Editor’s Note: Ramey Ko, UT law lecturer and former candidate for the Texas House, is now running for Travis County treasurer against incumbent Dolores Ortega Carter. The Daily Texan editorial board sat down with him last week to discuss his plans and the importance of the office to students. The answers below have been edited and condensed for clarity and space considerations.
The Daily Texan: Why should students care about the race for treasurer?
Ramey Ko: The Travis County treasurer handles all money for Travis County. I mean, that, in and of itself, is a huge responsibility. … That means that, even if you’re a student who doesn’t own property in Austin, you pay rent, which means you indirectly pay property taxes through your landlord. If you register your car here, if you do anything like that, those are things you have to pay. If you vote here, if you go to court, if you end up interacting with any of those, the sheriff’s department. … These are all things that the Travis County treasurer’s office handles.
DT: What specifically, though, could you do as treasurer to make Austin more affordable for Austinites and students in particular?
RK: The treasurer doesn’t set policy, but the treasurer has the ability to, I think, advocate with the commissioners court for policies that the treasurer believes [create] better economic conditions and climate for the county. A lot of it can just be outreach. … And so that’s something the treasurer’s office can do without any policy changes.
DT: Why does Travis County still need a treasurer, given that several other urban counties in Texas have abolished the post?
RK: It’s not that many, actually. It’s nine, total. And of those counties, the biggest ones are Tarrant and Bexar county, so Dallas and … Harris, for example, still have theirs. The treasurer’s office, in theory, is important because it plays a check-and-balance role. The treasurer is an elected representative of the people, so [he is] directly accountable to voters. And the idea in the Texas Constitution and Texas law is that the treasurer is balanced by the auditor.
DT: Is there any reason the treasurer’s office couldn’t be merged with the office of the tax assessor collector, who’s also an elected official?
RK: The tax assessor collector is a huge office already in terms of responsibilities because the other thing the tax assessor collector handles in Travis County is [voter registration]. So he has to handle the registration, process all of that, the motor vehicles department. … So I can tell you the tax assessor collector has already got their hands full. … But in other counties that have abolished the position, they’ve been able to basically divvy up the responsibilities between the budget office, the auditor’s office, the investment office. … So it is possible. … And so what I’ve told people is that I’m willing to look at abolishing it because I do think that there is the potential for some savings and some benefits, but I’m not ready to make that decision yet.
DT: Why are you running for this job? Not long ago, you were running for state rep, but I know you didn’t meet one of the residency requirements. How did you end up in this race, which seems light years away?
RK: I started looking at treasurer because I was approached by some folks in the community who had been trying to find someone to run for this for a while. And, in fact, I remember meeting with somebody a few years ago who had been asked to look at the race, and he thought about running in that race but ultimately decided not to, I think because his own personal political circle overlapped a lot with the incumbent [Dolores Ortega Carter], so I think he thought that would create some issues there.
DT: Can you tell me who that was?
RK: I’m not going to say … because he didn’t end up coming out and running. … So I knew … that there had been some discontent out there about this office for a while, but, you know, I hadn’t looked at it really closely, so I got approached this summer, last year, by some folks, people I respect, Democratic Party leaders, activists, and said, ‘You know, we think you’d be a great candidate for this office.’ And so I said, ‘OK, well let me take a look at it, do my research. … Let me talk to some folks and get input, see what people think, and I’ll get back to you.’ So I spent about three months researching the position, talking to people in the community, reading about everything I could find about it, just kind of reflecting. And, ultimately, I came to the conclusion that this was a good opportunity and I would like to pursue it. [One of the nice things] about a county treasurer’s office as opposed to a [legislative one] is that it’s a sovereign office, which means if I get elected, it’s my office, my budget, my staff. If I want to implement policies, you know, that’s something that I can do without having to go through a hostile Republican majority. And I won’t have to deal with being a freshman … in the House, which limits you a lot in what you can do.
DT: So it doesn’t sound like there was anything specific to the position that drew you to it, and to some it might seem like you were just looking for the easiest race to jump into.
RK: I wasn’t going to originally run. … My original thought was that if I didn’t run for the legislature, I would just wait, so the … main reason I did it was because I was approached; I was asked to do it. I’m one of those people who feels that elected official positions, despite having different functions, actually have a lot more in common than people think … because I think at the end of the day, being a treasurer, yeah, the function of the office is financial, and there are a lot of duties that are specific, but … the elected official is not just an employee. The elected official is a manager and leader, so there’s a responsibility to set strategy, to set vision, to set long-term goals. … It’s just like a good manager can manage a group of engineers or a group of accountants, you know?
DT: Is there anything else you’d like students to know?
RK: As someone who teaches at the University, who’s been very actively involved in student organizations, like UDems. … Since I’ve been here in Austin, I’ve been very passionate about working with young people, and I continue to be passionate about that. This is a great chance to get somebody who has a very direct tie to students at the University into an important public office, one that maybe people haven’t heard so much about but, you know, can really have a big impact.