicators of future trends, and another poll will be held closer to the actual March primary, Henson said.

Henson said, for example, the recent allegations that Cain sexually harassed two women when he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s could have affected opinion since the poll.

“The poll is a snapshot in time,” Henson said. “What has happened in the past 48 hours may have already changed that. It’s a very open question whether these results will be present in the spring.”