The four candidates for the Texas House District 54 election squared off at the Herald’s political forum Monday at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center.
In front of a crowd of approximately 250 potential voters, the candidates addressed a range of issues including property tax reform, special education, water rights and more.
The four candidates are incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper, R-Killeen, Republican Dr. Brad Buckley, Republican Larry Smith and Democrat Kathy Richerson.
The Herald asked the candidates for not only their platforms but also the specific measures to accomplish them.
Here’s a breakdown from the forum and what the candidates had to say.
Property tax reform
During the 85th Legislature in 2017, the House and Senate were largely split on meaningful property tax reform.
In Bell and Lampasas counties, residents have called for expansive changes to the system, including limiting local control over property tax rate increases and reining in the practices of county appraisal districts.
The Herald asked the candidates for their plans on a range of property tax reform items, including their general platforms, providing greater oversight on county appraisal districts, and securing state aid for cities impacted by the disabled veteran property tax exemption and other unfunded mandates.
Cosper, a former mayor and City Councilman in Killeen in his first term in Austin, touted his support of a bill that would have capped property tax rate increases by local jurisdictions at 6 percent while allowing more “local control” of tax levies. The bill did not pass through the Senate.
“We have priorities which must be funded — our first responders must be one of them,” Cosper said.
Buckley, a former board member of the Killeen school district, blasted the House for not following through on meaningful reform and promised a new day in Austin when the 86th Legislature meets in 2019.
“The House chose to go home,” Buckley said. “A courageous move forward to bring relief to homeowners and property owners is important,”
Smith, a retired Army captain, said he favored redirecting sales tax away from the state to help fund local districts — a move that could ease the burden on local landowners.
“I would like to see less go to the state of Texas,” he said.
Richerson, a retired Realtor who lives on land on the Bell County line, said local jurisdictions should be allowed to decide their own property tax rates and did not favor more oversight from the state.
“I don’t think the government’s jobs is to tell elected officials how to levy their taxes,” she said.
The candidates also discussed Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial plan for property tax reform, with the three Republicans largely applauding the governor for seeking to reform unfunded mandates and school finances. The candidates also addressed the practices of county appraisal districts, who some residents have accused of overreach, and the disabled property tax exemptions.
As a Legislature-appointed interim commission to study school finance prepares its report for legislators in late 2018 or early 2019, area lawmakers are venturing their own plans for school finance reform.
Reform could help ease the burden on local landowners as more money is redirected from the state, possibly lowering school district tax rates and easing reliance on local debt.
The candidates were asked about reforming school finance and fixing a deeply flawed special education system.
Cosper touted the move by the House in 2017 to provide $1.8 billion in extra funding to school districts that was killed by the Senate, saying more funding for schools would ease the burden of property taxes.
“If you want tax relief, the best way to get it is to fund public schools,” he said.
Buckley said he favored greater aid from the state and said he trusted school districts and boards of trustees to use that money wisely but wanted higher pay for district teachers.
“Everything we do for public education needs to involve the state,” he said. “I envision the day when the highest paid person in a school district is a teacher.”
Smith said providing more funding for school districts didn’t improve their spending habits, highlighting the recent purchase of a $1 million scoreboard by the Killeen school district.
“How does fully funding anything from the state of Texas control spending more efficiently?” he said. “The answer is you’ve got to stop feeding ‘the bear.’”
Richerson highlighted fully funding education, saying the state consistently lagged behind.
“We’re 49th in the country in education,” she said. “There’s absolutely no excuse for that.”
With Texas entering moderate drought conditions in the last few months of 2017, the candidates were asked what measures they favored for the state to prepare for a possible catastrophic drought.
Cosper touted the water planning the city of Killeen accomplished during his tenure as councilman and mayor, saying the city’s use of reuse water to irrigate city facilities was a sign of forward thinking by local officials.
Buckley said the state couldn’t rely on the specter of drought to make water a top issue with the state population growing and water rights becoming more competitive.
“I used to think 2050 was a long way off — but it’s right down the road,” he said.
Smith favored streamlining the regulation of water rights to be more equitable for local customers.
“One of the biggest issues we have with water is the laws are too complex,” he said.
Smith went on to blast the Texas Public Utility Commission’s decision to allow the takeover of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District by the city of Georgetown, forcing some Bell County residents to pay for water from a city in Williamson County.
Richerson said the state’s current drought conditions were inevitable and advocated for foresight and planning to avoid a catastrophic drought.
“This is a problem that’s going to come back on us,” she said.
The Herald also asked the candidates for their platforms on the state’s road quality, bringing higher-paying jobs to the district and support for Senate Bill 4, also known as the “sanctuary cities” bill.
For video from the forum and continuing coverage of the District 54 race and more, please visit kdhnews.com/centerforpolitics.
The GOP primary for the district race is March 6. The general election is set for Nov. 6.
Early voting opens Feb. 20 and ends March 2.
Deadline to register to vote in the election is Feb. 5.