GUEST COMMENTARY by TERRI HALL
How the mighty fall. That could be the theme of the Texas Senate District 25 race where incumbent Donna Campbell faces a tough fight to hang onto her senate seat. Campbell drew two primary opponents in her re-election bid, former Bexar County Commissioner Mike Novak and former San Antonio council member Elisa Chan.
Chan jettisoned to rock star status in conservative circles when she opposed the city’s non-discrimination ordinance that many felt went too far and amounted to making adherence to scripture a crime. Though Chan resigned her seat after the controversy, she’s a perfect fit for District 25 Republican voters. She has both social and fiscal conservative bona fides and is – as anyone who’s met or worked with her will tell you – super sharp.
In the candidates first debate last week, Chan drew a strong positive response when she articulated that she knows all the liberals’ budget tricks on how they hide or re-direct funds to pork barrel spending. Chan’s personal story as a legal immigrant who loves Texas’ independent spirit and who has lived and worked in District 25 for more than 20 years, also inspired many to take a closer look at her.
But by far the biggest problem for Campbell is her betrayal of the folks who elected her on the toll road issue. Campbell was clearly on defense on the toll road questions, struggling to defend her record, having ran on an anti-toll platform then voting pro-toll 4 out of 5 times in her freshman session. Chan also got a tremendous favorable response from the audience when she insisted no taxpayer money should go into building or bailing out toll projects, which Campbell did when she changed a bill in committee to specifically direct a new $10 vehicle registration fee hike to the tolling authority, with no public vote and no restrictions on the money being used to build or subsidize toll roads.
Within weeks of the fee hike’s passage, county commissioners announced plans to use that new tax revenue to build toll roads on the north side – traversing mostly District 25. Campbell’s vote in favor of the fee hike also breaks her no new taxes pledge. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a liberal democrat, asked for the tax hike, and Campbell, who bills herself as a fiscal conservative, gave it to him. Now Wolff and the toll authority he controls at the county has an eternal $12 million a year revenue stream to build toll roads, street cars, and a host of other unaccountable projects Wolff wishes – with no strings attached.
The published toll rates on Bexar County area highways, for example, will be 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile. That’s like adding $5 to every gallon of gas you buy and thousands a year in new taxes just to get to work. None of our area tollways are toll viable, so in order to get them off the ground, the toll authority needed tax money to subsidize them. This new plan using the fee hike money gives life to the toll projects that were faltering. Now they’ll use tax money to build toll roads, which is a double tax. It also debunks the myth that tolls are a user fee, not a tax, since they’re using tax revenues to build toll roads, tolls are now clearly a tax. If tax money is used to build the road it should be a free road, not a toll road.
The senator also said she was opposed to Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs) in the anti-toll Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom Voter Guide, then voted for them. TRZs use property tax appraisal increases collected inside the zone to fund road projects, and with passage of SB 1110 now both sales tax and property tax revenues can be used to subsidize not only toll roads, but also transit, rail, and street cars, which Campbell also claims to oppose.
In Campbell’s last campaign against 29-year incumbent Jeff Wentworth, she advocated eliminating property tax, only to support this bill that ensures local property taxes get diverted away from other local priorities to state highway projects the legislature refuses to properly fund from state taxes. So don’t count on your property tax ever going down much less being eliminated, once a 50-year transportation project is dependent on them going up annually.
But the most contentious fight is over a bill Campbell herself authored, SB 1029, that she claims eliminates the ability to convert free roads into toll roads. As filed, that would have been true, but Campbell amended the bill to carry forward five key loopholes that give permission to toll existing freeways in a variety of circumstances, including all the current toll projects planned for Central Texas. The bill ended up removing the public vote for freeway-to-tollway conversions, making the current statute even worse and making it near impossible for the taxpayers to stop unwanted toll projects.
So Chan has a golden opportunity to snag this senate seat right out from under Campbell on this issue alone. The sentiment in the district is very anti-toll, despite the actions of the district’s local and state representatives. In fact, the GOP panelist who asked the question on toll roads opened by saying San Antonio is strongly opposed to toll roads. Though many issues are a factor in any political race, we’re about to find out just how much tolls will be an issue in this race.
TERRI HALL is founder of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. A version of this commentary was first published in the San Antonio Express-News.