AP NEWS

Runoff a possibility for Senate seat

February 19, 2018

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and former Midland Mayor Mike Canon have faced off for the District 31 Senate seat before, but restaurant owner Victor Leal, R-Amarillo, is new to the mix in the March 6 primary.

Seliger said he wants to go for another four-year term because there is still so much work to be done in areas like education, higher education and taxes.

Canon said he is dissatisfied with Seliger, the way state government is being run and wants a chance to be a voice for the district in Austin.

Leal, who has served as mayor of Muleshoe twice and run for state representative in 2010, said he grew up serving in his family’s restaurant and wants to keep serving the people he has grown to know and love in the district.

One candidate has to get 51 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Otherwise the top two vote-getters square off in a runoff May 22. Whoever wins that will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, according to the Ector County Elections Office.

The main issue for the three is education — reducing the load of standardized tests students take, giving local control back to school boards, fixing the school finance system and tackling taxes.

Implemented in 1996, the “Robin Hood” school finance law sends a portion of funds from a so-called property wealthy district to poorer districts.

School district property taxes include maintenance and operations and interest and sinking, or payment on debt. There is a limit of $1.17 per $100 valuation for maintenance and operations. Interest and sinking has a limit of 50 cents per $100 valuation.

Asked if the taxes can be uncompressed, Seliger said: “We can do anything. It’s just whatever is the will to do. We have to make sure we have adequate funding for school districts to do away with recapture.

“The possibilities are endless. It’s just what is there a will to do,” Seliger added.

Ector County Independent School District has eight schools on improvement required status under state accountability standards. Three are in their fifth year of IR. If they don’t come off, the campuses, Noel and Zavala elementary schools and Ector Middle School, could face closure or the district could face a state takeover.

“I think that because Ector County ISD is making progress on their IR (schools) that they ought to be allowed to do what they need to get it done. We don’t want to close those districts or put them in receivership, but five years is almost half of an entire public school career in a substandard school. That cannot be allowed to be exist. I’ve got as much confidence in Mr. Crowe (ECISD Superintendent Tom Crowe) as almost anybody to remedy it, but it’s got to be turned around,” Seliger said.

Like his competition, Leal said public education is his top issue. He wants to make sure more money gets into the classroom and he wants to fight for teachers to have better pay and benefits and empower students, parents and teachers over the bureaucrats in Austin.

“I also believe that securing our border is very important and everywhere I go people are fed up with sky high property taxes. I want to make sure that we’re lowering property taxes across the board,” Leal said.

His priority, he said, would be education because it seems the state is spending the most money there and arguably having the least amount of success. Canon said he’s not detracting from the efforts of the teachers and administrators, but he thinks the system is set up to handicap the teachers and school districts.

He said students should be given a standardized test in sixth or seventh grade that confirms a child is able to do arithmetic, add, subtract multiply, divide and do fractions and percentages.

On funding, Canon said if the solution is more funding then the legislature should look at ways of revising the funding system. His question is whether or not the solution is more funding or reallocating resources.

He added that he doesn’t like the idea of Robin Hood. Canon said he would like to see it modified, but he doesn’t like one district having to send millions to Austin and reallocating it someplace else.

Seliger has been criticized by his opponents for voting with Democrats. But Seliger said there are 815,000 people in the district and he tries to vote with who’s right and in the best interest of the district.

“I represent them all. Do they necessarily feel that represented by my basic conservatism, maybe not but if there are issues where I can help to maximize that representation I want to know what it is. I’m not going to change who I am, but I’m not going to ignore them. That’s not good government,” Seliger said.

There is some bipartisanship in the Senate, Seliger said. There are some issues where things pass 31 to 0 and others where Democrats will join Republicans and Republicans will join Democrats.

Seliger said his opponents do what they are told by Empower Texans and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, regardless of whether it is good for the district.

“They (those organizations) want to control seats in legislature. They do control seats in the legislature. That’s what this contest is about — whether these organizations in Austin are going to control this seat, or whether the people in the 31st District are going to control it,” Seliger said.

Canon, who practices oil, gas and banking law, said he is unhappy with Seliger and the direction of state government and thinks government should be run like a business without the politics.

Canon said people who don’t watch politics or aren’t involved in city, county or school district governance may think they’re not impacted by what goes on in Austin, but everyone is.

Canon said he has not received any money from Empower Texans. He has been endorsed by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, but he said they have not fundraised for him or done anything directly for him.

Canon’s daughter is the development officer for the Texas Public Policy Institute. He said he does consider positions from the think tank, as well.

Leal is originally from Muleshoe, Leal has been in Amarillo for the past 15 years.

He served as mayor of Muleshoe from 1999-2004. He resigned when he moved to Amarillo to expand his restaurant.

He and his wife, Debbie, own the original Leal’s Restaurant in Muleshoe and they have one each in Amarillo and Lubbock. His family also owns several restaurants across the South Plains and Eastern New Mexico and there is a tortilla plant that employs about 200 people.

Along with being a mayor, Leal has served on a hospital district, Region 17 Education Service Center in Lubbock and has been appointed to several major state agencies and boards by former Gov. Rick Perry.

He said the senate district fits him better than the House because it includes his hometown and the southern part of the district, which includes Monahans, where he started his business career.

“My first date with my wife was in Odessa, Texas, back in 1984,” Leal said.

Leal said he worked with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the Tax Advisory Policy Committee to set a trigger where local residents could vote if their taxes went up above 5 percent from the previous year.

“There would be an automatic election. I’m a proponent for that and I’m a proponent for getting more money into the classrooms that we already have, not increasing funding for schools but just making sure that the funding is used more efficiently,” Leal said.

Charter schools can get private funds and don’t have nearly the regulations and testing that public schools have. “I would like to reduce testing and regulations for public schools. Right now, we’re very administrative heavy,” Leal said.

Over the last 25 years, student enrollment in Texas has gone up 48 percent; teachers have increased 55 percent; and administration has increased 66 percent.

“What that tells me is you have a lot of regulations on the federal and state side that cause us to have a lot of administration so that they can comply. I would fight back against those regulations so we could downsize our administrative part and get more money to the teachers in the classroom,” Leal said.

On school finance, Leal said there is a need to reform the way schools are funded.

“Robin Hood is broken and I would just simply say that we need to look at ways that we can better fund our schools in a more equitable way and I would be open to using more of our sales tax to reduce more of our local property taxes,” he added.

Leal said he is a staunch conservative and he would go to Austin to represent the whole district. Where he can find common ground with colleagues, he will work with them. An example is Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, who is a pro-life Catholic like Leal.

“I can see working with him on pro-life legislation. I will represent the hardworking, salt-of–the-earth folks who roll up their sleeves day in and day out and do the dirty work — the single mom; the gentlemen who work at the radiator shop; the folks who work hard to stretch their paycheck. Those are the folks I want to represent. Those are the folks who have been forgotten. I’m a populist when it comes to that.”

Leal said he is not endorsed by Empower Texans. He has served on the Texas Public Policy Foundation, even though he’s not necessarily in agreement with them.

“I’m an independent thinker and I’m going to work hard to represent the whole of this district,” Leal said.