Elections 2022Population Growing Pains and Education Featured in Race for Open Williamson County Seat

The candidate to succeed Democrat Rep. James Talarico will likely be chosen from the GOP primary, in which four candidates are running.
February 17, 2022
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To those on the outside, the race for House District (HD) 52 in Williamson County is marked by the absence of one person: state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), who crossed county lines to run in an open Austin district. But for those running in the GOP primary, Talarico’s skip across district lines is only one aspect of a broader set of themes dictating the race to succeed the now-former Round Rock resident.

Talarico’s decision to move was hastened by Republicans’ redistricting plan that moved the district from a D-53% to an R-55%, according to The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index.

The new lines do not make for a sure Republican bet, but it gives them the advantage.

Those four Republicans vying for the seat are staffer for Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), Caroline Harris; attorney and former staffer for Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Nelson Jarrin; technology engineer Patrick McGuinness; and IT businessman and former Texas GOP podcast host, Jonathan Schober.

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Williamson County is rapidly growing, increasing 35 percent in population since the last time state House districts were redrawn.

With that growth come growing pains, like the expansion of housing, infrastructure, and school districts. Samsung chose Taylor for its $17 billion microchip plant investment, which will bring commerce along with the stress on infrastructure.

According to the Bond Review Board, political subdivisions and voters in Williamson County have approved $8.2 billion in bonds for a medley of spending projects.

Just in the last year, school districts in the district have issued $988 million in bonds for various expansion projects. Last year, the City of Georgetown approved a $90 million bond for transportation projects such as the widening of streets.

The previous decade was one of rampant growth for the communities of HD 52.

Talarico flipped the seat in a 2018 special election after state Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock) retired from the legislature and held onto it in the general election “Beto Wave.” Since then, what has been a purple district was represented by Talarico, the 22nd-most liberal legislator in the Texas House.

One Democratic candidate, Luis Echegaray, is in the race and has reported no money raised. But with redistricting, the pendulum has likely swung the opposite way.

In interviews with The Texan, the GOP candidates outlined their assessments of the race’s biggest issues — which can largely be tied to the rapid population growth and the need to manage it.

Jarrin did not respond to an interview request. The first issue listed on his website’s issues page, above border security and education, is titled “Straight Talk.” The copy reads, “These days, too many politicians hide behind cleverly crafted statements and political double-speak. You shouldn’t need a translator to understand what your State Representative believes or where they stand on an issue.”

As the value of the district rises, so does the appraised property value which fuels continuous increases of property taxes.

“People are paying $8,000 to $10,000 in property taxes for owning average houses — the property tax burden is too high, and we need actual relief,” McGuinness said, backing a proposal to buydown school district Maintenance & Operations rates which account for the largest portion of tax bills.

He said that surplus state dollars should be used to continuously buy down the rates, but that because appraisals keep rising and the no-new-revenue rates are not adopted, tax bills rise annually.

For example, Round Rock ISD lowered its tax rate for the 2021-2022 Fiscal Year but did not adopt the no-new-revenue rate.

The average Round Rock homeowner will see a $2,640 increase in their property tax bill from last year — after a 53 percent jump in the property value. That is despite the new $30,000 increase in the state’s homestead exemption.

Also pointing to property taxes, Schober said he’s in favor of a consumption tax swap, but with a transitional period necessary for adjustment. “Property taxes are philosophically the worst way to raise taxes for the government,” he stated. He also wants to see the state freeze appraisals at the property’s purchase price until the transition is complete.

Harris said that in her time canvassing voters, the property tax issue is usually brought up in tandem with education. But she added the current environment is especially taxing on those with fixed incomes, mainly elderly homeowners living on social security and pensions, and first-time homebuyers that can afford the down payment but not the property taxes that follow.

The last couple years have seen education rocket to the top of politically salient issues. As the content of teaching materials and inappropriate content within books have fallen under the national microscope, so too have those political themes come home to roost in Texas.

In addition to Round Rock ISD’s current entanglement over assault allegations against its superintendent, the district has been criticized for housing allegedly obscene books and encouraging teachers to withhold information about student’s gender identity from their parents.

Leander ISD has also been questioned over books found in its libraries deemed sexually explicit, graphically violent, or excessively vulgar — 11 of which have been pulled for a review by the school’s advisory committee.

As school districts grow, it becomes more difficult to monitor the materials students either have access to or are being given in school.

Governor Greg Abbott has said that a strong push for school choice will be made when the legislature reconvenes in 2023 — despite the item not being among his campaign’s “Parental Bill of Rights” education platform.

On top of increasing transparency within school districts, Harris, McGuinness, and Schober each indicated their support for legislation that allows parents more say over where their education dollars go.

Schober stated, “We have a bureaucratic-centered education system, and we need a parent-centered one.” To accomplish that, Schober said the Texas Education Agency must be “radically reformed.”

“Good public schools shouldn’t be afraid of parents choosing alternatives because if parents are given that choice then the whole system will be better off,” McGuinness said, who has taken advantage of the opportunity charter schools can provide with his own children. He also said the choice is necessary to drive poorly-performing public schools to improve.

Harris mentioned the need to return focus to reading, writing, and arithmetic in education, along with the introduction of entrepreneurship classes.

The first issue each candidate mentioned was securing the border. “Nothing that goes on down there stays down there,” Harris emphasized. “It makes its way up to the suburbs too.”

Schober said it will likely take more funding, adding that, “It’s the only place of new spending I’ll accept.”

Asked what separates him from the other primary candidates, McGuinness cited his GOP activism since the 1980s and his long career outside of politics. “It makes me more independent and a better representative for this district,” he said.

“One of my top focuses in office will be to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying,” McGuinness added, pointing to the House’s various items of “unfinished business” that he hopes to follow through on next year.

Harris pointed to her experience in both chambers of the legislature — being a staffer in both — and her policy experience on any number of issues during her time in the Capitol. She also said she hopes to provide an antidote to Talarico’s growing influence as a Democratic Party figure. “My goal is to remove as much influence as possible from [Talarico] and attract more young people to our party,” she stated.

Schober emphasized his endorsement from former Texas GOP chair and current gubernatorial candidate, Allen West, for whom he works. “Conservatives must move to the sound of the guns,” Schober said, invoking a catchphrase of West’s.

“Also, Democrats as committee chairs is bulls— and I will not support a House speaker who does not commit to all GOP chairmen and the Republican Party of Texas priorities,” he added.

Transparency from the candidates in the race, Schober said, is paramount. On this, Schober took a swipe at Jarrin, who at a candidate forum asked Schober to turn off his livestream video.

Both Harris and McGuinness separately confirmed that incident.

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Brad Johnson

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.