The Underdog

Tom Pauken, the former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, knows he has an uphill climb to defeat Greg Abbott in the Republican primary for governor next March. But he’s not interested in what he calls “the divine right of succession.”
Thu September 12, 2013 4:30 pm
AP Photo | Henry Cabluck

Editors note: This interview was conducted by telephone with Tom Pauken on Monday, September 9, 2013.

BRIAN D. SWEANY: Mr. Pauken, I understand that I’m talking to you from the campaign trail.

TOM PAUKEN: That’s right. I’m speaking with the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party group tonight, and then on to the Panhandle and Lubbock. It has been a busy schedule.

BDS: How are you enjoying being on the campaign trail?

TP: It’s good to be able to get out and talk about the issues. People are worried about what’s happening to the country, and they want to keep Texas strong. They’re wondering how we put the pieces back together, and I think there’s a sense that Texas needs to lead the way. Voters are interested in hearing serious policy ideas. And that really cuts across the so-called factions within the Republican party, whether it’s the tea party, or average voters, parents, and educators, who are worried.

BDS: Tell me about those concerns and the issues that you’d like to explore with your candidacy. Can you size up where you think Texas is right now, coming off of the unprecedented tenure of Governor Rick Perry? What are the things that you think are working, and what are the areas that you would want to address as governor?

TP: I think that clearly the most positive thing is our economic growth and job creation. I mean, we lead the nation in terms of private sector job creation and economic and regulatory policies. I worked as the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and, of course, have a background in the private sector. I am trying to encourage that growth and keep it going. Also, we are in the midst of this incredible energy boom. More than forty percent of wells that were drilled in the U.S. last year were drilled in Texas. That has a direct effect on jobs, not just in energy but in so many other sectors of the economy.

I think the biggest problem on the economic front is the growing workforce and the shortage of skilled workers. That’s something that was brought to my attention when I first came in as Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission. Everywhere I went in Texas, employers kept telling me the same thing: “Tom, we’ve got a shortage of skilled workers.” And we’ve got an educational system that almost looks down on the value of what we once called vocational education and what they now call career and technical education. You know, career and technical pathways are just as valid for a number of young people as a college pathway. Going to a four-year university is not suited for everybody, and we had this elitist top-down, one-size-fits-all education system that had been in place for two decades, and it wasn’t working. So we took that on and we were able to make great progress with the passage this session of House Bill 5, and I was involved with that from the beginning. We put a coalition together of Republicans and Democrats to do that. We sure can’t run the risk of reversing those changes, and it really is just the beginning of what I would like to see done as governor, where you get back more local control of education and provide multiple pathways to a high school diploma.

BDS: You may not remember this, but we had a long conversation about HB 5 outside one of the hearing rooms in the Capitol Extension early in the session.

TP: I do remember that. I’m proud of what we’ve done with that bill. I’m glad we’re moving toward a more common-sense approach to testing. For example, colleges don’t pay attention to how these kids do on the STARR test; they look at ACT or SAT. We could emphasize ACT and SAT for all students to kind of see where everybody is; that will tell us what percentage of our students are college ready. But we’ve got to do more on the post-secondary side of things as well, provide incentives for the Texas State Technical College institutions and the community colleges to be able to do more with career and technical education to help the demand—there’s a huge demand—that is out there for skilled workers.

BDS: You are also concerned about public education funding, correct? That’s an issue that has vexed the Lege for more than two decades—if not longer.

TP: We’ve got to address school finance. We’ve been bogged down in the courts with this school finance scheme that hasn’t worked. It’s unfair and inequitable, and it sends $1.1 billion to 74 school districts. There’s a better way to fund the property-poor districts, and I’m in favor of just getting rid of the current system completely, letting the local school property taxes stay local, and replacing that with a revenue-neutral one-quarter-cent state sales tax. I think it’s a more secure revenue source for property-poor districts.

BDS: Let me dial in on that because I want to make sure I understand exactly what your proposal is. I immediately think back to the 2006 tax swap

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