State Rep. Garnet Coleman is the one member of the House Democratic leadership to face a reelection battle this year, as two challengers entered the Democratic primary for HD147 at the last minute. Coleman is one of the true good guys that the Dems have in the Lege, and as excited as everyone is about the Rodriguez-Cuellar, Uresti-Madla, and Miles-Bennett-Edwards races, let's not overlook this one. I had the opportunity to ask Rep. Coleman a few questions recently, and I present his answers here.
1. What do you think was your best accomplishment from the regular and special sessions last year?
Our best accomplishment was the adoption of the Hochberg Amendment over the objections of the Republican leadership. In addition to providing a real teacher pay raise, the Hochberg Amendment would have put more resources into our schools and provided more tax relief for the vast majority of Texas homeowners than the Republican plan. Unfortunately, the leadership shut down the session after a bi-partisan majority of legislators voted for the Hochberg Amendment. On a personal level, I was proud to pass the Bob Meadours Act--legislation requiring law enforcement officials to undergo crisis intervention training for dealing with persons with mental illnesses.
2. What do you think of the work the Texas Tax Reform Commission (TTRC) has done? What of their proposals do you want to see enacted?
I am certainly hopeful that the TTRC will recommend a fair tax system that will reduce our over-reliance on property taxes, satisfy the Court’s ruling, and increase the state’s investment in our public schools. I am very concerned, however, that the individuals appointed to the commission are not representative of Texans and that they will likely recommend a tax swap in which a regressive tax, such as the sales tax, is increased purely to pay for a property tax decrease. This is similar to the Republican plans we have seen in the past that would have raised taxes on almost 90 percent of Texans and done nothing to improve public education. I will not support such a plan regardless of whether John Sharp or anyone else, Democrat or Republican, recommends it. My constituents don’t care who recommends a policy; they care how that policy affects their lives. What matters to them is that the state increase its investment in our neighborhood schools and that we pass a tax system that requires everyone to pay their fair share rather than simply shifting the burden onto those who can least afford to bear it. Ultimately, it is the Legislature’s job to find a school finance solution that ensures a bright future for our state regardless of what the TTRC recommends.
3. Governor Perry wants the upcoming special session to be only about property tax reform, and to postpone action on school finance reform until 2007 (see here). Lt. Gov. Dewhurst disagrees (see here). Which is your preference and why?
I disagree with Governor Perry as well. The upcoming special session should deal not only with reducing property taxes but also with improving our public schools. School children should come first and our teachers should come first. If we pass tax reform aimed only at generating sufficient revenue to reduce property taxes then our schools will continue to drift towards inadequacy. If we wait until the next regular session to pass school improvements, then those polices won’t go into effect until September 2007. Improving our children’s schools should be on the agenda now.
4. The Democrats were able to derail the Perry/Craddick school finance reforms last year by getting the "Hochberg Amendment" passed as an alternative (see here). Will something similar be proposed this time around? How likely do you think it will be to pass if so?
We will have a plan that mirrors the Hochberg Plan to the extent possible under the Governor’s call.
5. Among the reforms that the Republicans want to pass are a uniform school start date, holding school board elections at the same time as regular legislative elections, and merit pay for teachers. How do you assess these proposals?
I am against merit pay unless we first bring teacher pay, across-the-board, to the national average. We should consult with teachers and parents before passing a mandated uniform school start date because it has implications beyond economic considerations. I oppose holding school board elections at the same time as legislative elections as such a move would inject partisanship into the process. Why fix what isn’t broken.
6. One of your primary opponents, in reference to your opposition to HJR6, the anti-gay marriage amendment, said that "Mr. Coleman is bought by the constituents of the gays" (see here). Do you believe that your support for gay rights will hurt you in March?
I hope not. But my pledge is to continue to support equal rights for all Texans and that includes GLBT Texans. As a matter of principle, bigotry and hate should be stamped out everywhere. The Republicans have used attacks against gays and other groups—the latest example is immigrants— as political wedges to advance their cause. That’s wrong.
7. HJR6, the Texas Enterprise Fund, HB 3588 (creating the Trans Texas Corridor), HB2292 (the massive health and human services bill from 2003 that among other things cut CHIP funding), HJR3 (the tort reform constitutional amendment from 2003) - All of these bills were passed with at least some "Yes" votes by Democratic legislators. How does this happen? What if anything can or should be done about it?
First, we must make sure that members on the floor are aware of what’s in a bill. After the true details of the Trans Texas Corridor bill became evident, I filed legislation and amendments to repeal portions of it. Some bills, such as HB 2292, are so obviously harmful to Texans that no legislator should vote for them. Democratic members ought to be about our principles and voting our districts. We had greater success this past session in maintaining a unified front against harmful legislation such as the Republican leadership’s school finance plan. The 2004 defeat of several Democrats who decided to represent Speaker Craddick’s agenda rather than their own constituents probably had something to do with that.
8. Comptroller Strayhorn has just announced that the state has a budget surplus of $4.3 billion. Some of that is money set aside for education, but most of it isn't. What should be done with this surplus?
I believe that the state should restore the cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), mental health services, and other health and human services programs that were enacted in 2003. I have filed numerous bills and amendments to restore those cuts, which have, among other things, resulted in over 180,000 kids losing CHIP coverage.
9. When you look ahead to the 80th Legislature in 2007, what do you see?
Either the Republicans will continue on their march against the interest of most Texans, or we will derail the current leadership. Our job is to shine a light on the hypocrisy, raise the contradictions, and represent Texans who get up and go to work everyday. If we continue to see the leadership push legislation that is harmful to most Texans, then we will continue to forward a vigorous and vigilant opposition on the merits.