Interview with state Senator Kel Seliger (transcript)

Note: The following interview played live on-air on January 21, 2019. The transcript was prepared by

Jay: On the phone with us is State Senator Kel Seliger out of Amarillo. Senator, you’ve been at the center of a lot of attention in state politics over the past few days. How are you?

Kel Seliger: Great, thank you. How are you?

Jay: Doing well. So, here’s the hullabaloo … that you got taken off of higher education as the chair in the lieutenant governor’s new appointments. You were on education, natural resources, finance. Now you’re the chair of agriculture, you’re on the committee for health and human services, nominations, veteran affairs. Was this a slight at you, Kel Seliger, from the lieutenant governor?

Kel Seliger: I think that was the way it was intended, because I didn’t vote for everything that was one of his priorities in the 85th Legislature.

Jay: By “everything,” you mean what?

Kel Seliger: Well, two of his 30 priorities. And-

Jay: Which were?

Kel Seliger: Public school vouchers and the revenue caps for local taxing entities on a tax that doesn’t affect the state of Texas, it only affects school districts in cities. But, if there was a slight intended, I don’t think it was successful, because I will chair the Agriculture Committee, and agriculture’s absolutely essential to the Texas economy. This is the most productive part of the state agriculturally, and so we’re going to do some really good things in the committee, as I told you earlier.

Kel Seliger: I’m headed to Austin today, even though tomorrow is a national holiday. We’re going to get together in my office a little a while and making plans to have as strong an agricultural session of the Legislature as we’ve ever had.

Jay: We are pre-recording on a Sunday, heading into Monday, when this will air. Kel Seliger, kind enough to take some time here.

Jay: Why the slight, Kel? I don’t understand what the lieutenant governor’s thinking is. And let me just cue that up by saying that I crunched the numbers. The lieutenant governor won his race, his general election, by, some would say, just 400,125 votes. Out of your district, Senate 31, which is kind of a dumbbell that runs the 25 counties up in the panhandle, comes down the New Mexico line, and takes in a swath of the basin, he netted almost 87,000 votes there.

Jay: So, one would say, nearly a quarter of what he needed to win came out of your district, and if this is a slight, then he’s applied that slight to your district, where higher education is a pretty big deal. Where education is definitely a huge deal, public education. What do you make of it being more about the district being slighted than Kel Seliger? And why the slight in the first place, if you’re the lieutenant governor and you need the votes out here?

Kel Seliger: Only he can talk about … excuse me … his motivations. As the second ranking Republican, these committees, which I think were really good, strong committees, were important to this district and to the state, and I think that we were doing a job. But nowadays, kind of as I told people, this is a warning to other Republicans, that if you stray from the lieutenant governor’s agenda, there will be a price to pay. And I always knew that, but the other Republicans do now, too.

Kel Seliger: This is an interesting time, because one of the reasons I won my primary without a runoff was because of local government officials and educators who’ve had about enough of the slights that they get from Republicans in the state, with vouchers that would take money out of public education and things like that. And I was one of only two Republicans who voted against that.

Kel Seliger: I was the only Republican who voted for the principles of local control. That disturbs me about the Republican Party as a whole. Largely this is driven by Empower Texans down in Austin, and I have a suspicion that they had some suggestions to make on my committee assignments. And unquestionably, their requests come before mine.

Jay: Tell me how you found out. Did the lieutenant governor call you in? Or did you just find it when it was posted?

Kel Seliger: The Secretary of the Senate sent emails to all of us. I had gotten a call from some lady who works for the lieutenant governor while I was in a meeting earlier, but the first I saw it was from the email from the Secretary of the Senate.

Jay: Was the lady Sherry Sylvester?

Kel Seliger: Yeah.

Jay: She says this, Kel Seliger. This is Emma Platoff’s piece in the Texas Tribune: “If Senator Seliger believes serving as Chair of the Agriculture Committee, a critical committee for West Texas and all of rural Texas, is beneath him, he should let us know and the Lt. Governor will appoint someone else.” That’s Sherry Sylvester. A little snide in those comments. What would you say to her?

Kel Seliger: It was extremely snide and really unbecoming for a member of the staff, the lieutenant governor’s or my staff. I didn’t say anything of the sort, and that assertion is disingenuous and I have a recommendation for Miss Sylvester and her lips and my back end. That’s cleaned up, isn’t it?

Jay: Yeah. That’s pretty clean for radio.

Kel Seliger: Thank you.

Jay: I appreciate you cleaning that up for radio. This would be-

Kel Seliger: Just thinking of others, Jay.

Jay: My response is you always do, Kel Seliger. We appreciate it. But if Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick believes the panhandle, a critical component of his reelection, is beneath him, he should have let voters know that it was beneath him instead of running those dumb, damn TV ads ad nauseum in the panhandle where he needed it. How you feel about my comment back to Miss Sylvester?

Kel Seliger: Well, they’re not related events that his consultants work for one of my opponents and he will most certainly come to this district, most certainly to the Permian Basin, to raise money, when people of Midland call me and say, “You know, that senior person’s chair on the finance deal is important to everybody.” And certainly everybody in the district. We have some real transportation problems in the Permian Basin.

Kel Seliger: But that’s the way politics go, Jay. After the end of the last session, this didn’t come as a complete surprise. I wasn’t sitting there the other day in shock. Disappointment maybe, but not shock.

Jay: How many components of higher education are in your district in Senate 31?

Kel Seliger: Well, there’s seven community colleges and two universities, those being West Texas A&M and University of Texas Permian Basin. I do an awful lot of things with people and constituents at Texas Tech because of its size and importance and the fact that it’s becoming more and more prominent in the state, in the nation, and it needs to be nurtured.

Jay: Yeah. You do … I mean, there’s an old myth that Bob Duncan, when he was chancellor, had a cot in your office, just in case he needed it while he was down there. No doubt that you’ve done a lot and do a lot for Texas Tech University.

Jay: Man, there’s so many things I want to get into here, Kel, but tell me … This is what I hear. I was down in Austin a week or two ago. People call you a free agent. That you’re going to just line up and vote the way that you want to vote and it may be with the Dems on public education and tax caps, or it may be whatever other legislation comes up. I find that a little bit problematic because it’s not like you were all of a sudden a free agent. I think free agency’s what got you into the situation in the first place.

Kel Seliger: You’re right.

Jay: Tell us about free agency and Kel Seliger.

Kel Seliger: I’m a conservative Republican and that’s what my agenda is going to look like. I am not some sort of drone. I’m not owned by Empower Texans. I don’t sit around and pay close attention to their scorecard like so many of my Republican colleagues, and I won’t. I will vote my district.

Kel Seliger: And public education’s state has got to have somebody on the Republican side of the aisle to stand up for the 5.8 million kids in our public schools. 1.5, 1.6 million people in higher education. Somebody’s got to try to set the tone besides Empower Texans, who are clearly not supportive of public education at all.

Jay: I went through and I looked at percentages, which the lieutenant governor won, the governor won, and you won in November. Now, you didn’t have a Democratic opponent, which I think speaks to the panhandle down into the basin that there wasn’t an opponent. You did have a Libertarian opponent. What do you make of the lieutenant governor running some eight points behind the governor in your district?

Kel Seliger: The way I look at it is that the governor got mostly Republican votes. I don’t think there’s a lot of crossover or things like that. It means that there are a bunch of Republicans who did not vote down the ballot for the lieutenant governor and some other Republicans. And I think a lot of those were educators. That’s what educators tell me. And I represent all or part of 80 or 90 districts. Local government officials are genuinely put out and were some of my strongest supporters, and as you know, those folks don’t exist in a vacuum. There may not be many of them, but they talk to people and tell them what some of these measures are like.

Jay: Okay. And what are they like?

Kel Seliger: Well, let me give you an example. At a 4% revenue cap … and we all need to do things to talk about property tax. I’m working on it, too. But in Parmer County, north of Lubbock, that a 4% revenue cap, they could not afford to give county employees a 3% raise and then if a patrol car went into a ditch or they needed a road maintainer, they couldn’t do it without an election. And if they lose the election, then people of Parmer County will just go without.

Jay: And this has always been my thing on the tax caps. Kel Seliger, with us here, other side of Texas. I think I’m okay with a cap, politically speaking. Principally, I’m not okay with it. But if Republicans will vow that they will disavow people who come from outside the district whenever these “free and fair” elections are held for these tax caps, then so long as they keep their word, I’m okay with it. I think that you could see a situation in a Gaines County, or a Randall County, or a Swisher County, when outside interests, you’ve mentioned Empower Texans, come in, and they try to rig those elections and make the election about something that it’s not. It’s not about a patrol car going in the unit, it’s not about a trial that the county has to pay for, it’s about something else.

Kel Seliger: Right. Well, there’s a couple points here. It’s easy for us to do in the Legislature because we get no property tax. It all goes to cities. A few counties get some property tax, college districts, hospital districts, things like that. Doesn’t affect the Legislature at all. So if we cut cities and school districts off, doesn’t hurt people in Austin.

Kel Seliger: The other thing is that people who live in cities, counties, and school districts all over the state can cut their taxes tomorrow. Your county commission can cut the tax rate tomorrow, but they haven’t, and the voters in Lubbock County and in Randall County have not insisted it. You haven’t heard of a race around the state where somebody said, “I’m gonna cut your taxes in half in the city of Lubbock. Vote for me.” That would be very compelling to the voters, but the voters are not insisting on it and this is … Local taxes are local issues.

Kel Seliger: If the United States of America, U.S. Congress, wanted to limit our revenues in areas like severance tax, which I think is an unfair tax, the way that the Republicans in the Legislature want to limit local tax making authority, we would go nuts. Those of us who aren’t already nuts.

Jay: Kel Seliger with us here on the program. Some would call you the low man on the totem pole right now. Others would see you as the swing vote in the Senate right now. Lots of talk whenever the lieutenant governor missed the opening day of session, was in D.C. Did he let you all know that he was going to be in D.C. or did you just show up and he wasn’t there?

Kel Seliger: He might’ve let some members know. I knew when we went in to meet as a caucus of the whole Senate to talk about the schedule and things like that. I knew at about 10:00 o’clock in the morning.

Jay: Yeah. So that morning-

Kel Seliger: Senator Nelson did a great job of presiding and we got through the agenda. Functionally, it didn’t make any difference. I think it’s odd to the point of unprecedented, but that’s okay. The lieutenant governor does what he thinks needs to be done, and we can run the business of the Senate.

Jay: Did he run against you in that election? Is that the way you look at it, Kel Seliger? That his-

Kel Seliger: You know what?

Jay: Allen Blakemore, one of his top lieutenants, ran against you in that campaign with Victor Leal. Do you see that election that you won, without a runoff, as you versus Dan Patrick?

Kel Seliger: The lieutenant governor got involved in some races, including races opposing incumbents. He told me he was not going to get involved in my race and so far as anybody has seen, he did not get involved in the race. Now, did he help raise money or something like that? I don’t know. But he did what he told me he was going to do.

Jay: So he kept his hands off of it, is what you’re saying?

Kel Seliger: Close as we can tell.

Jay: Cue all that up to say this. Lots of people inside the Beltway who observe Texas politics who see this. If Dan Patrick were somehow nominated by President Trump to some capacity in D.C., you would become the presiding officer of the Senate. And the irony of that is that some would see you as low man on the Republican totem pole in the Senate right now, but you could become presiding officer if he is elected. You would just need a handful of Republicans. Certainly, the Democrats would go along with it. You could become the third most powerful member of the Legislature all of a sudden.

Kel Seliger: We have a president pro tem now, Senator Watson from Austin. And in the lieutenant governor office, he would preside until another presiding officer were elected. Everything else is just conjecture and speculation.

Jay: Well, that’s-

Kel Seliger: And the lieutenant governor said he’s not going anywhere.

Jay: Well, I’ve never been beyond conjecture and speculation, Senator.

Kel Seliger: And he also said he wasn’t going to run against Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst.

Jay: Well. Closing thoughts for those close to home right now who are listening … What do you want them to know about your vision for this session and your role in this session?

Kel Seliger: My dedication to my district and to the things that are important to this district are absolutely undiminished. This next week, I’ll be talking to cotton growers, wheat growers, milk producers, cattle feeders, and things like that, and see what can we logically do that the state is stronger in support of agriculture in May than it is today in January.

Jay: Okay. And for listeners … Tell me, Kel Seliger, do you and the lieutenant governor have regular conversation? What is that relationship like?

Kel Seliger: It is polite, as we are obligated to do. And I think from day to day a professional one.

Jay: Is that because you keep it professional or because he does?

Kel Seliger: No. It’s when we see one another, we say hello. We’ll see what happens as we get into this session and I have bills that are ready to go on intent and I request certain bills be sent to the committee. We’ll just see how I’m treated. The members don’t treat the lieutenant governor, the lieutenant governor treats the members. We’ll see what happens. And so your question can’t be answered. But right now, like I say, our interactions are polite and businesslike.

Jay: Are you surprised that you garnered so much attention, Kel Seliger?

Kel Seliger: Since last session, when I voted against only two of his 30 priority … which, by the way, is like .981 batting average… People have been saying that something like this was going to happen and have been watching to see how it happened and what would ensue and things like that. I know, certainly, for all committees, because everybody wants to know where everybody’s going to fall in, it has garnered some particular amount of attention. I’m uncomfortable with too much attention.

Jay: You think it’s been too much? Because you’ve been the focus. You’re the story after the first week of the session.

Kel Seliger: Well, yeah, I guess I am. It’s important to talk about this because I think it has to do with the way people around the state and areas around the state are represented, but I think it’s the district that’s more important than I am.

Jay: Because people will say, and I’ve had interviews on the show before, that the Agriculture Committee is purgatory. That federal legislation, federal bills, federal law drives agriculture, that the Agriculture Committee is purgatory on a state level. You don’t believe that.

Kel Seliger: It’s true that Federal government policy [inaudible 00:21:23] agriculture is so important and so I don’t deny this stature. But you know how many agricultural products are grown in Washington, D.C.? Almost none. They’re grown here.

Jay: Not a lot grows in the swamp.

Kel Seliger: This is where policy goes into the ground and into agricultural transportation and research. Things like veterinary schools and veterinary science. So it’s very important to the state and to this district.

Jay: This’ll be my last question to you. What’d you think of the House putting up Texas Tech’s fully, what they asked for, $17,350,000 and the Senate just coming back with $4.17 million?

Kel Seliger: $4.17 is a continuation of the budget from 2017. The important thing, Jay, is to get it in the budget. It’s a line item in the budget and it’s very, very early in the session. Texas Tech has a lot of admirers. Really, and when you talk to people, the only reason not to support Texas Tech veterinary school is because of Texas A&M and their efforts and exhortations not to. Well, I’m hoping that we can sort of neutralize that, and I’ve got a lot of help, certainly from the three guys up in the panhandle, but most certainly Charles Perry and Dustin Burrows and John Frullo.

Jay: Okay. Well, that’s where we’re going to leave it for now, Kel Seliger.

Kel Seliger: Very nice to be with you.

Jay: The most intriguing man in Texas politics right now.

Kel Seliger: Well, I’ve been telling people that for a long time, but not with any particular justification.

Jay: Kel Seliger, have a great week. We appreciate you making time.

Kel Seliger: Thank you for having me on, Jay.

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