A forum focused on business and economic issues largely revealed little daylight Wednesday between Texas House District 46 Democratic candidates Sheryl Cole and Jose “Chito” Vela.
That daylight, though, shone brightly in their answers to the first question: How much money should the state place in the Texas Enterprise Fund, a “deal-closing” fund that encourages companies to bring their business to Texas? Lawmakers approved $86 million for the fund for the current two-year budget. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the forum, pushed for $200 million.
Cole, a former Austin City Council member, committed to supporting some funding but wouldn’t offer a dollar amount without knowing how the state budget would look. Vela, an immigration attorney and former Austin Planning Commission member, said he wants the incentive program abolished.
“In general, I do not support this whole idea of really bribing companies to come here or come there. We’re seeing that with Amazon,” he said. “I just think we need to invest in our infrastructure, we need to invest in our workforce, we need to invest in quality of life. That is what attracts companies.”
On property taxes, Cole said the formula used to fund school districts needs another look. But Vela said poorer school districts were worse off before the current system, which uses revenue from districts with high property tax revenue to help fund districts with low property tax revenue. If there is a change in the funding formula, Vela said he would not want “the rug pulled out” from poor school districts around the state in the process. Vela suggested legalizing and taxing marijuana and gambling in Texas to help pay for education.
“We need to find new revenue for education,” he said.
On transportation, Vela said lawmakers need to identify new revenue sources, including raising the state gas tax. Adding toll lanes would help, as long as it helps improve mobility for poor people, he said.
Cole said all options must be on the table.
“You have to support multimodal transportation,” she said. “That means alternative vehicles. That means buses. That means rails. That means every form of transportation to try to get people out of their cars. And we have to do that for environmental reasons.”
Cole said she found it fascinating that her adult sons and other people their age avoid driving, instead preferring public transportation, carpooling and using ride-hailing apps on their cellphones. She said that fact, along with young car owners preferring electric or hybrid cars, should play a role in how the state plots out transportation spending in the future.
“We are spending a fortune trying to re-create an infrastructure that really doesn’t seem they have an interest in embracing,” Cole said. “I just don’t think there’s enough study into that or what’s going to get us through the next 10 to 15 years, because transportation is not something that you can look at on a three-year basis. It’s a 20-year deal. It takes 10 years to get something done. … There’s a lot of creative work that has to be done on transportation.”
Candidates were on the same page about health care: Both support expanding Medicaid in Texas.
Medicaid expansion could insure 1 million people in Texas and bring $10 billion a year “that Texas is saying no to” for political reasons, Vela said.
It’s simply a “no-brainer,” Cole said. It costs more in the long run when people don’t have affordable care, she said.
The district, which includes portions of East Austin, Northeast Austin and Pflugerville, is represented by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, who received fewer votes than Vela and Cole in the March primary. The Democratic winner will face Republican Gabriel Nila, a schoolteacher, in November.
Early voting starts Monday and runs through May 18. Election day is May 22.