It's no secret that the next legislative session will be dominated by public school finance. Austin ISD trustee Gina Hinojosa hopes Austin voters know that, and that the education vote will push her over the line in the House District 49 Democratic primary.
Of the seven Democratic candidates running to replace retiring incumbent Elliott Naishtat, Hinojosa is the only one who has held office. That also means she's the only one of the seven with a record to run on – or against. In 2012, the civil rights attorney joined the AISD Board of Trustees in the Position 8 At-Large seat. A year later, she was voted by her fellow trustees to become board vice president, then president in 2015. Then last December she announced that she was stepping down as president to free up time to win Naishtat's vacated seat.
So why swap the unpaid, highly demanding post of trustee for the badly paid, highly demanding post of state representative? For Hinojosa, it's just shifting battlefields in the same war. She said, "Our biggest challenge locally for our school is finance, and that fight is at the state. We've done what we can locally in finding more dollars, in partnering with the city on contracts, afterschool programming, but there's only so much of that we can do."
Hinojosa is undoubtedly the establishment candidate. As the most high-profile name in the race, she secured just about every Democratic, progressive, and labor endorsement that matters in town: that includes AISD employees' union Education Austin, which historically has had a more tense and complex relationship with board chairs. It also doesn't hurt that her father Gilberto Hinojosa is Texas Democratic Party chair, raising her profile even higher (although the state party has stayed out of this local fight).
Her election pitch is simple: She can be education's voice on the inside. After all, the school finance debate is inevitable. Not only is the Texas Supreme Court likely to uphold earlier rulings that the current system is unconstitutional, but lawmakers punted on partial reforms in 2015 in favor of sweeping reforms in 2017. The real fight involves blocking conservative lawmakers from using this debate as cover to force through charter expansion and voucher programs. Last session, Hinojosa was part of an unprecedented coalition of trustees, districts, and chambers of commerce that put new pressure on the Legislature to fend off those conservative initiatives. "I was amazed that we managed to pull that together, but I think there's a lot more to do in that respect, so tapping into supporters of public education around the state, Republicans and Democrats alike, is necessary to make a real issue."
That 2015 education coalition could be key in 2017 because it's an important indicator of how the House really works. The aggressive school finance reforms it backed weren't authored by a Democrat, but by Republican House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, and they had the bipartisan support of urban Dems, and rural and moderate Republicans. Yet the measure, which would have added cash to 97% of districts, failed because of opposition from budget-slashing conservatives and South Texas rural Dems, who wanted a bigger slice of the pie. But Hinojosa hopes her school board experience – both as a budget-builder and a consensus-builder – can help extend that coalition. "It's all about bridging relationships, and when I was president of the school board, that's all I did."
In the rough-and-tumble of the primary, Hinojosa has tried to extend her reach beyond the education voter, and tap into the underlying paradigm of all Austin politics – affordability. The state's failure to keep up its share of the education bill has put a bigger and bigger burden on school districts, which pass that burden on to residents through property taxes. On top of that, AISD is a massive contributor to state coffers under the "Robin Hood" recapture system, so roughly $1,000 of the average AISD tax bill isn't even going to AISD schools. While quick to say that Austin should pay its share, Hinojosa said, "Too many of us know people who have had to sell their homes because they couldn't pay their property tax bills."
The next session will be undoubtedly a watershed for the Democratic caucus. Not only is Naishtat out, but so are other stalwarts, like representatives Ruth Jones McClendon and Sylvester Turner, and Senator Rodney Ellis, who is stepping down for the less stressful and better-paid job of Harris County Commissioner. The departure of those four alone means almost a century of legislative experience gone, and both Democrats and Republicans will struggle to find freshman lawmakers with an understanding of key issues like education finance. Aside from eyeing the obvious seat on Public Education, Hinojosa said that she would be interested in a seat on the House State Affairs committee – the entity that controls the underlying tax system upon which the budget is constructed. "We need to look at doing a sunset review of all the tax exemptions that are out there. This hasn't got traction in the past, but we're going to be pretty desperate to find money to govern."
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