An unusually competitive contest to be Texas’ chief tax-collector and number-cruncher could end up stealing a bit of the spotlight during the 2014 Republican primaries.
The re-emergence of Debra Medina, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate at the vanguard of the tea party movement, has the potential to spice up the race for Texas comptroller if she can generate some heat among grass-roots activists.
Medina is taking on more established legislative leaders who enjoy a substantial financial advantage: state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, chairman of the Senate Nominations Committee; and state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Former state Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi, an accountant, is also running.
They are vying to replace Comptroller Susan Combs, who announced in May that she wouldn’t seek another term nor run for lieutenant governor, as had been expected. The open seat has spurred a GOP free-for-all unseen in past comptroller contests.
If Democrats don’t compete for the seat in 2014, the winner of the Republican primary almost certainly would take the helm of the 2,700-employee agency that collects state taxes, manages the books and provides the official estimate for how much lawmakers can spend in the two-year budget. It’s a job with huge responsibilities that most Texans notice only when things go awry.
Hegar, who helps run his family’s agriculture business, is riding a wave of conservative praise after carrying the controversial abortion legislation that dominated the Capitol this summer. He said the job requires a “calm, steady hand” to maintain Texas’ business-friendly climate.
“It’s up to the Legislature if those (taxes) are to be increased, decreased. But it’s the job of comptroller to make sure that they’re implemented fairly and you don’t pick winners and losers,” Hegar said.
Hilderbran has positioned himself as the defender of Texas against Washington. He has proposed that the comptroller’s office could be an advocate for Texans who have grievances with the Internal Revenue Service.
“It makes perfect sense if something emerges that rises to the level of abuse that we can inquire with the IRS, we can engage, and we can be a resource for Texas,” Hilderbran said.
As the House leader with oversight of the comptroller’s office, Hilderbran said he has gained insight into how the agency can function better for taxpayers by being more responsive as well as responsible with private information. In 2011, Combs notified about 3.5 million Texans that their private data, such as Social Security number and address, had been left online unprotected.
Both Hegar and Hilderbran can claim credit for ushering a $1 billion business tax cut through the Legislature this past session, though they championed different approaches to providing the tax relief.
As of July, Hilderbran had banked about $1 million for the race while Hegar had $1.8 million, according to campaign finance reports. Trailing far behind is Medina, who had just $55,000 available in her account.
But Medina has the the benefit of a previous statewide race under her belt. She captured more than 18 percent of the votes in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary against Gov. Rick Perry and then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
“While it would appear at first blush that we’re severely handicapped because of the dollars available to us, we have tremendous assets in the name ID and the grass-roots support around the state,” Medina said. “All I can promise you … is a race.”
Medina parlayed her leftover campaign funds into a new nonprofit group called We Texans that continued working on issues that were at the heart of her campaign, such as private property rights and state sovereignty. Through We Texans, she has been at the forefront of helping landowners’ legal fight against the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Eliminating property taxes, which was a key element of her 2012 effort, has remained a top priority for Medina.
While only local governments levy property taxes, the candidates for comptroller will probably have a lively discussion over erasing the tax. The idea has been embraced by conservative groups, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, though many business leaders have rejected the policy as unworkable and detrimental to the economy.
“I think it’s a perfect thing to talk about in the comptroller’s race,” Hegar said. “The question is: ‘What is the alternative?’”
Torres, a certified public accountant, won a House term in 2010 and then unsuccessfully challenged Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa in 2012. He had just over $2,500 in his campaign fund in July.