Bexar’s new reps have same top focus
Before Texas House meets, freshmen eye school finance reform
Steve Allison willed his way into the Texas House by spending nearly $1 million and outlasting opponents in three grueling contests. Leo Pacheco did it with a heap of old-school neighborhood campaign signs.
When Bexar County’s 10-member House delegation heads to Austin in January for the state’s 86th legislative session, its two new members — Allison, a Republican, and Pacheco, a Democrat — will have arrived in strikingly different ways.
Despite their differences in path and party, the newcomers share bipartisan agreement about the most pressing issue facing the region: school finance and its rippling effects on property taxes.
One other race in the county changed hands, but the representative will not be a typical freshman. Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer narrowly defeated Diana Arévalo in the primary earlier this year, regaining the seat he held from 2001 to 2016.
Allison, a business lawyer, fended off a tea party-aligned challenger before facing an unusually competitive Democratic opponent. He touts his 12 years on the Alamo Heights Independent School District as informing his expertise in school finance.
Pacheco, a Democrat, raised less than 10 percent of Allison’s haul to topple incumbent Rep. Tomas Uresti in the primary and Republican John Lujan in the general election.
The signs he plastered across the South Side had a simple message: “Let’s cap property taxes for homeowners over 65.”
Pacheco is confident that the outcome of the midterm elections — Democrats gained 12 House seats, reducing Republicans’ majority to a margin of 83-67 — will translate to a “kinder, gentler” legislative session than the most recent one, which was consumed by partisan battles, including over the so-called bathroom bill.
Allison agreed, and he said the bathroom bill — which would have imposed restrictions on the use of public restrooms by transgender people — was a distraction “that served a purpose” in creating a new urgency to get something done with more impact.
Both men said they’d like to quickly and dramatically increase state funding for public education to 50 percent of the system’s costs. The state’s portion of the bill has consistently declined for years. It is currently around 38 percent, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
And they say they’ve gleaned encouragement from the state’s legislative leadership. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, expected to be the next House speaker, has said school finance will be his No. 1 issue.
“I can guarantee you that priority is school finance,” Bonnen said shortly after securing the votes to become speaker. “It is
time Texas took on the challenge of fixing our broken school finance system.”
The race to succeed retiring Speaker Joe Straus in House District 121 became Bexar County’s most expensive race of the 2018 midterms. Allison spent roughly $930,000 on his bid, but he said he didn’t expect the race to become that costly or so grueling.
In addition to leading the Alamo Heights school district, the longtime lawyer served on the board of VIA Metropolitan Transit, and Straus’ retirement piqued his interest.
“Joe Straus’ decision surprised us,” Allison said, “and I wanted to make sure someone of his mindset, approach to governance (and) demeanor” succeeded him.
To that end, the race be- came a kind of shadow contest between two competing forces in Texas GOP politics — moderates like Straus and arch-conservatives like Allison’s runoff opponent, Matt Beebe.
The bitter battle was further inflamed when both the county and state Republican Party censured Straus, which amounted to a symbolic denunciation of the San Antonio man who led Texas’ lower chamber for a decade.
“I’m still baffled by both of those,” Allison said. “I disagree with it strongly, obviously. There was a fracture within the party.”
In this race at least, the moderate voices prevailed. Residents on the county’s Northeast side replaced Straus with the man most like him: Allison.
“I think I was seen as the one that would be best suited to lead the district,” Allison said.
On most issues, Allison emulates that moderate perspective. He wants to quickly increase state funding for schools, but he won’t raise other taxes to do it. He wants to increase funding for school safety as well, and he doesn’t personally see reason for arming teachers — though he said he understands folks in rural counties may disagree. When asked about other priorities, he mentioned the state’s maternal health crisis and the need for more clinics.
The 71-year-old said he hopes to wield his experience — “and gray hair” — to become an unusually influential freshman lawmaker, and school finance reigns supreme among his priorities.
An increased investment in public education would ease the burden of local property taxes, Allison and other lawmakers have argued, because schools currently make up the largest cost of property tax bills.
“I just think it’s reached the point where school finance has to be addressed,” Allison said. “It’s commonly said that the can’s been kicked down the road too many years, and it has.”
A ‘wild card’
The race in House District 118, which is predominantly based on the South Side, was shaping up as a rematch between incumbent Democrat Tomas Uresti and Republican John Lujan. The men had split the previous two elections in the district.
“I was kind of the wild card,” Pacheco said.
The Harlandale High School graduate was born and raised on the South Side and has spent his entire life in the district he now represents. But before this year’s bid, he had been mostly removed from politics since the 1990s, when he chaired the county’s Democratic Party for 4 years.
Eager to jump back into the fray, Pacheco said a confluence of factors nudged him toward the race: Like many in the district, he said he’s fed up with rising property taxes, and he was concerned that Uresti might again lose the seat to his Republican challenger.
“This is a Democratic area. … I’m like, ‘No, I need to keep this seat in Democratic hands,’ ” Pacheco said.
Uresti was vulnerable mostly because of his last name. While he wasn’t at all involved in the case, his brother, then-state Sen. Carlos Uresti, was convicted of several felonies this year for his role in what prosecutors said amounted to a Ponzi scheme.
Pacheco said he didn’t want to make Uresti’s name an issue, but he acknowledged that it was a factor in the race.
He huddled with friend and now chief of staff Richard Gambitta, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who encouraged him to launch a campaign.
On the day after Thanksgiving last year, they plastered the South Side with 3foot-by-6-foot signs (the 4by-8s don’t fit in his truck, Pacheco said). The red, white and blue placards relayed Pacheco’s primary focus: “Let’s cap property taxes for homeowners 65 and older.”
While school property taxes are frozen when a homeowner turns 65, other taxes based on property valuation — including county, city, college and hospital districts — aren’t limited. Pacheco wants to put a cap on all taxes for those who are 65 and older, not just the school levy.
The slogan was born out of what Pacheco calls a hole-in-the-wall eatery on the West Side called Kenney’s, where he often huddles with friends to eat lunch. The owner scrawled the message on a napkin when Pacheco finally decided to run.
“I wasn’t afraid to put my message out there,” Pacheco said. “I had 150 of these big signs all over the South Side.”
They worked. He cruised to a surprising primary win over Uresti and comfortably defeated Lujan.
Now the slogan that propelled him to victory will naturally become his top priority. Bexar County has decreased or maintained its property tax rate for many years, but rising property valuations mean most residents’ bills continue to climb.
That’s a problem for seniors, who often rely on a fixed income, Pacheco said. If he gets his way, he would cap the amount seniors pay in property taxes levied by any entity.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, has made proposals that Pacheco said are “very similar to what I’m trying to do.”
That’s especially important in House District 118, which Pacheco said is bluecollar and includes many seniors.
“This is not the new part of town,” he said.
State Rep.-elect Steve Allison, a 71-year-old Republican, said he hopes to wield his experience — “and gray hair” — to become an influential freshman lawmaker, and school finance reigns supreme among his priorities.
State Rep.-elect Leo Pacheco, a Democrat, had a simple message for voters across the South Side: “Let’s cap property taxes for homeowners over 65.”