Thanks Alan and the Chron:
Visit this blog at noon Tuesday for a live "chat" between Republican Joan Huffman and Democrat Chris Bell, candidates for the District 17 state Senate seat on the Dec. 16 runoff ballot.
You get to write some of the questions. They'll write their answers. The words will be posted on this blog in real time. Call it a keyboard debate. If you'd like, eat lunch as you follow the remarks.Early voting in this race runs through Friday. Bone up for the discussion here.
I'll follow along and post a few excerpts in this space, along with my usual snarky commentary.
12:20: In response to how the two candidates perceive that they are not in lockstep with their party's orthodoxy, Huffman replies:
I disagree with some leaders of the Republican party in regard to cutting funding for the CHIP program, ensuring the health of Texas chidren (sic) is criticial (sic) to the future of Texas.
And Bell notes ...
Ethics Reform. There are folks on both sides who don't want to see limits placed on campaign contributions and I wholeheartedly disagree with those in my Party who take that position. Also, property tax relief. Not all Democrats share my belief that we place too great a burden on property owners for funding state government. My record shows I'm willing to take a strong position in favor of property tax relief.
That's two solid swings at each other constituencies. A question on immigration brings these responses:
Bell: Place as much pressure on the federal government as possible to meet its responsibility and to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Any comprehensive plan should include more border patrol agents, greater use of technology to control the border and a pathway to citizenship. Contrary to the lies my opponent has been spreading about me, that has always been my position. While in Congress, I voted for more than 15 BILLION dollars to go toward increased border security.
Huffman: There is a major difference between my opponent and myself on this issue. As a gang prosecutor I saw firsthand the direct impact of a porous border on the safety of our neighborhoods. I believe we must support increased funding to support state law enforcement along the Texas/Mexico border and believe we must outlaw sanctuary cities. I am endorsed by over 30,000 Texas police officers who share my position and I will do everything I can to support them in protecting our families. Last, the federal government has failed us and we can't leave it to the feds alone to solve this issue.
And we are fully engaged.
12:30: A query about small business taxation prompts these answers:
Huffman: Small businesses are the backbone of the Texas economy. I am proud to be endorsed by the National Federatiion of Independent Business. I believe we should reform the new margins tax in order to incentivize new job creation rather than discourage job creation. Everyone should pay their fair share but there is a fine line between paying your fair share and slowing job creation.
Bell: I think we need to be very careful to keep Texas a low tax state to successfully promote business. However, if we're going to relieve the burden on property owners (and we pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for a rather lackluster public education product), then business will have to pay their FAIR share. The whole idea of moving away from the franchise tax was because very few businesses were paying it. It doesn't make sense to have replaced it with the business margins tax and have left an excessive number of loopholes available. Some of those need to be closed.
Huffman's responses begin to lapse into predictable platitudes. On standardized testing for schoolchildren (particularly TAKS) we get this:
Bell: I have advocated for years to move away from our over-reliance on standardized testing. We're not making the grade. We have some of the lowest SAT scores, poor college entrance numbers and an epidemic drop-out rate. If TAKS is supposed to ensure accountability, one must ask what accountability. I'm all for accountability but want us to get back to using standardized tests as diagnostic tools, not the end all and be all that they've become. Give the test at the first of the year to see where students stand but stop basing decisions as to whether a student will move forward and how a school will be ranked all on the outcome of a single standardized test. That's absurd. We need to get serious about preparing kids for the future, not just for another standardized test.
Huffman: Yes I would consider lessening the importance of standardized tests. I believe standardized tests do not serve our children well. I understand this firsthand. I have a brilliant son who is also dyslexic and dysgraphic. A standardized test will never accurately reflect his potential. We must find a way to help our children succeed in education. It doesn't serve children well for them to feel they are a failure, when in fact it just may be they don't fit into the "box" that has been defined by the public education system. I will work to make sure our public education system is a place where our children can really succeed and be a place where they want to stay and help them to become productive members of society.
12:40: "What would either of you do to insure felons are not released from prison before serving their sentence?"
Bell: Do everything we can to stop prison overcrowding. That means we make sure there's room for the serious criminals who show no potential for rehabilitation whatsoever. As for those who are winding up behind bars because of addiction or mental health problems, I think we have to do a better job of providing treatment programs for those individuals and try to give them a chance to lead productive lives. If there's ample room in the prisons, the pressure for "early release" is lessened.
Huffman: I believe violent criminals should stay in prison for the length of their sentence. I would support legislation that ensured violent criminals served their full sentence. As a Judge, I presided over 10,000 plus years of jail time for criminals. If elected to the Senate, I would be the only former prosecutor and Criminal District Court judge in the Texas Senate. I would bring 25 years of experience working directly in the criminal justice system and criminal courtrooms.
Another "I'm toughest on crime" female Republican. Just what we need.
12:45: "What are your ideas to address the growing strain on our state's transportation system such as Gov. Perry's solution of a massive super highway?"
Huffman: I am opposed to the Trans Texas Corridor (Perry's massive super highway). I am opposed to foreign owned toll roads and conversion of existing roads to toll roads. Additionally, any toll routes should have free road alternatives.
Bell: I oppose the Trans Texas Corridor and believe it is now dead. I am tired of toll road projects designed to primarily benefit private contractors. I don't want to see a state full of toll roads that turn transportation into yet another battle between the haves and have nots (with the haves on the nice roads while others are relegated to older ones in worse shape). We need to stop stealing from the gasoline tax fund and using those dollars for projects that won't seriously impact mobility. And we need to take a very close look at the overall efficiency of the Texas Department of Transportation and improve it where possible.
12:50:"What can be done to lower electricity rates?" and "Texas is a rapidly growing state and will need to double its power production within the next 10-20 years. What would you do to ensure that our utility rates do not skyrocket and how would you safeguard against related environmental damage?"
Joan's answers are getting shorter and shorter.
Bell: The PUC is going to have to exercise greater oversight of the wholesale market and if additional legislation is required to make that happen, then I'll support it. Utility companies can not be allowed to withhold power in order to drive up the cost. That's what happened with Luminant and the PUC fined that company $15 million. That kind of oversight will keep the pressure on for utility companies to treat consumers fairly. In this area, we have to stop paying some of the highest rates for some of the worst service. I also believe we need to be doing everything possible in Texas to further incentivise the research and production of alternative energy. We are perfectly positioned to be a leader in the areas of solar, wind and biodiesel and if we want to continue to be the energy capital, we must be helping those industries move forward.
Huffman: I believe we need provide incentives for alternatives forms of energy, like wind and solar. There should not be a disproportionate rate difference between wholesale and retail rates.
Huffman's carefully considered response was posted after Bell's.
"Will you guys support the legalization of gambling?"
Huffman: I am opposed to the expansion of gambling in Texas.
Bell: We already have legalized gambling in Texas. We have horse and dog racing and a state lottery. What has been proposed is allowing existing race tracks to install video lottery terminals that could be heavily regulated and could produce millions of dollars for our state. I support letting people vote on such a proposal. Gambling may be unseemly to some but it's here already and when it comes to the video lottery terminals, I'm tired of seeing millions of dollars leave our state for places like Louisiana where they're already legal. Let's keep those dollars here and use them to improve our state.
12:55: Both candidates are in favor of eminent domain reform. And each candidate picks a reader question to answer. Bell's is: "Joan Huffman talks a lot about illegal immigration, but I haven't seen a plan from her. Also, she's running for the state senate, and last I checked, our border with Mexico was a federal border. Isn't her stance on illegal immigration just posturing?"
Bell: It's clearly posturing and misleading. I'd invite everyone to take a close look at our records. As I said earlier, I voted for more than $15 billion for increased border security while in congress - I continue to believe it's a federal responsibility. I also met privately with the Mexican Ambassador while in congress to discuss what they might be willing to do to work with the U.S. toward a comprehensive plan. Meanwhile, while she talks a good game now on immigration, when Mrs. Huffman was Judge Huffman, it was a different story. I would invite you to check out Case No. 855808, Francisco Gilberto Flores Hercules. He was an admitted illegal alien when he came before Judge Huffman charged with indecency with a child. What did she do? She gave him probation. What did he do? He disappeared. Doesn't sound like she was terribly concerned about illegal immigration when it counted.
That's going to leave a mark. Huffman selects a question that veers away from the records, but IS in keeping with her style of personal attacks throughout the season: "This question is for Chris Bell. Mr. Bell, you have ran and failed in a number of political campaigns, how can you assure to the voters that you are not just running for a position just to have the title, but will work and bring about change in the Texas Senate?"
Huffman: Voters are crying out for public service, not politicians seeking titles. I an running for the Texas Senate because I truly care about the future of Texas. I have a young child and I care about the future for him and for all the children of Texas. I started out as a secretary at the D.A.'s Office in Houston and worked my way through law school, becoming a prosecutor and a judge. While Mr. Bell was running for various political offices, I was busy holding criminals accountable for their crimes. I will be a public servant, not a politician.
1:05: And each candidate got the opportunity to respond to the above. The answers:
Bell: Actually, while I was running for office, Mrs. Huffman was running for office... just a different office. What she also always fails to point out is my record of public service, a record the Houston Chronicle has called "effective" when endorsing me. I was proud to have the opportunity to serve on the Houston City Council and as a member of Congress. I was working like crazy in Congress and was already part of the Whip leadership team when Tom DeLay decided to engage in his unprecedented redistricting. I decided that I would not allow Mr. DeLay to dictate the terms of my exit from public service. I don't give up or run away. I stand and fight and that's just what I'm doing now. I truly enjoy serving the public and have never run for anything that I didn't think I was qualified for or that I didn't think I could do a great job at and I've backed that up once in office. My experience will be a great benefit for the people of Senate District 17 and I look forward to having the opportunity to serve. Thanks for the question.
1:12: Still waiting for Joan to respond.
1:14: Joan's back ...
Huffman: The federal government has failed us. It is too easy to blame the feds and then rely on them to get the job done when they have failed to do what they need to do. As a State we must take direct action to begin to solve this problem. As a gang prosecutor and later as a judge I saw firsthand the direct impact of illegal immigration on our state. It is a public safety issue. There continues to be a problem in the criminal justice system with the identification and deporatation (sic) of illegal immigrants who have committed crimes. There has been great difficulty in their identification and later deportation. This is an ongoing problem and a perfect example of how the State can work to update data bases and take an active and aggressive role in public safety. I will address this problem and issue HEAD ON in the Texas Senate. It is imperative that it is addressed. The case mentioned by Mr. Bell is a classic example of what can happen in a system with inaccurate and incomplete data, even by those with the best of intentions and diligence.
These answers offer a clear enough distinction between the two candidates. Vote this week, and let's have real reform in the Texas Senate.