In the final week before Tuesday’s Texas House District 54 runoff, hostile advertising between the two incumbents reached an all-time high.
Incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper and challenger Dr. Brad Buckley, a veterinarian, have been exchanging barbs in the lead-up to Election Day — a significant change in tone from the relatively quiet first few months of the campaign.
In recent weeks, Cosper’s campaign and political action committees funding his campaign have issued a flood of district mailers blasting Buckley for fighting against property appraisal increase caps and “ridiculing” Cosper’s stance on unfunded mandates.
Cosper, 47, who has received a wash of money from committees primarily funded by Speaker of the House Joe Straus, has made a heavy push to shore up his conservative record and paint Buckley as a newcomer without the big-name endorsements Cosper has enjoyed.
Meanwhile, Buckley, 51, has issued a relatively modest number of mailers, with the tone shifting to adversarial as the race has progressed. This past week, Buckley issued a mailer calling out Cosper’s connection to Rep. John Zerwas, a challenger for the Speaker role for the 86th Legislature in 2019.
The content of those mailers could have an impact — for better or worse — on each candidate’s nomination chances Tuesday.
The District 54 runoff is the only House race in the state this Tuesday in which a Republican incumbent faces a challenger, and each candidate’s final pitch could pay dividends in the final polls.
A recent Cosper mailer had an eye-catching title representative of the escalating attacks between the two candidates: “Why is Brad Buckley trying to scare your grandma?”
The issue stems from House Bill 2766 — colloquially known as the “granny tax” — which split House Republican votes in half before dying in the Senate during the 85th Legislature.
Cosper was one of 46 Republicans who voted in support of the bill and called its characterization as a tax a “disgusting myth.”
“(The bill’s) purpose was to bring Texas tax dollars back from Washington and improve nursing home care at zero cost to taxpayers or seniors,” Cosper said in an email. “It is shameful for Brad Buckley to wait until just days before the election to start parroting the same debunked fake news just to win a vote.”
The legislation, co-authored by House District 59 Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, would have freed up federal Medicaid funds for non-Medicare-funded nursing homes by providing a local match of $11 per occupied bed per day paid for by private facilities. For each local dollar raised, the federal government would match $1.32 — providing an estimated $578 million per year for Medicaid-funded nursing home reinvestment without a dime of state spending.
Supporters of the bill said the program, officially named the Nursing Facility Reinvestment Allowance, would provide more money for chronically underfunded Medicaid-dependent facilities and reward high-performing homes that consistently fill beds.
However, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, the program would have served as an effective tax on nursing homes, disproportionately impacting non-Medicaid nursing facilities that would pay the fee but receive no reimbursement from the program.
“Facilities that pay the assessment but have few/no Medicaid beds will receive no revenue to offset the expense of assessment,” a foundation analysis found. “Such a facility with 100 beds would sustain an annual loss of more than $400,000. How will they survive that financial loss and continue to serve the elderly?”
In addition, the legislation contained no language ensuring reinvestment funds would be allocated for patient care, leaving open the possibility federal funds would be used for corporate profits or administrative overhead.
However, as Cosper outlined in a recent mailer, the bill did include language that the $11 per occupied bed assessment could not be passed directly or indirectly onto facility residents.
Despite the prohibitive language, the Texas Public Policy Foundation said loopholes existed in the bill to allow businesses to effectively place the increased financial burden onto their residents.
“There are loopholes in the wording of HB 2766 that could allow facilities to pass the cost of the tax on to residents,” an analysis read. “Many would be forced to do so to keep their doors open.”
That finding brought about the term “granny tax.”
Buckley said Cosper’s support for the bill, which would bring more federal dollars to the state Medicaid program, was against free market principles and anti-conservative.
“The fact that he supports ‘assessing’ private nursing homes in a way to scheme more federal dollars from a government that is already $20 trillion in debt demonstrates his lack of understanding of basic conservative principles,” Buckley said.
Although it never made the governor’s desk, the “granny tax” bill has been a sticking point for Republican voters who align with Abbott’s January 2017 State of the State pledge — “the only good tax is a dead tax.”
In a Facebook post Tuesday, Buckley said Cosper’s support for the bill was at odds with the governor’s agenda.
“Cosper’s HB 2766 would be a disaster for many Texas nursing home residents,” the post read. “I guess that’s why Cosper joined all the Democrats, but one, and a minority of liberal Republicans to pass this bill.”
In reality, House Republicans voted 46-45 on May 11, 2017, to send the bill to the Senate, with all but one Democrat voting in support. A companion bill originating in the Senate was killed in committee before ever reaching a vote.
In a mailer addressing his support for HB 2766, Cosper said Buckley was “desperate,” “trying to scare seniors” and “hiding behind out-of-town special interests.”
Buckley said those criticisms were off base.
“(Cosper’s) bizarre, vitriolic mailer highlights his attempt to defend the indefensible,” Buckley said. “As far as him accusing me of hiding behind out-of-town special interests, that’s just laughable because it’s exactly what he’s actually doing.”
Buckley, who told the Herald on May 11 he would run a “positive campaign,” has fired shots at Cosper, sending a mailer last week tying Cosper to Rep. John Zerwas, a six-term Katy Republican whom Buckley called a “liberal.”
Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on which Cosper sits, is one of four representatives who have filed for the seat that will be vacated upon the retirement of current Speaker of the House Straus in November.
Zerwas was also one of the co-authors of HB 2766, alongside Sheffield and others, and voted in support of the legislation.
Buckley said his mailer wasn’t an attempt to be negative, but to represent “facts on the ground.”
“My tactics haven’t changed,” Buckley said. “The voters deserve to know the political leanings and history of a Cosper surrogate that advocated strongly on his behalf. If Cosper doesn’t understand that the vote for Speaker is a public policy debate itself, then I don’t think he understands the job description of being a State Representative,”
Cosper called Buckley’s comments on Zerwas “a slap in the face” to the House’s chief budget writer.
“About the speaker question, Brad is downright lying to the voters,” Cosper said. “I signed a pledge to vote in caucus for the next Speaker, and to support the Republican Caucus’s choice. This will ensure that we have a conservative Speaker, chosen by Republicans.”
With just two days to go, the two candidates were mum with the Herald on their campaign strategy this week — including where they have been campaigning.
If recent history is any guide, Tuesday’s runoff results could look vastly different from the primary that preceded them.
In May 2016, Cosper’s runoff challenger, Killeen optometrist Dr. Austin Ruiz, seized the Bell County vote from Cosper after Cosper won the county by more than 300 votes in the primary.
Cosper finished with 1,845 runoff votes in Bell County to Ruiz’s 2,025. With the help of Lampasas County voters, Cosper ended up winning the runoff by a slim 40-vote margin.
In a nearly mirror of 2016, Cosper took Bell County by about 4 points — and a roughly 300 vote lead.
This time around, however, Buckley has the upper hand in the district’s rural areas.
On March 6, Buckley narrowly won Lampasas County voters with 42.24 percent to Cosper’s 42.02 percent. With Bell County included, Cosper was the highest vote getter with 4,472 votes — for 44.56 percent of the electorate — to Buckley’s 4,173 votes, or 41.58 percent. Larry Smith, of Killeen, received 1,390 votes, or 13.85 percent.
With early voting over, both campaigns are in the final push for votes on Tuesday.
“We continue to campaign in all areas,” Buckley said. “We have volunteers all over the district, and we will engage and encourage voters in all areas.”
Cosper said he has remained on message with voters on instituting appraisal increases caps on commercial properties — a clear policy dividing line between him and Buckley.
“I am honestly shocked that Brad Buckley even calls himself a Republican given how hostile he is to limiting out-of-control increases in property tax appraisals,” Cosper said. “Quite frankly, Brad doesn’t understand the issue.”
Cosper, a former Killeen City Councilman and mayor, may have to contend with a local record that remains spotty for some residents.
Cosper was one of five council members recalled during a November 2011 special ballot after political fallout from the $750,000 buyout of former Killeen City Manager Connie Green.
Cosper was then mayor 2014 to 2016, during a series of fiscal years in which the City Council approved spending plans that budgeted at a deficit and dipped into the city’s operational fund reserves.
Cosper, who told the Herald he met once a week with then-City Manager Glenn Morrison and judged the city in sound financial health, said he had not been appraised of any financial issues during his time as mayor.
After his election to the state seat in November 2016, Cosper was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee and was named a “most powerful first-term legislator” by Capitol Insider.
Cosper has touted his work to increase disproportionate impact aid for cities like Killeen and Harker Heights that have an unusually high number of state-mandated disabled veteran property tax exemptions, and increase state funding to Fort Hood during his tenure.
Buckley, meanwhile, is a former Killeen school district board member and co-chair of 14 Forward, a private investment initiative to spur business development along the Interstate 14 corridor.