Longtime accountant faces 15-year incumbent for State Representative 85

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Oct. 11, 2012 at 5:11 a.m.
Updated Oct. 12, 2012 at 5:12 a.m.

The candidates vying to represent the newly-drawn House District 85 say they won't be a fish out of water in Austin.

And both agree that farmers in Jackson, Wharton and Fort Bend counties don't need a repeat of the sweltering summer of 2011, where rice harvests died of thirst because aquifers in central Texas couldn't afford dishing out a drop of the wet stuff.

Incumbent Dora Olivo said she'll work with the contacts she's made throughout her 15-year tenure to hammer out a plan that best suits her constituents' wallets.

"One of things that you do is you go to the people that are already working on this so you don't start from square one," she said of bipartisanship and an educational agency called "the Texas Agrilife Extension," which focuses on the environment, agriculture and stewardship - among other things.

Her challenger, Phil Stephenson, meanwhile said desalination may be the best route. He's familiarized himself with the salt water purification process during the past 10 years, and it's one the U.S. Geological Service calls the earliest forms of water treatment.

"If done right, the technology will be such that it will actually be safer than bottled water because you can monitor it all the way through," he said of the likely expensive, long-term measure.

Education is also a hot topic for the pair.

As a Wharton County Junior College Trustee, Stephenson has seen firsthand how 64 percent of students take remedial classes.

"It's like, 'What did we do in the first 12 years?'" he asked, dumbfounded.

He said if schools stopped teaching a test created by an England-based company they'd be able to retain some crucial staff.

"That little booger cost the state $500 million dollars," he said, and students spend 38 to 42 days preparing for and taking the STARR assessment.

He'd prefer the Texas Education Agency audit districts every five years.

Olivo fondly remembers poetry lessons by her third-grade teacher. It's perhaps why she too spent 10 years at a chalkboard, working long hours and purchasing tools on her own dime - acts she said have always come with profession.

She also helped pass a bill in a Republican-driven time that eliminated high stakes testing for third graders.

"(The idea was) let's not use one, sole test to measure a child's ability," Olivo said, adding teacher's opinions about their performance are just as valuable. "What it had come down to is schools had become testing centers instead of learning centers . and that work isn't finished yet."

A public school advocate, she's afraid vouchers may defund them and thinks teachers, like the ones who taught her English so many years ago, ought to be compensated for going above and beyond.

Overall, Stephenson said his more than 35 years as an accountant will help him cut the fat from even the most complicated of budgets. Past clients include municipal utility districts, the Shriner Hospital for Crippled Children and the city of East Bernard.

He said he'd be one of only a handful of practicing accountants in the House.

He also has a preliminary plan for how the Lone Star state can support another 18 million more citizens who are projected to move in soon without sending property taxes skyrocketing. He'd take a closer look at whether the 40 percent of tax-exempt goods Texans are consuming deserve to be classified that way.

He carries the state constitution in the back seat of his car.

"I've always believed if you're going to play the game, you ought to know the rules," the former Texas Tech baseball player said. "This is just bigger numbers."

Olivo said she's no stranger to adversity. Her father picked cotton for a living. She and her husband Victor juggled raising two kids while she immersed herself in studies that led her to become a lawyer for juveniles.

"You don't do that without an understanding of what it means to be frugal," she said.

Olivo said she decided to run for re-election despite the murky district line dispute after she prayed on it.

"You get to a point in life when you realize it's not just about you," Olivo said. "The work never stops."



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