AUSTIN, Texas — The R Street Institute, a non-profit, free market think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., Florida, California, Ohio, and Texas, is ramping up its efforts in the Lone Star State, hiring a new Texas state director and setting its sights on an ambitious agenda for the 2015 legislative session that will include insurance reform, environmental and energy issues, the interaction between regulation and newly emerging technologies, among other issues.
Breitbart Texas conducted exclusive interviews with R Street President Eli Lehrer, Florida State Director Christian Cámara, and the newly hired Texas State Director, Josiah Neeley, who joins R Street from the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Energy and the Environment, where he was a policy analyst. “I’m thrilled to be joining R Street,” Neeley told Breitbart Texas. “I’ve followed the organization since its founding a few years ago, and appreciate its fresh conservative approach to policy.”
According to Lehrer, R Street has had a history in Texas, both as R Street and with their predecessor organization, the Heartland Institute, working mostly in the area of insurance reform, which he described as their “bread and butter” issue. Cámara discussed the similarities between Texas and his state of Florida, politically, being “generally business-friendly,” and facing similar challenges from risks like hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as noting that there was room for improvement in the regulatory systems in both states. Florida’s term limited legislature also causes some frustration related to policy work in a complicated field like insurance, with Florida’s legislators limited to eight years, consecutive, in either the House or Senate. Although a number of legislators do run for a Senate seat after serving their full House term, or return after taking a one-term break (which starts the term limit clock over), the end result, according to Cámara, is that the Texas legislature is “much more knowledgeable” and “not as clueless” on insurance issues.
Another key difference is although both states face risk of hurricane damage along the coasts, the insurance issue is more regional in Texas, partly due to the different political dynamics. Whereas in Florida, the Republicans currently have a lock on the Legislature and the statewide offices are up for grabs (polls show a neck-and-neck race between current Republican Governor Rick Scott and former Republican/former Independent/current Democrat and former Governor Charlie Crist), in Texas, the statewide races are looking like cakewalks for the Republican candidates and the legislative races are more variable.
A significant part of R Street’s efforts in the upcoming legislative session will be expanding their environmental work. Lehrer characterized their goal as to show that the conservative side “can be greener,” quoting Barry Goldwater that “there’s nothing more conservative than conservatism.”
Neeley will start at R Street in early November, and his background in environmental policy work made him a good fit for R Street’s strategy. “Texas is blessed with an abundance of energy resources, and R street has shown that you can protect the environment in a conservative way,” said Neeley, “The markets are the best means of environmental protection. You can protect the environment in a way that doesn’t threaten the energy lifeblood of the Texas economy.”
Another area where R Street will focus its energies is on the “sharing economy,” newly developing technologies like Uber, Lyft, Bitcoin, HomeAway, Airbnb, and so on. There is a “huge opportunity made possible by the internet to remove intermediaries from commerce and unlock otherwise dormant capital,” said Lehrer, and these technologies demonstrate the power of the “disintermediation of commerce” and “capital unlocking.” Lehrer noted how the rapid growth of ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft show that there’s “no need for a taxi company between a driver and the customer,” and also pointed to HomeAway, the country’s second largest space sharing company, based here in Austin.
What makes R Street interested in these businesses is determining the appropriate role of regulation. “There’s no reason that renting out a room [through Airbnb or HomeAway] should be a tax-free transaction,” said Lehrer. “The question is, should these activities be allowed and under what circumstances?” Local and state governments have struggled with how to approach this question, and oftentimes end up pursuing reactionary regulation that many customers of these businesses view as overly restrictive. The California legislature has debated bills that would significantly increase the costs for Uber and Lyft, district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco labeled them as “a continuing threat to consumers and the public,” and the Houston City Council voting to allow them to operate, but with restrictions. As Breitbart Texas previously reported, Dallas will take up the issue later this fall.
Lehrer told Breitbart Texas that getting involved in these issues presents a “golden opportunity for the political right to attract people who otherwise are culturally not connected to the right…this whole sharing economy is an enormous opportunity for conservatives.” Neeley echoed this sentiment, characterizing the situation as one “where 21st century technologies [are] butting up against 20th century regulatory systems.” Lehrer also observed that what these companies — and their customers — want as far as a regulatory environment goes is “very much aligned with the right,” but it may take some adjustment on the part of conservative elected officials, who “need a modern culturally relevant approach to conservatism.” The key, said Lehrer, is to find a way where they are “not giving up any core principles of conservatism, but rather applying them,” looking past the pink-mustachioed Lyft cars and their fist-bumping drivers, and seeing the opportunities for economic development and innovation.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.