A Texas Senate TV debate turned into a runaway train Friday, with a derailment at the end.
In the last seconds of a full-throttle final debate for one of the few genuine swing seats in Texas politics, state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, surprised Fort Worth Democrat Beverly Powell by bringing up Powell’s past lawsuit for unpaid business property taxes.
“You were sued because you did not pay your property taxes,” Burton said on WFAA/Channel 8, referring to a 2006 judgment over $7,727 in taxes and penalties against an antique shop Powell once co-owned in Old Town Burleson.
At first, Powell was speechless. Then she replied: “That is not true. That is absolutely not true. … I have paid every dime of property taxes that I ever owed.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
With only three weeks to go before voting starts, it was the first flashpoint in a local Texas Senate campaign that had all but disappeared beneath the headlines about the U.S. Senate campaign between conservative plowhorse U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic racehorse U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
On July 13, Burton’s campaign distributed paperwork showing a tax judgment and liens from as far back as 2003 involving several businesses, mostly against the Burleson antique store Powell used to co-own, Between Sisters. (It was an antique store with rented spaces and a tea room. It’s now a Babe’s Chicken.)
Burton has mostly had the upper hand in the campaign, raising more than twice as much money as Powell, a former Burleson school board president. But the district — most of Fort Worth and west Arlington — was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats in 2016.
Friday’s debate at the WFAA/Channel 8 studio was the first time Burton has publicly talked about the lawsuit.
The debate will air Sunday at 9 a.m. on WFAA’s “inside Texas Politics” and later at wfaa.com.
Powell’s campaign released a statement later Friday saying the dispute was over whether she owed business property taxes involving antique dealers who had subleased space in the store. According to the statement, she paid off the taxes to settle any conflict when she was appointed to the school board in 2007.
“I know a lot of Texans can relate to being assessed property taxes they didn’t owe,” she said in the statement, saying Burton “grossly misrepresented the situation.”
But Burton’s campaign also released more documents involving several ventures. One state tax lien was not paid off until 2014.
Burton’s spokesman, New Braunfels-based consultant Luke Macias, said the liens are relevant because Powell didn’t pay the business taxes back then, but now argues that Texas should raise more money from taxpayers for public schools.
Both campaign debates — the first was on KXAS/Channel 5 — have focused mostly on whether Texas spends enough money on public education and whether the Legislature has shifted more of that tax burden onto local school districts and property taxpayers.
In the WFAA debate, Burton argued that Texas’ spending on public schools increased. (It did, by $4.6 billion, but that was because Senate budget writers figured in local property tax increases and other revenue.)
“We are being prudent with those dollars and we need the local level as well as the federal level to be prudent as well,” Burton said.
Powell replied that the state’s share of school funding has gone down — it has — and “you will see that pattern of decreasing school funding from the state level and increasing our property taxes at the local level to make up the difference.”
The candidates also split again on business incentives, with Powell saying that she agrees with the Republican majority in Austin that favors devoting public money for “job creation” and corporate relocations, while Burton called it cronyism and “corporate welfare.”
For months, Texas Democrats have pointed to Powell’s race as their most important campaign, because the party needed to win back two Senate seats to have any say-so at all over what bills are brought to the floor.
But a Republican victory two weeks ago that flipped a San Antonio Democratic seat has made that less likely.
That leaves Burton, a Tea Party founder-turned-state-senator, rallying Republican voters to defend her and longtime ally Cruz against Democrats’ energized O’Rourke campaign.
For Burton and Powell, it was the end of the debates. But the beginning of the fireworks.