Candidates Ellen Troxclair and Justin Berry are in a dead sprint to the finish in the GOP runoff for the open Hill Country seat — and tensions between the two are boiling over.
What’s been an intense and fiery campaign between the two former allies has taken a clear toll on both, with personal gibes tossed between the two.
“At one time we were friends, and I hope once we get past this. We can continue to work together to advance our beliefs,” Troxclair said in one particularly stark moment of candor.
“It’s hard repairing a relationship with someone who you thought was a friend and showed you otherwise,” Berry responded.
That fallout has been a feature of this race.
The testiest moment of the debate came in reference to lobbying when Berry criticized Troxclair’s husband for being a lobbyist. It is no secret that the word “lobbyist” has absorbed a more pejorative inflection within the GOP lexicon, specifically when it comes to taxpayer dollars being used to fund lobbying activities. The party has had a taxpayer-funded lobbying ban on its legislative priority list, and it’s been among the top items for the conservative wing of legislators.
Troxclair defended her husband — an attorney who lobbies for various oil and gas entities, among others — saying there is a need for conservative lobbyists to compete with the rest of the lobby.
“What matters is what you’re lobbying on and who for.”
She then turned back to Berry and accused him of lobbying against conservative legislation in his role with the Austin Police Association (APA) — a de facto union currently in negotiations with the City of Austin for a new labor contract.
The APA, along with other police associations, is financing the legal defense for the nearly 20 officers indicted by a grand jury pursued by the progressive Travis County District Attorney José Garza for firing less-lethal munitions during the 2020 summer’s protests-turned-riots.
Troxclair’s position mirrors the Republican Party of Texas’ platform: eliminate special collective bargaining for public employees and prohibit their use of taxpayer dollars.
Berry hit back, saying the APA is what allows officers like himself to receive the legal defense he is, and added, “You know what people are called who testify on legislation without getting paid? Citizens.”
On policy, there are substantial differences between the two as well.
Troxclair is an unabashed supporter of school choice legislation, commonly known as “vouchers” that would allow parents to take their tax dollars to whichever school they take their child to rather than pay for alternative education on top of the property taxes paid to their zip-code tied district. She is endorsed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has made school choice the paramount factor in choosing state office endorsements.
Among the reasons the issue has gained such attention this election cycle are the gender and racial education items exposed in school curriculums and the sexually explicit books found in school libraries.
“The only silver lining of COVID is that parents got to see what was being taught in their children’s classrooms,” Troxclair said. “It is not just one book in one far away community. It is hundreds of books in schools [across the state]. We all know it when we see it…How did we get to this point?”
“The classroom is not a place for social justice. It’s a place for academics,” Berry added.
He has not been so overt as Troxclair on school choice legislation but has said he opposes the expansion of “charter schools, for-profit programs using taxpayer dollars” and stated, “we [have] to make sure that we’re keeping our tax dollars for our public schools in our public school system.”
To that end, Berry also touted the reduction of the Robinhood rate — the mechanism in state law that takes funding from wealthier districts and redistributes them to poorer ones. “Our money needs to stay in our communities,” he said.
Like Barron Casteel in HD 73, Berry was endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union opposed to vouchers, but said that he “politely turned it down.”
Governor Greg Abbott, who endorsed Berry, has previously said he expects a large school choice push within the state legislature in 2023.
On border security, Berry said more boat patrols are necessary to fill the gaps on the Rio Grande. He also advocated reciprocity, legislation that would allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to enforce state law.
“We need Blundering Biden to come down here and do his job – our tax dollars can only go so far,” he added.
Troxclair called for the construction of the border wall, more investment in better technology to supplement state manpower, and the elimination of the financial magnets drawing illegal immigrants across the border.
Elections, another constant theme in Texas politics, Troxclair highlighted increased protections for poll watchers and pointed to concern over ballots cast on the final day of early voting which is held over the weekend until Election Day.
For his part, Berry homed in on the attorney general’s role — restoring its ability to prosecute election fraud and suggesting the office should play a role in observing vote counting.
And on property taxes, Troxclair supports the plan put forward by the Texas Public Policy Foundation: the elimination of the school district Maintenance & Operations rate, which accounts for over half of property tax bills, by buying it down to zero with surplus state dollars.
Berry discussed tying taxable values of homes to the purchase price for as long as the owner possesses the homestead.
Troxclair retorted, “Lowering the appraisal cap is only part of the solution. If we want true transformative change in our communities, we have to fundamentally change the way we fund our public schools.”
The last issue of the debate, the subject of three separate but similar questions from the audience, focused on the underwater state pensions — specifically the Teachers Retirement System (TRS).
TRS is the largest state pension system that has $50 billion in unfunded liabilities, money promised but not accounted for.
Berry mentioned a type of Rainy Day Fund, funded by state consumption tax collections, that would be employed to compensate for cost of living increases for those pensioners. He added, “I support our public pensions. You know why there are still officers in Austin right now? Because of the pension.”
Troxclair said she’d support tweaking them for future enrollees to put it on stronger fiscal footing, but stated, “Anyone who’s been paying into the pension and promised it should be given what they earned.”
Last year, the state did that for its Employees Retirement System, the second-largest pension — moving it from a defined benefit plan to a cash balance structure only for new pensioners. Under the old rules, recipients were awarded a monthly check for as long as they lived on the pension.
All current pensioners would maintain that standard, but new enrollees will receive a set benefit, which can be taken in a lump sum or monthly installments until it runs out.
No similar effort has been made with the TRS, but the state has injected more of its own money to compensate for its growing unfunded liability total.
Only a few weeks remain in the race as the May 24 runoff approaches. The winner between Troxclair and Berry is all but assured a spot in the legislature next session as the district is heavily red.
Last go around, Troxclair edged out Berry by less than 3 percent despite outspending him substantially during the primary.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.