Sunday, October 08, 2006

Comptroller Candidates: Combs (R): FOR the TTC. Head (D): AGAINST the TTC.

Comptroller rivals far apart on funds


Polly Ross Hughes
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — A former Democratic state lawmaker out of office for a quarter-century is attempting an unlikely comeback against a well-financed Republican veteran in this year's race for Texas' top tax collector.

"Everything's being run by the influence peddlers, lobbyists and king makers," said Democrat Fred Head, 67, of the East Texas town of Athens. "We need to take the government back for the average citizen."

With $0 in campaign funds reported in July, compared with $3.5 million for Republican Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, Head's only successful tactic to grab attention to the race has been, well, novel.

"She needs to come clean with the people of Texas about this pornographic book," he said, referring to Combs' 1990 foray into pulp romance fiction, "A Perfect Match."

Combs, 61, is a West Texas rancher who has worked on Wall Street and as a prosecutor in Dallas. While serving in the Legislature, she championed property rights, and as agriculture commissioner she made national news by banning junk food in Texas public schools.

She said the only person seriously worried about the out-of-print book she wrote long ago as a lark is Head.

"I think it's an interesting indication of his turn of mind," she said. "He's a mystery."

Combs, Head and Libertarian Mike Burris of Austin are vying to replace Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is leaving the post she's held for nearly eight years to run for governor as an independent.

Beyond tax collection, the comptroller manages state treasury investments and issues warrants to pay state agency bills. Under the Texas Constitution, the comptroller also estimates how much money is available to spend when lawmakers write their two-year budgets.

Strayhorn rankled lawmakers in 2003 when she doubled her estimated budget shortfall to nearly $10 billion just as the Legislature convened. When she blamed lawmakers for holding a spending party, they retaliated by stripping the comptroller's office of key political powers.

Combs said that if elected she wants lawmakers to give her back those powers to conduct performance reviews of state agencies and Texas school districts. She said she'll also review all spending by state agencies, looking for streamlining opportunities to save money.

"Under the authority still vested in the comptroller's office, they have the ability to do what is called expenditure analysis," she said. "The comptroller's office can look at any agency and how it expends funds."

Combs cited state reports indicating that more than $1 billion in state taxes is uncollected. If the comptroller's office can't retrieve the money in 120 days, she said, she'd hire outside firms to collect the money.

Combs has pledged not to accept political donations from individuals or companies with an interest in tax cases before the agency. She has not agreed to retroactively give back money raised during her initial bid for comptroller.

Head, a former state representative who left office in 1981, said his next campaign report, due this week, won't show a huge influx of money into his campaign, adding his race is not about money.

"We have not raised a large amount of money. We don't think that's necessary. We are sick and tired of people buying these offices," he said, adding he thinks state government "is really in bad shape."

The Democrat cites a funding crisis for state parks needing repairs. And he calls the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor toll road project, which Combs supports, a "boondoggle."

Combs said she has sent a letter to highway officials, suggesting they make that project's "footprint" on the state's farms and ranches as undisruptive as possible.

Libertarian Burris, 55, is a certified internal auditor who has worked at the state auditor's office, Texas Workforce Commission and the former Department of Human Services.

He recommends abolishing the portion of property taxes that pays for schools in favor of a consumer tax on sales and services.

"I would not have a voting voice to change any of that," he conceded, "but I would be an advocate for that."

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