Q&A: House District 132 candidates talk COVID-19 recovery, drainage and more

By R. Hans Miller | News Editor
Posted 8/27/20

With the presidential election looming, it’s easy to forget that several local races will be decided this fall as well. One of those races is for Texas House District 132 with Democratic …

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Q&A: House District 132 candidates talk COVID-19 recovery, drainage and more

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With the presidential election looming, it’s easy to forget that several local races will be decided this fall as well. One of those races is for Texas House District 132 with Democratic incumbent Gina Calanni defending her seat from her predecessor, Republican Mike Schofield and Independent Titus Benton.

Responses below are listed in alphabetical order and all candidates had a limit of 200 words for each question.

TITUS BENTON – INDEPENDENT, KATY

If elected, other than recovery from COVID-19, what will be your primary focus as representative for Texas House District 132?

 Citizens of District 132 can’t afford to have a primary concern, so neither can I as their representative. My neighbors are wondering how to find affordable healthcare and worrying if their home is going to flood again. We’ll address flooding in the following question, so here I’ll address two others.

Nearly a third of Texas adults are uninsured — the highest rate of any state in America. In District 132, zip code 77449 has a notably large uninsured population. Millions of young people are uninsured due to job loss in the service economy. Medicaid expansion is a no-brainer, and another possibility is to set up something similar to the Permanent University Fund to increase the capacity of certified charity clinics around the state already serving the un- and under-insured.

We also have an often-overlooked crisis in this district with hundreds of people experiencing chronic or situational homelessness. For others, increased property taxes make staying in homes problematic. We must ensure that people of all economic tiers can find — and stay in — safe, affordable housing.

There is nothing more fundamental to human flourishing than stability in housing and healthcare, so these would be dual priorities of mine.

Flooding continues to be a primary concern throughout Greater Houston, including HD 132. What are the top two projects that you would like to push forward to mitigate flooding risks for your constituents, if elected?

 Every election includes discussion around a third reservoir. The cost is estimated at $500 million.

One of our District’s lesser known gems is the Katy Prairie Conservancy. With a footprint of 18,000 acres, we should connect stakeholders to see KPC’s vision of doubling that number realized. With one wetland acre holding about a million gallons of water, every acre counts in slowing floods. Land is expensive, but let’s just round up and say that would cost $1 billion.

Irresponsible practices of the past invite future disasters. Homes on what James Wade of the HCFD calls “places that never should have been built” are eligible for buyout, but relocation is slow (only 3 in 100 homeowners accept). The reason? They don’t see the buyouts as lucrative enough to relocate. Buyout funds need increased to encourage people leaving harm’s way. Again, let’s round up and say $1 billion.

Hurricane Harvey damages have been estimated at $125 billion. The three initiatives I’ve named would combine to be a fraction of the clean-up costs associated with a catastrophe like Harvey. We manage to find the money to clean up after a storm. It’s time to find it to fund some permanent preventative measures.

The pandemic has brought to light concerns over executive authority at the county, state and federal levels. Within Texas, what do you believe should be done to define an appropriate level of authority for the governor, county judges and mayors given how executive authority has been used this year?

The COVID-19 crisis exposed a regrettable but persistent issue in Texas. Even during a crisis, it is increasingly unlikely that leaders from differing parties are willing to work together. The problem is not that lines of authority have not been clearly stated -- the problem is that competing partisan interests override what is in the best interests of the public.

What made the pandemic unique is the particular ways the virus impacted local communities. In this instance, I would favor local leaders being given more latitude to make decisions for the cities and counties they serve—the same way they’re granted it during a natural disaster.

While I can understand Governor Abbot not wanting to make blanket mandates for dissimilarly impacted counties across a state as large as Texas, I was frustrated that he and other conservative operatives derided Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s initial mask order April 27th only to issue a statewide order of his own July 3rd.

The COVID-19 crisis highlighted this fissure, but it’s not the only time we’ve seen it in Texas. Unfortunately ego and and political strategy have as much to do with this as any perceived lack of clarity on roles and authority.

As representative for HD 132, what will you do to reach out to congressional peers regardless of political party to address the concerns of Texans?

To be fair, I believe both Democrats and Republicans desire to find bipartisan cooperation. Unfortunately, they ultimately are accountable not only to their constituents but to their party’s leadership as well. As an independent I will enjoy the full freedom to be nonpartisan in loyalty but trans-partisan in cooperation. I’ll be uniquely able to partner with whomever I feel is advancing the priorities that serve citizens of District 132 best.

I don’t have any party meetings where we’re discussing legislative priorities. Instead, I’m in the midst of a listening tour with my neighbors in District 132 to hear theirs. I have already begun reaching out to other representatives in order to get to know them and see where our values align. Among my strongest skills are listening, perspective, and objectivity. I’ve always been a bridge builder, and that will continue in the legislature. I know how to communicate with people of all different backgrounds and convictions.

I see partisanship as a huge obstacle to needed progress. I’m not concerned with “keeping the district red” or “flipping the seat blue.” When partisanship is prioritized, people suffer.

What should be done to address balancing the need for law enforcement with concerns about police brutality?

I am pro-law enforcement community and pro-black community. I refuse to be wedged into a false choice of supporting one to the neglect of the other.

I started my listening tour by talking to law enforcement officials. I have tremendous respect for our women and men in uniform. I don’t buy into divisive rhetoric like “defund the police.” I think more (not less) support is called for.

In 2019, there were only 27 days the whole year when police did not kill someone. In 2020, nearly 600 people have been killed by police. These killings occur disproportionately to black citizens. Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police. District 132 consists of 49% people of color, so I have an obligation to be honest that racism is a toxic ingredient in the recipe of police brutality.

Accountability, unfortunately, is rare. In 2015, over 1100 people were killed by police. Zero of them were charged with manslaughter or murder. This trend, along with the prohibition of civil suits against offending officers, must change. A good start would be re-enforcing the well-intentioned (but limited) Sandra Bland Act with passage of the George Floyd Act in the next session.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is finished, what are two steps you would propose the state take to help Texans recover from the economic impacts of the novel coronavirus?

The next legislative session is a crucial one with budget shortfalls expected. It is important to get the most bang for the recovery buck.

First, it is vital that we support small businesses. While a lot of the initial aid famously went to larger corporations, small businesses floundered in the wake of shutdowns. We have to prioritize infusing capital into smaller companies so they can pay staff, regain momentum, and grow. We must take care of our small businesses.

Secondly, I would explore ways to fund agencies who will continue to support those impacted by the economic crisis. Long after the state “moves on,” numerous nonprofit agencies will be helping those who are left behind. Just like Katy Responds is still serving Harvey victims, places like Christ Clinic will be serving those left uninsured by job loss, Hope Impacts will be helping those forced into homelessness when they default on their mortgage, and Katy Christian Ministries will be providing food and other social services to vulnerable citizens. I think one-time grants to these organizations in 2021 and incentivizing individual gifts to these organizations would help significantly with community uplift during the recovery.

GINA CALANNI – INCUMBENT DEMOCRAT, KATY

If elected, other than recovery from COVID-19, what will be your primary focus as representative for Texas House District 132?

First and foremost, I am running for re-election to be a voice for everyday, hard-working Texans and continue fighting for the issues that matter to Texas families: guaranteeing access to affordable healthcare, addressing rising property taxes, providing all kids with a high-quality public education, defeating the plague of human trafficking, and making sure our community is equipped to handle future catastrophic disasters. We can come together to tackle these problems, without raising taxes on our families and small businesses. As a cancer survivor, my first priority in the next legislative session will be to expand Medicaid. All Texans deserve to have high-quality, preventative healthcare options, and Medicaid expansion would provide over 1 million more Texans with real access to healthcare. Right now, our state is turning away almost $10 billion a year in tax dollars that we already paid to the federal government, while we have the largest uninsured population in the nation. That is unacceptable because no family should have to choose between taking a kid to the doctor or paying their electricity bill.

Flooding continues to be a primary concern throughout Greater Houston, including HD 132. What are the top two projects that you would like to push forward to mitigate flooding risks for your constituents, if elected?

 Like many other Texans, the catastrophic flooding that followed Hurricane Harvey damaged my home and forced my family to move. While Texans struggled to get back on their feet, the Governor refused to call a special session to use Rainy Day funds on recovery efforts. Next legislative session, I will work to pass more proactive legislation to get our state ready for future disasters and fund critical flood infrastructure projects. In 2019, we made significant progress. I was proud to co-author legislation that will create a property tax exemption for properties affected by natural disasters to ensure Texans are not paying excessive taxes on damaged homes and buildings. We also invested over $1.6 billion into Harvey relief and large flood control projects. However, we must do more and I’m ready to get back to work.

The pandemic has brought to light concerns over executive authority at the county, state and federal levels. Within Texas, what do you believe should be done to define an appropriate level of authority for the governor, county judges and mayors given how executive authority has been used this year?

Every community in our state is different, and has experienced tough, yet varied, health and economic impacts from this pandemic. The past six months have devastated working families and small businesses, and the virus has killed over 10,000 Texans. That is why it is imperative that we listen to advice from doctors and public health officials in each community to effectively mitigate the challenges from COVID-19. State leadership in Austin should listen to voices on the ground to learn what each region needs, instead of overriding guidance intended to protect Texans’ health and ultimately safely reopen our economy and community. From the beginning, I have opposed state overreach and supported a strategy where we listen to medical professionals right here in the Harris County region.

As representative for HD 132, what will you do to reach out to congressional peers regardless of political party to address the concerns of Texans?

 During the last legislative session, I was proud to work with House members from across the aisle to accomplish some incredible things for our community. As your State Representative, I co-authored legislation to invest more than $11 billion dollars to support our public schools, reduce property taxes, and put resources directly into our children’s classrooms. I also worked with former Mayor Chuck Brawner, Katy Mayor Pro Tem Chris Harris, and Senator Lois Kolkhorst to pass a bipartisan law that now allows Katy police to enforce safety standards for large, overweight trucks making our roads safer. None of this would have been possible without bipartisan action.

What should be done to address balancing the need for law enforcement with concerns about police brutality? 

What we are witnessing across the nation is a desperate cry for justice, for George Floyd and countless others, who should have never been killed. I feel the pain and frustration in knowing that so little has been done. I want you to know that I am committed to addressing this through real policy changes. I will work with community leaders and colleagues in the Legislature to enact laws that provide justice for everyone. As a member of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, I worked with law enforcement from across the state and listened to their input on legislation that would impact their ability to do their jobs. They must be supported, but we must also demand accountability. Next legislative session, we should raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old to ensure our children are not sent to adult prisons to be treated like criminals; limit Class C misdemeanor arrests because Texans should not go to jail for such minor crimes; and provide enhanced de-escalation training for all law enforcement officers.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is finished, what are two steps you would propose the state take to help Texans recover from the economic impacts of the novel coronavirus?

 Expand healthcare coverage options and broadband access for all Texans. The pandemic has made clear the staggering inequity in access to healthcare -- especially considering that those who lost their jobs because of this pandemic also lost health insurance tied to their employment. As a single mom whose three boys attend Katy ISD schools, I know online learning has been challenging to many families, but especially to those who lack access to broadband and high-speed internet. We need to work together to make sure all families have access to broadband, and teachers get the resources they need. Our teachers have had to answer a call that they did not sign up for. Their routines and workload have more than doubled with the changes in what a regular school day and classroom used to look like. I know our teachers are doing everything that they can to ensure our children are successful. We must be ready to support them in future catastrophes and do everything possible to help small business and working families recover from this disaster.

MIKE SCHOFIELD – REPUBLICAN, KATY

If elected, other than recovery from COVID-19, what will be your primary focus as representative for Texas House District 132?

I will work to make sure Texas businesses can thrive again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we can avoid more job losses and get Texans who have lost their jobs back to work.

As we continue to take measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19, we need to realize that being safe doesn’t require shutting down the businesses that provide the jobs that feed Texas families. Instead, we must limit any restrictions as narrowly as possible and for as short a time as possible to deal with specific outbreaks. We need a precise scalpel, not a meat cleaver.

Once we have reversed our state’s job losses, we need to restore jobs to our neighbors who have lost them during the pandemic. This will include working to get our economy back in gear so businesses have the confidence to re-hire, and also having the Texas Workforce Commission provide training for the types of new jobs that will be created as we rebuild our economy.

And we must fight against the push by so-called “progressives” at the federal level to eliminate oil and gas, which would devastate our local community, costing thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.  

Flooding continues to be a primary concern throughout Greater Houston, including HD 132. What are the top two projects that you would like to push forward to mitigate flooding risks for your constituents, if elected?

We must do everything we can to keep people from losing their homes when major storms strike. As the peak of hurricane season approaches, we are reminded that we must plan for flood prevention – not just wait until a hurricane strikes and clean up afterward.

When Harvey hit our area, I began working with state and federal officials to build a “third reservoir” under Cypress Creek that would slow down the flow of flood water into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, preventing them from filling as quickly. This levy would hold water for a much shorter time that our current reservoirs – but long enough to protect our neighborhoods from flooding even in a storm the size of Harvey.

We must also protect our homes by ensuring that the Harris County flood control bond money is actually used to clean out debris from waterways that flood, to prevent them from backing water up into our neighborhoods.  We must stand up and fight to keep the county from redistributing these funds to other parts of the county for political purposes rather than using them where it actually floods.

The pandemic has brought to light concerns over executive authority at the county, state and federal levels. Within Texas, what do you believe should be done to define an appropriate level of authority for the governor, county judges and mayors given how executive authority has been used this year?

While COVID-19 is an extraordinary crisis, calling for unusual measures, it is vital that our government doesn’t overstep its bounds and become our master, even in uncertain times.

Many of the orders made by local officials for our own good, although acceptable to most Texans, were made without any state law authorizing them. Under the circumstances, many Texans were ok with that. This time.

Your constitutional rights are fundamental and must be protected even during a crisis. Once government feels it can take away your freedoms “for your own good,” there had better be clear limits on how far government’s power over you extends. Government’s reaction to the pandemic showed that we need to make very clear what emergency powers government officials have to tell you what you can and can’t do, to what extent they have that power, and for how long.

The pandemic has shown that the Texas Disaster Act is not nearly clear enough about what extraordinary powers our leaders have during a crisis. This statute, designed mostly for hurricanes, must be amended to ensure that government can take the steps necessary to protect you during a crisis without stripping you of your basic constitutional rights.

As representative for HD 132, what will you do to reach out to congressional peers regardless of political party to address the concerns of Texans?

Politics at every level has become increasingly partisan. My concern has always been – and will continue to be – doing what is best for the people of Katy and Cypress. I remain willing to work with anyone who agrees with us on policies that help make this an even better place to live, from flood control to property tax reform to the constitutional amendment I wrote to prevent the state from establishing an income tax. 

There is a marked difference between those of us who believe in individual liberty and free enterprise which has made Texas the envy of the nation, and those who want to take over our state and increase government’s power over individual Texans. I will always maintain our Texas principles and fight against turning Texas into New York or California. But where we can find common ground, I continue to stand ready to work with any of my colleagues to pass bills that benefit our neighborhoods and our families. I will also work with our congressional delegation, regardless of party, to make sure Katy and Cypress get the best representation possible.

What should be done to address balancing the need for law enforcement with concerns about police brutality? 

Proper law enforcement is a vital part of our community. It keeps us safe and maintains a livable community. The recent calls from the left to “defund the police” would leave us vulnerable to crime and to those who would prey on our neighbors.

Police officers are regularly sent into situations that are dangerous and can cost them their lives, including many that don’t appear life threatening at the outset. The best way to prevent instances where officers overreact with tragic consequences is to provide better and more in-depth training in how to recognize a life-threatening situation (and therefore to recognize one that is not) and to enhance training on how to de-escalate potentially lethal situations. Our officers should become experts in avoiding violent confrontations, both for their good and for the benefit of the people they are encountering.

As a society, we need a change in attitudes both among our law enforcement and the public at large that recognizes that brutality is unacceptable, as is attacks on police officers. Our officers should not need to fear violence on every shift and the public should not fear the police whose job is to protect us.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is finished, what are two steps you would propose the state take to help Texans recover from the economic impacts of the novel coronavirus?

If we wait until the pandemic is over to protect Texans from its economic effects, we will be too late. We must start now by ensuring that we keep as much of the Texas economy open as possible, to prevent businesses from failing or cutting back significantly, and to protect our neighbors from losing their jobs.

While we all remain committed to being safe and slowing the spread of COVID-19, we also need to be aware that we cannot shut down the Texas economy and sit by while people lose their jobs and their livelihood. Our state needs a balanced approach that recognizes the need for people to act safely when out in public, while allowing them to work and feed their families.

For those who have lost their jobs, we need to provide unemployment benefits and training to prepare them for the jobs that will be available in the post-COVID economy.

While both the state and federal government are committed to helping our neighbors who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, the key is to make sure we don’t create more job losses – and help our state’s employers recover and get back to hiring our neighbors. 

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