Update: Last week, the Observer sat down with Democrat Mike Collier to talk about his candidacy for state comptroller. Collier, a veteran accountant, is in a race with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) for control of an office that plays a crucial role in the state’s budgeting process. The Observer asked both candidates to sit for a Q&A, but Hegar’s campaign didn’t reply to our request.
In the interview, Collier spoke about the poor performance of the state’s current comptroller, Susan Combs, and the importance of producing reliable revenue forecasts for the Legislature to use while creating budgets. “We’re a very large, very prosperous state,” Collier said. “But for some reason we can’t seem to find the money for roads, schools, and water.”
Collier has proposed producing quarterly revenue forecasts, which would make it easier for the comptroller’s office and Legislature to adjust to changing economic conditions. More accurate revenue forecasting, he says, would provide the Legislature with more money to invest in the state without raising taxes.
He also spoke about the need to correct dysfunction in the state’s property tax system, where owners of commercial and industrial properties pay artificially low property taxes, shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners.
“It’s patently unfair to homeowners and owners of small businesses,” Collier said. But attempts to fix the system have always met a quick death in the lege, where monied interests hold sway. If he’s elected, Collier says he’ll “be fiercely independent and call to people’s attention where these bills stand.” In the past, Hegar has helped kill tax reform bills.
Collier also said that the comptroller should act more assertively as a watchdog over public funds. “We have a pattern in Texas where the leaders at the very top can dole out this money and act like they’re above the law,” he said. “A big part of that problem lands at the feet of the comptroller.”
The comptroller’s office, he said, should be shorn of ownership of the Major Events Trust Fund and other marginal responsibilities so that the comptroller can maintain his or her narrow focus on sound financial policy.
Previous story: The comptroller’s debate last night was a pretty rare thing in the crazy tilt-a-whirl of this election cycle—it was substantive, contained serious but civil disagreements between two generally well-informed and earnest candidates, and illuminated real policy distinctions that are both important and little-discussed in the state’s public sphere. Compared to the rest of the debates and candidate forums we’ve seen over the last year, it might as well have been a unicorn convention.
In part, that’s because almost no one in the state is paying attention to the comptroller’s race. That’s unfortunate, because it is a hugely influential and important position. The comptroller provides the Legislature with an estimate of how much money the state can spend over each two-year cycle. If the comptroller bungles the estimate, legislators will either spend too much money or, as has happened under the tenure of incumbent Susan Combs, will make sweeping cuts to state government they didn’t have to make. (Combs is partially responsible for the gargantuan cuts in 2011 to the state’s public education system, which proved to be essentially unnecessary.)
And that lack of attention is unfortunate for Democrat Mike Collier, because it’s hard to see how many people could watch his debate with state Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) and come away with the impression that Hegar deserves the state’s purse strings more than he. Collier, a former partner at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an ideal technocrat: He’s passionate about good government and good accounting, and he lacks political ambition. Hegar was a so-so senator who doesn’t have much of a plan for the office.
The moderator of last night’s debate asked how Collier and Hegar would avoid the kind of foul-ups Combs has had. How would they come up with better revenue estimates? Collier said he’d provide quarterly revenue forecasts, which would help the office more nimbly adjust to economic conditions and give observers a better sense of whether he was doing a good job. He had decades of experience with revenue forecasts, he said.
Combs’ failure was so massive and so inexplicable, he said, that he “personally believes it’s a possibility” that she screwed up the revenue forecasts on purpose to squeeze state government. The office needed an apolitical hand on the till. “We need somebody in the office who knows what they’re doing,” he said, which in Texas is a virtually revolutionary statement. He’d be a “watchdog” that would use the office’s authority to beat back corruption in different crannies of state government.
How would Hegar make sure he wasn’t botching revenue forecasts? Well, he would travel around the state and talk to businessmen, to “get the pulse” of the state, in order to better understand Texas’ “economic vibe.” He’d use “21st century communication technologies,” including YouTube, to spread the word about the comptroller’s office. Well, OK.
Collier called for closing “loopholes” relating to the tax assessment of large industrial and commercial properties, which shifts the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Hegar said a broader fix was necessary, but couldn’t say much about what that fix would be.
Collier brought up Hegar’s proposal to abolish property taxes, and replace them with sales taxes—an idea that few policy analysts take seriously but has nonetheless won favor with state GOPers, including lt. governor nominee Dan Patrick. Collier characterized Hegar’s proposal as “tripling sales taxes.” Hegar angrily denied wanting to do so, but then told his TV audience that “consumption taxes are the best method of collection,” seeming to indicate he’d be fine with a shift toward them.
Collier, like his Democratic ticket-mates Sam Houston, running for attorney general, and Leticia Van de Putte, nominee for lt. governor, have won every major newspaper endorsement in the state. Collier projects competence and practicality—Hegar projects ideology and ambition. In a more civically engaged state, Collier would at least have a shot at comptroller. But this is Texas, and the odds are stacked significantly against him.
Still, Collier has been putting in a performance he can be proud of as one of the punchiest members of the Democrats’ good-government ticket. “It’s almost comical that a career politician would lecture a 30-year businessman about job creation,” Collier said of Hegar in his closing statement. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up one day next year and know the man keeping the state’s books knew what he was doing? “We’re all tired of politics and we’re all tired of politicians,” he added.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.