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District 96 Key to Controlling Texas House

Republican Bill Zedler, Democrat Chris Turner

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas –
Republicans and Democrats are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in last minute contributions into the campaigns of two Tarrant County candidates. Democrats see the election of challenger Chris Turner as key to their gaining control of the Texas House. Republicans supporting incumbent Bill Zedler want to keep that from happening. KERA's Shelley Kofler takes us to the battlefield in District 96.

Former hospital marketing manager Bill Zedler has slipped on his walking shoes, and in an upper middle-class Arlington neighborhood, he's knocking on doors.

Zedler: Do you vote republican or democrat?

Homeowner: Whatever my husband tells me.

On Dena Hirsch's porch Zedler, 65, offers a campaign flier to the former teacher. She's holding her one-year-old child as she talks about her biggest concern.

Hirsch: Definitely education it is going to be a deal breaker for me. Children are going without books. Children are going without so many things that should be a given in any public education system.

Both Zedler, in office for six years, and 35-year old Chris Turner, the Democratic challenger, agree. Education should be the top legislative priority. What they don't agree on is how schools should be funded and how education money should be spent.

Zedler says he's proud of supporting the 2006 school finance bill that cut property taxes by a third. The bill gave each school district the option of increasing that tax rate to raise more money but requires districts get voter approval to raise the rate by more than four cents.

Zedler: We put accountability in the system. If you have to go to taxpayers for an increase, we're betting a lot of people will sharpen their pencils before they do. They're going to make absolutely certain that what they're asking for is needed.

Turner, a former district manager for Congressman Chet Edwards, calls that school legislation an abysmal failure.
While stuffing mailers in the offices of the United Education Association, he explains why.

Turner: They simply froze our school district's funding at 2005 and 2006 levels and failed to take into account inflation. And local schools are dealing with incredible inflationary pressures not the least of which are utilities, cost of fuel and insurance. Furthermore, the bill passed takes money away from local districts if property values increase. I don't think that's fair.

Turner says he would have supported alternative legislation that lowered the tax rate less but helped homeowners by tripling the homestead exemption. He says that would have provided an additional $5 billion for schools.

Turner: That's the plan I would have supported and what I think we can get to.

Turner also campaigns on other education issues that divide the candidates as he battles to peel away votes in a district that was once reliably Republican. It includes south Arlington and parts of Fort Worth, Burleson and Mansfield.

Turner wants an across the board raise for teachers. Sadler has voted against that, but says he favors higher differential pay for veteran teachers as an incentive to keep them in the classrooms.

Turner opposes tax supported vouchers. Zedler supports them for students in low-performing schools.

Zedler's approach to education is tied to his philosophy on immigration, another priority.

Zedler: One of the things I've always said is we will not get control of the cost of our education our health care, health and human services or our criminal justice system until we get control of the borders

Reporter: Is it your belief if you shut off flow of immigrants coming into the school system you won't need to add any more state funding to the schools?

Zedler: No, but I think the amount will be less. Every year we've put more money in, but I think if you don't have an increase in population, you won't need to have that additional money coming in.

Zedler's plan to combat illegal immigration includes the reintroduction of legislation he authored to make English the official language of Texas.

Turner: I think that's misguided.

While Turner says Texas must stem the tide of illegal immigrants, he opposes an English-only measure, saying it would unfairly punish older Hispanics who are here lawfully but haven't mastered the language.

In almost every way, Turner and Zedler are political opposites. Zedler calls Turner a divisive operative.

Zedler: Who's been involved in partisan attacks.

Turner portrays Zedler as a lapdog of Republican leaders who does what he's told.

Turner: His approach is more that of lock-step vote for the leadership.

And with control of the Texas House hanging on this contest the candidates, and the party machines behind them, are pulling out all the stops.

Libertarian Todd Litteken of Arlington is also running for the District 96 seat.