Who Knew a Tax Collector's Race Could Be This Much Fun?
Spears and Maxey spar over role of tax assessor-collector
Okay, everyone who predicted – say, back in January – that the sexiest election in the 2008 Democratic primary would be the race for Travis County tax assessor-collector, raise your hand. (Oh, you did not – quit lying.) But against the odds, that's how this primary season is shaping up. Last week, sparks flew at the Central Texas Democratic Forum debate between 16-year incumbent Nelda Wells Spears and challenger Glen Maxey, who represented southeast Travis County from 1991 to 2003 in the Texas House of Representatives.
In his opening statement, Maxey called for a more activist version of the office. "Many people ask me, 'Glen, why did you decide to run for a job like this? You've been a legislator; you've been a policy-maker; why this?' Well, I look at this office and look at what job it does today and think about what jobs it could also do, or this official could do, and I see a great opportunity, a tremendous opportunity, to deal with some of the most intractable problems in our community, to talk about the issues of equity. ...
"We can get what the Austin American-Statesman called it: that this is 'a paper-pushing office,'" Maxey said, referencing a recent editorial in the daily belittling his vision and urging him to remember the many clerical, fee-collecting, and record-keeping responsibilities Spears now has. "Well, I don't think that. I don't think that for a minute. It's important that those core services are done, efficiently. But what I want to talk about in my vision for this office is what other things we can do from there."
Maxey laid out three key elements to this vision: making delinquent taxpayers aware of payment options and going after scammers who use delinquency lists to sell high-interest loans; dealing with equity issues as they relate to rising property values, both through action on the county appraisal board and by reaching out to the Legislature; and increasing voter registration – despite the fact that Travis County has the highest registration in the state, Maxey said, there are still a good 100,000-plus eligible voters out there in Travis not registered, and the office must carry out a "systemic" registration effort year-round.
Spears defended her record by saying she's performing the job as outlined in state law. She then held up two jars containing a total of 1,000 pennies, one holding 990, and the other holding 10, to illustrate the county's tax-collection rate – a move that drew vigorous applause. "We should not take lightly the job of tax assessor-collector," Spears said. "These are the funds that are collected to take care of our public schools, public health, and public safety. These are things that we all benefit from, and if we're not collecting the dollars day in and day out, then those services will suffer.
"The tax office also has to work with the Texas Department of Transportation. My opponent doesn't seem to think that's very important, how many cars get registered every year. It is important, and I don't think he would have said that had he known that for every vehicle registration, the county gets a $10 road and bridge fee. That is taken into the county general fund in order to pay for county road maintenance and construction, county bridge maintenance and construction."
On Maxey's big issue, she countered, "Our voter registration numbers are less than they were a few years ago, but in the last presidential election year, we were at 94 percent. The voter rolls have been purged since then, and there is a lot of mobility in our county. People come in; people go out. So it's an ever-floating number, an ever-floating percentage of registered voters. ... Voter registration is important to me, and I encourage people to participate in the electoral process all the time. We have spoken to literally hundreds of neighborhood associations, homeowners associations, senior organizations, and [other] groups."
When time came for the Q&A, the candidates' loyalists had their guns loaded, but most of the questioning was aimed at concern over Democratic infighting rather than office duties. Former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire pointed out that in the last general election, Spears got more votes than any other candidate in Travis County and asked what the message would be to voters if the Dems replaced Spears "with you, who hasn't spent one day working for the tax office." Maxey shot back, "I congratulate Nelda for getting the most votes against a Libertarian opponent in the last election."
Spears was equally dismissive of Maxey's campaigning abilities. When Dem campaign consultant David Butts asked both candidates whether they would endorse the other if they lost the primary, Spears got off a zinger: "I haven't given that much thought, David. When I get there, I'll let you know." (Maxey, for his part, said yes.)
During his opening comments, Maxey brought up a study showing that the enforcement of delinquent taxes is almost three times higher in Central East Austin compared to the rest of Austin. That raised the ire of former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, who served East Austin for 20 years until 1995. After declaring her support for Spears, she said, "I believe the number of absentee landlords is almost three times greater in East Austin, and I applaud the tax assessor for trying to collect those taxes." East Austinites, she said, benefit from those taxes, and her attitude toward the office is, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Maxey replied that he had received the study from a member of the Black Austin Democrats.
The final questioner, Austin lawyer Todd Wong, noted that Maxey originally decided to run only after Spears announced she would retire – a decision she then reversed – and asked whether they had discussed the Democratic strategic implications. "No, we have not had any conversations about this or anything else," Spears replied coolly. "I would assume, as [I am] the incumbent, that he could pick up the phone and call me. ... He didn't do that."