Bexar’s new reps have same top fo­cus

Be­fore Texas House meets, fresh­men eye school fi­nance re­form

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - By Dy­lan McGuin­ness STAFF WRITER

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.”

Suc­ceed­ing Straus

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.

Jerry Lara / Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Tom Reel / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.”

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