The two GOP candidates for the heavily red open House District (HD) 73 seat — former New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel and 2020 Texas House candidate Carrie Isaac — sparred in front of the crowd.
Support was divided down the middle aisle way, reminiscent of a wedding ceremony, and the audience teemed with cheers and jeers despite requests from the host group for restraint.
The pair each boasts competing endorsements in the race.
Casteel is supported by former Texas House representative from Bennie Bock, while Isaac is endorsed by former member Nathan Macias.
A perennial clash between the state’s two most prominent pro-life political groups is also highlighted in this runoff — Isaac is endorsed by Texas Right to Life while Casteel has Texas Alliance for Life on his side.
The race’s dividing lines are stark and run deep in what is, as the crowd’s reactions indicate, a very personal bout for power between two factions within the newly drawn HD 73.
Being both Republicans, there are policy issues the pair agree on such as that border security ranks among the most pressing issues for the State of Texas. Casteel called for the legislature to pass reciprocity for federal agents — giving U.S. Border Patrol agents the ability to enforce state laws. Isaac touched on taxing wire transfers from illegal immigrants and removing tax-exempt status from nonprofits who “aid and abet” those here illegally.
Both want to finish the “Trump wall.”
Both said “gender education” and Critical Race Theory have no place in the classroom and want more restrictions against those from being taught in schools.
But there were also plenty of differences.
Isaac touts the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s plan to eliminate the school district Maintenance & Operations (M&O) rate, which accounts for about half of property tax bills, by buying it down to elimination in 10 years with surplus state dollars.
Casteel wants to stay the current course of property tax compression bolstered by surplus and General Revenue dollars, buying down rates across the board rather than targeting one component.
On the pair of constitutional amendments before state voters next month — one increasing the annual school district homestead exemption by $15,000 and the other increasing the elderly and disabled exemption — they also differed.
Casteel called them “must-passes” and said the state needs to deploy more resources to relieve struggling taxpayers.
But Isaac had a different outlook. “Homestead exemptions only help those who own homesteads. This is not true property tax relief,” she said.
About the legislature’s 2019 reforms that set property tax increase caps at 2.5 percent for schools and 3.5 percent for cities and counties, Isaac added, “These bills did not cut property taxes, they contained growth.”
“Unless your local government lowers the tax rate to offset valuation increases, then taxes will go up.”
Another item she highlighted was election reform, specifically restoring both the felony penalty for voter fraud and the state attorney general’s ability to prosecute it.
“I don’t think last session was the most conservative session in history, I think it’s just the beginning,” said Casteel, pointing to the legislature’s hopes when it reconvenes next year.
A potential barrier for some conservative legislation next session will be which, if any, Democrats are given committee chairmanships — positions that hold tremendous power over the movement of bills through the process.
Isaac said she outright opposes Democratic members chairing committees, while Casteel did not explicitly oppose that but said further, “I’m not going to Austin to empower any Democrats.”
One of the most anticipated items next session is school choice or a voucher system that allows tax dollars to follow students if they move to a school outside their zip code.
“Children should not be trapped in a failed school system by zip code,” said Isaac. Her endorsement from Cruz also indicates Isaac’s position in favor of vouchers, as Texas’ junior senator has indicated school choice is the most important issue in determining his endorsements for state offices.
“If you voted against school choice,” Cruz said in January, “the chances of me endorsing you are essentially zero. If you voted for it…then I’m going to look very seriously at engaging and engaging hard.”
Casteel did not take an explicit position on a voucher system but said the state should make more room for charter schools to expand.
With its pointed slate of submitted questions, the audience happily prodded the two candidates into conflict on more than one occasion.
Casteel was one of a few House candidates who were endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — a national teachers union that staunchly opposes a voucher system.
At the debate, Casteel, who no longer appears on the group’s endorsed list of candidates, said that after speaking with Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX-21) and reviewing their website he declined AFT’s endorsement.
Isaac received grief from the crowd over allegations that she doesn’t live in the district — allegedly evidenced by the listing of her home on rental site Airbnb — and that her veterans nonprofit did not actually help any veterans financially.
She repudiated those charges, saying of the nonprofit controversy, “[Casteel] is taking a 2015 tax return to say that I am somehow taking money from veterans.”
“This is nothing more than political mudslinging at its worst.”
Another issue that populated the crowd submissions collection box related to property taxes. During Casteel’s time as mayor, New Braunfels lowered its tax rate at various points, something he touts often on the campaign trail including at the debate.
But reducing the tax rate does not necessarily mean property tax collections were reduced. With rising appraisals, unless the no-new-revenue rate at most is adopted, property tax bills will increase. Not once during his tenure did the city adopt the no-new-revenue rate that would have kept tax bills unchanged from the previous year.
New Braunfels’ council is set up so the mayor is one of seven votes on the body.
On May 24, Republican voters will decide which of the two will move onto the November general — likely an easy path to the GOP-favored seat.
The first vote cast next session by whoever wins will be for House speaker. Near the debate’s end, both were asked whom they would support for that position.
Casteel said he will support current Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) in that vote, while Isaac said, “I will support whoever the GOP caucus selects as our candidate for speaker.”
Last session, the GOP caucus selection was Phelan and there has been little indication thus far that will change.
Early voting for the runoff begins on May 16.
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Brad Johnson is 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.