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Gerald Daugherty, Travis County’s last Republican, fears for county’s fiscal future

Thursday, January 2, 2020 by Jack Craver

Gerald Daugherty has long said that this would probably be his last term in office. However, for a couple of days at the beginning of December, there were whispers that the Commissioners Court’s lone Republican might try for another four-year stint in November 2020.

Daugherty, who has served on the court since 2002 – except for four years between 2009-13 – put the rumors to rest on Dec. 5, saying he will definitely not seek reelection. Shortly thereafter he endorsed Becky Bray, so far the only Republican to announce her candidacy for the seat.

Daugherty, who turns 70 in January, is the first to say it will be a challenge for any Republican to win the precinct, which roughly corresponds to the southwestern quadrant of Travis County, including parts of downtown, the western half of South Austin, West Lake and a number of affluent communities.

It’s the only precinct where Republicans are competitive, but Daugherty says they are still at a disadvantage. He himself lost his seat in the “Obama tsunami” of 2008, and only barely edged out his Democratic opponent in 2016, despite enjoying a major fundraising advantage and making an endearing TV ad that went viral.

Of the 51 officials elected to county office, Daugherty is the only Republican.

However, as was made particularly clear this past year, Daugherty is often out of sync with the modern GOP. Asked whether it has become harder to be a Republican in the Trump era, Daugherty expresses bewilderment and frustration with the behavior of a president whose policies he generally supports.

“I agree with probably 80 percent of what Donald Trump takes on,” he says, “but I was just reared to be so much more respectful.”

His support of county funding for Planned Parenthood has earned him scorn from many in his party. “I’ll vote for the Planned Parenthood deal because I think that the overwhelming majority of the money is on education on keeping teens from getting pregnant,” he says.

He also publicly rebuked Gov. Greg Abbott and Republicans in the Legislature for sharply limiting the ability of local governments to increase property taxes without voter approval. He could have supported a cap that was lower than the previous 8 percent per year, but the 3.5 percent limit that was ultimately approved was a step too far, Daugherty says.

The caps will make it very challenging for local governments to cover basic services and respond to emergency situations, he says. Now that the county is operating under strict new limits, the commissioners need to adapt to a new fiscal reality.

“Which is why,” he adds, “I thought it was just absurd that the majority of the court voted themselves pay raises.”

Daugherty was also the lone vote against setting up a public defender’s office, arguing that the long-term financial commitment was imprudent amidst severe revenue constraints.

Local governments will be able to evade the 3.5 percent cap by getting approval from voters. Daugherty dreads the prospect of multiple entities – the city of Austin, the Austin Independent School District and Travis County – asking voters to approve tax increases.

“You couldn’t have a worse nightmare than trying to throw all those things at a November 2020 ballot,” he says. “Somebody’s going to be told no.”

That somebody, he fears, is more likely to be the county. There is much less awareness of county government, he says, than of the city or the school district.

“We’re kind of sleepy here,” he notes.

Navigating the challenges that will accompany the revenue limits, he says, would be a lot easier if the county hired an administrator who oversees county staff. In contrast to the city, the county has no designated CEO of the civil service; staffers answer directly to the Commissioners Court.

Daugherty has long said it is simply impractical to have a large organization without a dedicated chief executive: “You gotta have a boss.”

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