Comptroller hopeful Hilderbran vows better revenue forecast to avoid surplus-time budget cuts

March 1, 2014

By CHRIS TOMLINSON

The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — When not overseeing tax laws in the Texas Legislature, Harvey Hilderbran counsels businesses on how to become more profitable — a job combination he says makes him uniquely qualified to be the state’s next chief financial officer.

The Republican is in a crowded race to replace retiring Comptroller Susan Combs, who Democrats blame for the Legislature’s massive education spending cuts last budget cycle after her forecast of state revenue fell short by billions of dollars.

The state ended that two-year budget cycle in 2013 with a surplus that lawmakers could have used to avoid cutting $5.4 billion from school spending. Hilderbran promised to avoid making such mistakes, if elected.

“We need to review and evaluate where we are getting that information, the processes we’re using,” he told The Associated Press. “But the simplest solution is to revise our estimates and update them as frequently as necessary to let the public and their representatives know what the state of the economy is, and what the state of the revenue collection is.”

The comptroller manages the state’s money, collecting taxes and disbursing funds to state agencies as directed by the Legislature. The Texas Constitution requires the comptroller to estimate revenues and certify that the two-year budget passed by the Legislature does not exceed that estimate. The job is one of the most powerful in the state because the estimate limits spending for things such as public schools and health care for the poor and disabled.

The Republican race to replace Combs appears headed for a runoff since no candidate will likely break the 50 percent mark in the primary Tuesday. The other candidates include state Sen. Glenn Hegar, tea party activist Debra Medina and former state Rep. Raul Torres. The winner will face Democrat Mike Collier, a Houston accountant, in November.

Hilderbran has served on the Texas House Ways and Means Committee for four terms, two of them as chairman. The committee’s job is to set tax policy, and he has served on the Legislative Budget Board, which creates the first draft of the state budget.

“I am uniquely qualified because of both private sector experience and my public policy and legislative experience,” he said. Hilderbran has published the most detailed set of proposals for changes at the comptroller’s office among the other candidates.

Hegar, one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, has dismissed Hilderbran’s Capitol experience, arguing that his experience as a conservative lawmaker and running a small business is more important. Collier, the only Democrat running for comptroller, touts his accounting and private sector business experience.

“Hiring a legislator to be our comptroller makes as much sense as giving a teenager a credit card and letting him set his own curfew,” Collier said.

Hilderbran has promised to institute improved performance reviews of state agencies to boost efficiency, but also promised to improve customer service for businesses filing their tax returns with the agency.

“There’s an adversarial culture in tax administration, if not hostile, and we need to improve that,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll be sending better signals to business that will cause them to want to invest more.”

He also promised to recreate a private sector advisory council comprised of business leaders to help improve the comptroller’s operations.

“We have talented people in the comptroller’s office, but we’ve had a lack of leadership,” he added.