Susan Combs

The 59-year-old state agriculture commissioner— and wannabe comptroller—on what a school-finance fix will really cost, what she’s learned from ranching, and what it will be like to have a son fighting in Iraq.

July 2004By Comments

Evan Smith: A big-picture question to begin: What’s the state of state government?

Susan Combs: It’s actually pretty good. Of course, there has been some anxiety about funding. But take the Agriculture Department: We were asked to cut 15 percent and we cut 18 percent, and I don’t think anybody who works for me has any reason to feel anxious. And we didn’t incur new taxes, though I certainly proposed and raised fees. We raised something like $1.5 million in fees for things like pesticide licenses. I did that because the fees hadn’t been raised in five, ten, fifteen years. I don’t view those as taxes; they’re really cost-recovery items for services rendered.

ES: The cynic in me is dying to point out that “cost-recovery items” is an Orwellian euphemism. The reality is that if you say “I’m not raising taxes” but then you raise fees, there’s no material difference to the average person.

SC: I disagree. If you don’t want us to provide the service, fine. But if we’re going to provide it and, by golly, we’re losing our shirt on it, then I don’t think it’s unfair to say, “Hey, let us recover our costs.” That said, higher fees really weren’t what saved the 18 percent of our budget. It was that we just flat decided to restrict things. For example, why should we check eggs when the feds are doing it? Why duplicate?

ES: Are you opposed to new taxes? Because in a number of states with governors as conservative as ours, raising taxes has been the inevitable outcome.

SC: Is it raising taxes, or is it finding new taxees? Let’s say we always taxed homeowners on the basis of the value of their property. That’s a class of taxpayers. Is it raising taxes to shift that burden, with the result being the same net revenue? If the Legislature trades out property taxes for some other form of revenue, it’s a new tax, and it’s a raised tax, but I don’t call that raising taxes.

ES: Do you oppose an increase in the cigarette tax?

SC: No, that would be fine. Nor, by the way, would I be opposed to a sales tax on food sold in vending machines in schools. Billy can go to a 7-Eleven and buy a soft drink and must pay sales tax, but Billy goes to school, buys a soft drink, and pays no sales tax. I don’t see any reason for the discrepancy in vending machines not being taxed if the exact same product is taxed at a 7-Eleven.

ES: Okay, so I’m sitting here as a Republican contributor to a future statewide race in which Susan Combs is running. Another Republican who’s also running says to me, “Well, that Susan Combs is willing to raise sales taxes, cigarette taxes . . .”

SC: And lower taxes somewhere else. I don’t consider myself in support of higher taxes. I do believe that if our state population surges, you have to have more money in the system because you’ve just got more humans to take care of. But when I was in the Legislature, one of the reasons we all were very, very apprehensive about an income tax was that we didn’t trust state government: “Whoops, we’ve got a whole new revenue stream. Let’s go use it.” The appetite to spend is really hard to curb. Our appetite to consume at the state level is hard to manage.

ES: If the issue is “We don’t want to have too much money because then we’ll spend it,” what of the argument that we don’t have enough money to meet our present needs?

SC: That’s true in some areas. In health care, for example. We have so many overweight kids and so many overweight adults; our health-care system is going to be in a world of hurt financially if we don’t do prevention. To me, prevention is the smartest single thing we can do about health-care costs long-term.

ES: Where’s that money going to come from?

SC: Well, I’m going to make the argument that if you don’t do it, you’re going to be really, really sorry. The Department of Health has come out with some data about the cost of obesity to the state of Texas based on the present population of kids. And I’m saying, you know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

ES: But somebody’s got to pay for the ounce.

SC: I think we’re going to have to pay for the ounce or we will be dead broke. It’s that serious.

ES: I assume you’re not looking to tax topless dancers to pay for health care?

SC: If it’s something that the state thinks is important, you need a long-term revenue stream, something that will be reliable to the extent that anything is. It’s hard to imagine that sin taxes are long-term. And, at the very least, you have a public-relations problem. It could be argued that you’re saying, “Gee, I hope these businesses keep going.”

ES: Were you surprised at how the special session on school finance came together—or came apart?

SC: No, because there was never a consensus, and there still isn’t. You really have four players: the governor, the lieutenant governor, the Speaker, and the education community. And the fourth player, whom this is all about, has never been ecstatic about any of the proposals put before them. The numbers that came out did not meet their needs, though there’s room for dispute over what their needs are; I don’t know that the fourth player presented a case that was audible or persuasive. In any case, I hear that they believe their best bet may be to wait and see what the courts do.

ES: You’ve announced, two years before the next election, that you’d like to be the state’s comptroller of public accounts. So let me put you on the spot: With your budgeting hat on, what should we do to solve our school-finance problem?

SC: I think you’re going to have to take a look at a larger dollar number to meet both the rise in student population and the other needs in our schools, like bricks and mortar. I just heard about schools that have no gym. So how do you pay for it? I don’t know that you get there with $2 billion or $3 billion now. You maybe need $4.5 billion or $5 billion. The Senate was there, but when the House got to the higher number, members backed away from the precipice and underfunded education.

ES: While we’re on school finance, let’s talk about the governor. A poll that came out a few weeks ago has his approval rating at 37 percent. Why do you think the public’s view of him has diminished?

SC: Redistricting was incredibly painful for everybody. But I think from the governor’s perspective, he said he was going to get it done and he did. Tough jobs are tough to do. You never get everything right. You just do the best you can.

ES: Are you a supporter of the governor’s in 2006?

SC: I expect he will be reelected in 2006.

ES: So you’ll support him against any primary challenger.

SC: I’m not sure he’ll even have a primary challenger.

ES: But if he had one, would you support him no matter who it was?

SC: Well, I can’t speculate about who it might be. No matter who it is? If it’s my brother?

ES: Is your brother planning on running in the next election?

SC: Yes, I would support Governor Perry against my brother! Barring something unforeseen, I’m planning to support him.

ES: Is this a good time to be a Republican in Texas? Do you feel good about what the party stands for?

SC: I’m a proud Republican, and I would say I’m proud of my views: property rights and fiscal conservatism and all that. I’m focused on what I would call big-ticket items. Smaller-ticket items don’t particularly engage me.

ES: Let me try again. You’ve successfully avoided stepping on some of the land mines that some others—in both parties, frankly—have stepped on with regard to things like social issues. Do you consider yourself a conservative on social issues?

SC: I consider myself a conservative on all issues. But I have a certain amount of energy to expend, and I expend it on the things that are dearest to my heart: my family and their well-being and, obviously, this agency and all the farmers and ranchers out there and then this whole issue of children’s health. That’s a fairly large menu of things for me to worry about. I believe that it is a distraction, and I use that word carefully. I don’t have time to go off on rabbit trails.

ES: Do you worry about those distracting social issues coming up in your race for comptroller? Specifically, as someone who describes herself as “pro-choice with exceptions,” would you have any problem with the mainstream of the Republican party on the question of abortion?

SC: I hope people who differ with me on one issue would take a look at the entire Susan. Who is she? What does she do? Is she honest? Responsive? Genuine? Does she have the best interest of Texas at heart? I think they would say “yeah” to all of those.

ES: Okay, enough politics. Now let’s talk about the entire Susan. You are, famously, a rancher.

SC: Yes! And I buy high and sell low!

ES: I wonder how you were shaped by your experience growing up on your family’s ranch, in West Texas, how you continue to be shaped by the time you spend there today, and how, as a result, your values might be different from those of people who’ve had a big-city upbringing.

SC: There are at least three ways. One is that you learn to be really flexible. The weather is so beyond your control that if you’re not prepared to be flexible, you’re gonna get killed. Second thing, your word has to be your bond. The third thing—and you can get this from the city, but it’s harder—is you get a sense of place. I’m so lucky that I get to listen to the wind out on the ranch. You can hear the grass blow, and you can see the country. You can look off for miles and miles and miles, and you can dream big and think big, but it places you in perspective. Every time I’m at the ranch, I think about my great-grandfather and the people before him thousands of years ago. There have been people walking this land for a very long time, and they’ve seen the same sky, the same stars, and the same mountains. It’s something that gives me a tremendous reality check.

ES: And it places you square in the middle of the issues that you care about, since so much of what you do as ag commissioner is advocate for rural Texas.

SC: For instance, it means I have a different view of water than some folks. When I was in the House, in the mid-nineties, I wrote a bill that said that if you’re figuring out whether the water stays in one river basin or goes someplace else, you have to have good information before you can make long-term decisions about moving it. That’s why I’ve worried about some of the things that I’m seeing around the state. I’ll give you an example. The Water Development Board and I and some others went out to Dell City to testify about a proposal to lease state water. I started by saying precisely the thing I just said, that you have to have information before you make decisions. It’s not that you shouldn’t lease water; just do it with full knowledge. The Water Development Board said that they believed it would take five years and $20 million to gather sufficient data to do it right. So if you know that you need that much time and money, but you still make decisions in the near-term, it’s not with the state’s best interests at heart.

ES: From water, then, to an issue that you raised earlier: obesity, which I know has been a big focus of yours. Did the fact that you’re a mother bring you to the issue?

SC: Actually, I was barely a mother: My oldest son was nine months old when I went to work in the Dallas DA’s office. It was the cases that I got, the cases on child abuse and neglect. I was such a naive person. I thought, “Well, gosh, people are going to raise their kids right.” I was unprepared for the levels of abuse and neglect that I had to deal with. In some cases the neglect was indifference, but many times it was ignorance. The same with obesity. What I’ve been looking at on the state level, specifically, is not just the physical impact but the psychological impact of obesity. You see children who are grossly overweight, and they are in second and third grade. Their mental life is not fun, they’re the butt of jokes, and they don’t know yet how awful their life’s going to be, when they may have to face amputations, heart attacks, strokes. In my view, we, the state, are in loco parentis when it comes to schools. We’re a collective parent. And if we’re not doing everything we can, it’s criminal.

ES: It’s interesting, because the philosophy of some in politics and some in your party is that the government should stay out of the private lives of individuals. This would be an instance in which I think you’re advocating the opposite.

SC: And I’ll tell you why: We make kids go to our schools. If I’m going to make you send your kid into a room someplace, and I’m going to put razor blades and guns and cocaine in there, would you say that was a bad idea? I won’t say that vending machines are the same as razor blades, guns, and cocaine—

ES: The good people at Coca-Cola might have an issue with that.

SC: I didn’t mention anybody by name. But I would say that, in a life-threatening sense, some of the things that we allow in schools aren’t good for our kids.

ES: Your own children are not obese.

SC: No. And the middle one, Blaise, the Marine, who has been helping me on this research—evidently he says “glycemic index” so often that his friends are a little tired of hearing it. But they’ve all changed their eating habits. We’re now the brown-rice family.

ES: You mention your Marine son—he’s being sent to Iraq, isn’t he? I want you to talk about that, because for so many of us the war is impersonal. We know what we read in the paper, we hear about the horrors, we celebrate successes and mourn deaths, and yet it’s all at a remove. Only for you it won’t be. You’re now going to be in a situation that so many parents across the country find themselves in—sending your boy into harm’s way.

SC: When he told me, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. He said, “They’ve called. I’m being activated.” I thought, “Well, okay, maybe he’ll go to Cuba.” And then he said, “Iraq.” And I thought, “Oh, my God. He’s a Marine infantryman.” I can tell myself that he’ll be fine. Of course, I don’t ever want the doorbell to ring. I’ll dread every day that he’s gone, because I’ll be waiting for a call. And that’s being totally self-centered. I don’t want to be a drag on him. I don’t want to send him off any other way than really focused, so that he’s both effective and safe. That’s the real challenge for mothers throughout history. Your son went off to Greece, your son went off to Rome, you equipped him mentally, psychologically, to do his best. But if something should happen, how do you survive? A friend of ours, we found out, lost her son. They were our neighbors, and her son and my son were best friends for years and years and years. He was in an ambush in Iraq and died in October. This little guy, David Bernstein—I just can’t believe what happened to him. He was so proud of being in the Army. He wanted to do this for his country. My son feels the same way, so there’s part of me that says, “I’m so proud that we have people who will go overseas to keep terror from our doors.” It always takes people to do it. And it’s not right for me to say I wish it was somebody else’s kid. It is my kid. The call has come. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not hard.

ES: You’ve been a supporter of the war. Do you look at it any differently as the mother of someone fighting?

SC: I’m now gonna be more murderous. My son’s over there. I want ’em all blown away. But I really don’t want to think about it. The tendency is to obsess about it, as opposed to sort of sending positive messages, and I really believe in ESP. I think he’ll know that his mom is saying, “Go, go, go, go, go. We’re with you, we love you, we support you.”

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