Questions for Tony and Dan

Gubernatorial debate promises much heat, less light

Tony Sanchez
Tony Sanchez (Photo By John Anderson)

At a press conference this week, a reporter asked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Morales what he considered the most important differences between himself and his major primary opponent, Tony Sanchez, on matters of public policy. Morales replied that he would welcome the opportunity to find that out -- but that Sanchez's reluctance to debate made it difficult to determine the differences between the two candidates on the issues.

With that, the discussion abruptly returned to the headline questions of the day: What is the nature of Morales' business relationship with telecommunications giant SBC Communications, and how did it happen that shortly after Attorney General Morales intervened on behalf of Southwestern Bell (an SBC subsidiary) in a 1997 federal lawsuit, he left office and went to work as a highly paid consultant for SBC? Morales replied that the two circumstances were unrelated, and that as attorney general he was simply taking the position most favorable to Texas consumers -- although both the Public Utility Commission and consumer groups were on the other side. (Interest was sparked by Morales' just-released tax returns, which show a dramatic jump in income -- an unspecified amount of it via the coffers of SBC -- after he left office.)

It was an awkward turnabout for the candidate, who had called the press conference to demand that Sanchez write a check for $161 million to repay federal taxpayers for the Eighties bailout of his failed Tesoro Savings & Loan -- a drum Morales has been beating for a few weeks now. On this day at least, the reporters were much more interested in SBC and Danny, and later that day the Sanchez campaign suggested that Morales' negative attacks were simply attempts to distract attention from his own apparent conflicts of interest.

That Morales had been abruptly hoist on his own petard -- attacking his opponent to get the statewide visibility he can't afford to buy -- was briefly amusing. But it still didn't bode well for voters hoping that the brief campaign might yet get around to discussing pressing matters of more immediate public interest: e.g., how will the state resolve its predicted $5 billion budget deficit while preserving public education, maintaining public health, protecting the environment, and maybe leaving a few dollars for such amenities as, say, infrastructure and security?

Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About

In theory, some of these questions may be addressed in the two debates scheduled for Friday night, March 1, between Morales and Sanchez (one in English, one in Spanish). But the oracles are not auspicious. The media-shy Sanchez has thus far been content to keep reporters at arm's length and use saturation TV advertising to build controlled name ID directly with the voters, while the cash-poor Morales has tried to generate free media and cut into Sanchez's lead by banging away at the more unsavory aspects of his opponent's business career.

Come Friday, there's likely to be much more of this Hollywood Shuffle. But on the off chance that the reporter panelists manage to cut through the haze of Sanchez's generic platitudes and Morales' shotgun assaults, we can suggest a few questions for the candidates, and voters, to ponder:

Dan Morales
Dan Morales (Photo By Alan Pogue)

  • The budget deficit for 2003--04 is projected to be at least $5 billion. What specific plans do you propose either to cut spending, or to raise new revenues, in order to balance the state budget?

  • According to published reports, both candidates have suggested some form of tax restructuring (excepting an income tax) to address the budget crisis. What do you propose, and how will it differ from former Gov. Bush's unsuccessful attempt to do the same in 1997?

  • Both candidates say they will emphasize public education, including addressing historic inequities in public schools while raising teacher salaries. What do you propose to do, and how do you propose to pay for it?

  • The current budget shortfall is in part a direct consequence of the 1999 $1 billion property tax exemption enacted into law under former Gov. Bush. How do you propose to maintain state services and obligations, during a recession, with such heavy state reliance on property taxes and sales taxes?

  • In 2001, the Legislature enacted property tax rebates for corporate development that could cost taxpayers in excess of $10 billion. Do you propose a rollback of any such corporate exemptions?

  • Five major urban regions in Texas are either in non-compliance or near non-compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. How do you propose the state implement the anti-pollution programs necessary to begin cleaning up Texas air?

  • The state's nation-leading prison population continues to grow, and disproportionately with minority prisoners, and there's a crisis shortage of prison personnel. What will be your approach to the prison system -- and more generally, the inequitable system of Texas criminal justice?

    On Friday, some of these questions may be asked, and a few may even be addressed by the candidates. Lord knows they are of more permanent interest to the voters than whether Tony Sanchez the banker was a sharp dealer, or Dan Morales the attorney general had an eye for the main chance. end story

    The Friday, March 1 debate in English between Sanchez and Morales is scheduled for 7pm, followed by a U.S. Senate debate between the leading candidates (Victor Morales, Ken Bentsen, Ron Kirk) at 8pm, and a Spanish-language debate between Morales and Sanchez at 9pm. The debates in English will be broadcast locally by KUT-FM 90.5, and on television by KVUE Ch. 24 and KLRU-TV Ch. 18. The debate in Spanish will be broadcast by KELG-AM 1440.
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