- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The three Republicans vying to become Texas’ next attorney general all promised Wednesday to continue suing the federal government constantly - emulating the office’s current occupant, Greg Abbott, and his 30-plus lawsuits against what he calls Washington’s overreach.

A debate between state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney, and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman featured little disagreement. Each candidate heaped praise on Abbott, who is now running for governor.

It was far different from a subsequent debate involving the four GOP comptroller hopefuls: state Sen. Glen Hegar of Katy, state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville, former state Rep. Raul Torres of Corpus Christi and Debra Medina, a grass-roots activist and former 2010 gubernatorial candidate.

All four said the agency needs to improve shoddy customer service to business owners and fix a flawed tax administration system. The current comptroller, Susan Combs, isn’t seeking re-election.

The Texas Business Association hosted both debates and their moderator was its executive director Bill Hammond, who called Abbott the “Rolls Royce” of Texas leaders.

Paxton said he would continue suing the federal government, declaring “we need somebody who’s willing to step up and take that fight,” while Branch said of Abbott: “He’s doing the right thing, and I will continue that.” Smitherman said that as it nears the end of its second term, the Obama administration will become more emboldened, making it all the more necessary to follow in Abbott’s footsteps.

Branch and Paxton argued that their experience in the Legislature gives them much-needed familiarity with the laws they would be charged to uphold as attorney general. Smitherman said the job was more about leadership, saying he’s been able to cut staff and budgets while heading the Railroad Commission, and previously as director of the Public Utility Commission.

Smitherman added that he’d briefly served as a Harris County district attorney and would have stayed put if Gov. Rick Perry hadn’t appointed him head of the Public Utility Commission

“I’m the only on this stage whose ever tried a criminal case,” he said.

Branch countered, “If you raise your budget when you come into office and then you start lowering it, that’s not really lowering you budget.” He said he’d helped craft some of Texas’ most successful policies as a top lieutenant for Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

“I didn’t just sit around as a back bencher, throw grenades and vote ‘no,’” Branch said. “I worked for conservative solutions.”

Among the comptroller candidates, Hegar said the office, like all state agencies, needs to be more accountable to citizens. Torres promised to create an assistant comptroller for business to improve communication with entrepreneurs. Hilderbran, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, struck a similar tone, saying of the comptroller: “It’s an agency that has an adversarial culture and it could be cooperative with business.”

Medina promised to compile a state budget that makes it easy to understand what funds are used for existing government programs versus new spending

“I’ve seen the gentlemen in the race adopting the ideas that I’ve been championing for years,” Medina said.

Asked in the first debate, meanwhile, about the ongoing school finance trial - during which the attorney general’s office is defending a classroom funding formula that more than 600 school districts statewide argue is inadequate and unfair - Paxton said he believed the Legislature should update Texas’ educational standards so as not to “create a mediocre system.”

Smitherman said “throwing more money at it doesn’t solve the problem,” while Branch promised to defend the system as required by the attorney general’s office. He also quipped, though, “School finance in Texas is like a Russian novel: It’s long and everyone dies in the end.”

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