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John Sharp, the State’s Fixer in Chief, Comes to the Rescue After Harvey

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp to lead rebuilding effort.

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Gov. Greg Abbott, left, announces that Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, right, will head the Rebuild Texas initiative following Hurricane Harvey, at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

In his State of the State address in January, Governor Greg Abbott told the Legislature that he’d like to issue a death sentence to the state’s business tax. “As far as I’m concerned, the only good tax is a dead tax,” Abbott said. “We must continue to cut the business franchise tax until it fits in a coffin.” But on Thursday, the man who designed that franchise tax, John Sharp, stood beside Abbott in the ornate Governor’s Reception Room. The governor announced that he’d tapped Sharp to lead the state’s efforts to rebuild roads, bridges, government buildings, and schools damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

Abbott explained that he needed someone experienced in dealing with governmental red tape, and who knew the Gulf Coast, energy industry, and how to deal with local officials—all with a smile. “I found all those attributes in a single person, John Sharp,” Abbott said at a news conference. Sharp, who grew up in Placedo in Victoria County, modestly noted that he knows well “the charms and the challenges of living on the Gulf Coast.”

Once again, Sharp has become one of the most influential figures in state government—perhaps one of the most powerful people who will likely never have his portrait hang in the Capitol rotunda. Since the early 1990s, Sharp has been Texas’s Mr. Fix-It, but the state’s changing political culture left him behind as the era of Democratic party dominance faded away.

Abbott first asked Sharp last Friday to head a task force on hurricane infrastructure rebuilding. But the Republican governor’s familiarity with the former Democratic office-holder was not limited to a resume. They once were neighbors in Austin, living across the street from one another. They are both Roman Catholics, have adopted children, and are active in raising money and awareness of adoption. At times, their political agendas aligned. As governor, Abbott has been stridently anti-abortion, and, while a state senator in 1985, Sharp carried the strictest proposed law limiting abortion until current Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick came along. The bill—which then-State Treasurer Ann Richards helped kill—would have required women to give informed consent before receiving an abortion and punished doctors who did not follow the restrictions. Sharp moderated his abortion views once he became a statewide candidate for office, saying he personally opposed abortion, but that government shouldn’t interfere with a woman’s right to have the procedure.

In another lifetime, Sharp was on a trajectory to the governor’s mansion: state House member, state senator, railroad commissioner. It was no surprise that he won the job of state comptroller in 1990 in an election alongside Ann Richards. But even as Richards lost re-election in 1994, Sharp beat out his Republican opponent with 55 percent of the vote. Sharp got caught in the changing tide in 1998, though, when he lost the race for lieutenant governor to his former Texas A&M classmate and friend, Rick Perry, by 68,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast. In a second run for lieutenant governor in 2002, Sharp was the Democratic party’s best candidate. He topped two million votes, but only captured 46 percent of statewide ballots.

Unlike many conservative Democrats, Sharp had refused to change parties. The Democratic party, he once told me, was the party of his parents. The party was frugal, but also cared for people. Elective politics, perhaps, did not favor Sharp’s career, but his impact on the state has been far greater than most people can imagine.

In 1991, an ongoing recession put the state in a funding crisis that affected both the budget and public school finance. Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock proposed a corporate income tax. Sharp headed him off with a performance review of the state government that proposed more than $5 billion in savings either by cutting programs or consolidating agencies. “The only thing we know for sure is what the options are: either this plan or a huge tax bill,” Sharp said at the time. “If not an income tax bill at this time, then somewhere down the road.” Sharp’s plan was a lifeline for Richards, giving her a way to avoid the income tax proposal. She seized on Sharp’s plan and declared, “The people of Texas do not want an income tax.” Bullock salvaged his career by pushing through a state constitutional amendment prohibiting an income tax without voter approval. Ultimately, though, it was Sharp who kept Texas income-tax free.

His performance reviews of Texas government became so popular that President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore asked Sharp to advise an evaluation of the federal government in 1993. “In the past, they have embarked on slash-and-burn missions” that sought program cuts impossible to pass in Congress, Sharp said. “Fat is not something that simply can be lopped off in government—it’s marbled within the government.”

Leave it to a Texan to think of fat in government more like prime rib.

The 1998 lieutenant governor race left hard feelings between Perry and Sharp, but after Perry’s efforts at cutting property taxes and reforming public school finance failed in 2005, he turned to Sharp to reboot the process. As comptroller and state tax collector, Sharp had faced numerous tax disputes among the major business taxpayers of Texas, and the business lobby saw him as a fair arbiter. Putting their differences aside, Perry named Sharp, who was working for a statewide business tax consulting firm, as head of a tax overhaul committee. “I am not looking for a magic formula for school finance, but instead a fresh perspective that can help bring about bipartisan change and bipartisan solution” Perry said. For his part, Sharp joked that he did not plan to use his position as a springboard back into politics. “I’m not very good at politics anyway,” Sharp said. “If I were good, I would be appointing him.”

Together, Sharp and Perry created one of the most substantial property tax cuts for Texas homeowners in three decades. The business franchise tax that was supposed to pay for it never lived up to its potential, though, and one Legislature after another has whittled it down. The system they created slowly went out of whack—a problem that Abbott and Patrick refused to address this year.

Abbott’s choice of Sharp to oversee the hurricane recovery effort is more than just a brilliant move of a state government technocrat. In the recently completed special legislative session, Abbott created a highly partisan image of himself, opposed to local government controls and regulations. Additionally, early in the storm, questions arose about why the Republican governor was not talking to Sylvester Turner, the Democratic mayor of Houston, which took the brunt of flooding created by the storm.

As Texas A&M chancellor, Sharp brings both a non-partisan and bipartisan air to the reconstruction effort. Abbott promised that local governments will know best what they need, and Sharp promised to work with them. A document that Sharp sent to local officials outlined an immediate timeline and goals. It concluded with: “Respond immediately; fix the problem; cut red tape; prioritize a consistent regional approach; create a future Texas that is better than the status quo; follow the law; no surprises.”

Texas’s Mr. Fix-It is back, proving that he can effect major change even without winning an election to secure his place in Texas history.

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  • St. Anger

    When there is only one decent republican, he sure has a lot to do.

    • anonyfool

      Um, who’s the decent Republican in this news blurb? It’s not John Sharp because he’s not a Republican.

      • St. Anger

        my mistake. i assumed that as a multiple political appointee in texas he must be a republican.

        i should have known my mistake the instant i typed “decent republican” (it did seem implausible – i’ve never met one).

        • not_Bridget

          Hey, there’s Joe Straus, Republican Speaker of the House. And he’s sane. Thank him for letting the Bathroom Bill die with the Special Session….

          • St. Anger

            sane is a pretty low bar. but sure, joe strauss, not insane.

            still a republican in the age of trump, however, so not decent, neither.

  • WUSRPH

    One MINOR CORRECTION; Sharp “did not head” Bullock off with the Texas Performance Review….IT YOU CHECK you will find that Bullock had created that PROGRAM as part of his campaign for Lt. Governor. In fact it was the FIRST BILL passed by the Senate and the Legislature. SHARP’s role–which he, to his credit volunteered for–was to oversee the actual implementation of BULLOCK’S PROGRAM…..Sharp later—again to his credit—got the legislature to make it an on-going program….BUT HE DID NOT CREATE IT NOR DID HE COME UP WITH THE IDEA..
    ANOTHER minor correction: Sharp got 48.2% of the vote in the governor’s race in 1998 with 1.7 million votes. PAUL HOBBY, running for Comptroller, got 49.55% with 1.8 million votes.
    Sharp, whether you like him or not, has done enough in his career to be recognize on his own merits…He does not need you to give him credits that he does not deserve.
    You might also note, that Bullock said NOTHING about the income tax until AFTER the performance review was under way….
    I have to admit R.G. that I was surprised that you, who were around for some of this, fell so heavily for the MYTH,

    • WUSRPH

      PS Did either of them say ANYTHING about doing ANYTHING to develop a program to limit the damages of a future Harvey? It would show a little leadership if they had expressed some concerns about that….but, again, that might require some changes in “the way we do things in Texas” and we do want to talk about that do we?

      • anonyfool

        There was the 400 million dollar project the Harris County Flood guy proposed in 1990’s with something like 9 12×12 feet tunnels underneath I-10 to remove water from Addicks/Barker and bypass Buffalo Bayou but that was before they redid I-10, now with I-10 in place it probably would cost 100 times that.

        • WUSRPH

          For most of Texas history Texas’s governments—state and local—have been run under the “Scarlett O’Hara Rule of Government”—-“I will worry about that tomorrow for, after all, tomorrow is another day”.

          Time after time he have gotten close to the edge, but something or someone has stepped in to safe us…..Of course, we have always claimed it was because of our own efforts and because of “the way we do things in Texas”…but in reality it often was because millions and millions of years ago something happened to convert living matter into oil and natural gas.

          I got my first close up view of this phenomena in 1973 when the Texas Legislature adjourned knowing that when it came back in 1975 it faced immense challenges in every field for school finance to highways…and that, with the existing tax structure it could not come close to meeting the demand…(Adding to the problem back then–like now—was that the governor, then Dolph Briscoe did not believe in special sessions or government spending….For example, when the Legislature had drafted a bill to put $1 billion (which was a lot more money back in those days) into public education he killed it with a claim that $80 million was more than enough).

          As such everyone looked forward to 1975 with trepidation and fear…BUT we did it again, We saved ourselves because oil prices skyrocketed from their then level of about $7 per barrel to unknown (for the time) heights and money poured into the State Treasury.

          Of course, the fact that Egypt had attacked Israel in October of 1973 and when that was all over the oil states put an embargo on oil sales to the US had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with our good fortune…It was “the way we do things here in Texas” ..nothing else.

          If truth be told, however, if Texas really wanted to show its appreciation for that burst of good fortune the proper way to have done so was to put a statute on the Capitol lawn of an Egyptian trooper in full leap across the Suez Canal….

          This time we have to hope that the federal government plays the role of miracle maker for Texas since it sure is not gong to be Abbott…but you be certain that, just like that Egyptian soldier, it won’t get the credit.

          • SeeItMyWay

            You, Ime, are a fine judge of history. You can dissect and analyze it with the best of them. Your problems lie in trying to predict the future. You should give it up… it drastically screws up your batting average.

    • donuthin2

      It is interesting to think about where both Texas and Perry would be had it not been for the Bush coat tails and Sharp had won. Many organizations which had helped Perry later abandoned Perry to help Sharp as they realized he was the much better of the two, but the Bush coat tail was too much by a very small margin.

  • WUSRPH

    Although I think RG screwed up pretty bad in this piece, (se below)….what makes it so shocking is that it is so rare.

    For example a while back I did a post on polls and how you should learn more about them I which I referred to an article that I thought that Paul Burka might have written about the problem with polls and how to approach them…No one could find a Burka article on that subject…and there is a good reason for that…It was by RG.

    You can see it at:

    http://tinyurl.com/yc6oo4av

  • Jay Trainor

    All I know is Gov. Abbott came across as stiff, insecure and political in the run up and early response to Harvey. Conversely, Mayor Turner has come across as the ideal politician, knowledgeable of the issues, comfortable with everyone – a real leader with a specif plan for recovery. New York Times columnist David Brooks’ most recent column says the leader we need for today has the following trait:. It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.

    The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony. “A good character,” James Q. Wilson wrote, “is not life lived according to a rule (there rarely is a rule by which good qualities ought to be combined or hard choices resolved), it is a life lived in balance.” Achieving balance is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.

    If he continues to manage Houston’s recovery from Harvey with ‘good character’ – I think Mayor Turner has a great political future.

    • Fantasy Maker

      Turner is a clown- he is showing everyone what an inept idiot he is.

  • WUSRPH

    Today’s tacky:
    I want to make it perfectly clear that, contrary to the rumors being circulated, Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos WAS NEVER a member of the Baylor football coaching or support staff…..even if her comments and approach to sexual assaults on college campuses would suggest some affinity with that operation…..You just have to understand that her mommy told her that “good girls” did not get into such situations and, by dressing a certain way or being in certain places or drinking too much, they were “ASKING FOR IT”. Boys will be boys, you know.

  • WUSRPH

    On a much more important subject than anything else I have talked about recently:

    A spelling question…

    For some reason I have always wanted to spell the word “ a while” as “awhile” ….It just seems right…but my accursed spell check keeps insisting that it is “a while”. Does anyone have a definitive ruling or even a strong opinion on which is correct or is this one of these cases where it is an ”either or” matter?

    BYW, why is it that the damn spell check never catches it when I use the wrong word…For example “or”
    when it should be “are”? I remember back in the dark ages of computers when one particular spell checker would ask things like “Do you mean ‘the’ of ‘thee’….It, of course, drove all of us crazy so the newer ones do not do things like that…However, with all the things we are told that computers can do, you would think it could examine the context in which the word is used in a sentence and point out when the word my fingers stupidly typed in my frenzy to get to the end of the line is questionable.

    • José

      “awhile” is a valid and perfectly good word. It can replace the phrase “for a while”. Use either according to your personal preference and style.
      http://www.dictionary.com/browse/awhile?s=t

      I don’t know what to suggest to you other than to revert back to the dark ages, before computers, and proofread your work before posting.

      • WUSRPH

        Of course, the problem with proof-reading is that when you do that you see what you thought you said, not necessarily what is on the page…which is why newspapers until at least recently had copy-desks where someone else read the story and (hopefully) checked the facts. It helps, If you are doing your own copy reading and editing, to let it sit for awhile and go back later and proof it again..

  • Fantasy Maker

    Sharp has is work cut out for him- this will take 2 decades to recover from

  • WUSRPH

    I hope I am not boring you with all this stuff that is all over the board from Texas politics to divine justice…I know it drives JJ crazy…but .I guess I see you guys and girls (and any transgender individuals) as being like an old college bull session where people sat around (often in the dining hall after diner) and talked about all these kinds of things that popped into their minds……

    (You missed the ‘divine justice’ one…I limited it to those victims who receive my daily diatribes by e-mail. You also missed a fairly good on the questions revolving around the case of the baker who does not want to be tainted by having to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.)

    We all seemed to have more fertile and wide-ranging minds back then…or at least it just seems that way…or maybe it was because we were being exposed to so many new ideas and thoughts that it all spilled over into useless gab.. I thing it is unfortunate that there is not that much of an opportunity for such free-ranging “discussions” after you have to earn a living or raise a family….

    For example, there was the time when I was working for Bullock—right about the time after he mentioned
    some book named, he thought, “84” which had been on some quiz he took but with which he was not familiar—which I picked up on and sent him a copy of George Orwell’s “1984”, one of the seminal works of the mid-20th Century…and, I think as a result, a few days later on of this top aides told me:

    “You know what your problem is, XXXXXX?…You read too many dull books”..

    I guess I miss those old days too much…

  • SpiritofPearl
  • John Bernard Books

    Putting a democrat in charge of massive amounts of federal dollars isn’t enough dems say it must be about race too.
    From Tex Rep Reynolds seated at the head table ““This evening Governor Greg Abbott visited Fort Bend County to announce the creation of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas to oversee the response and relief efforts between state and local governments to ensure victims of #HurricaneHarvey get everything they need as quickly as possible. Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will lead the Commission that will oversee the rebuilding of public infrastructure — focusing on roads, schools, and government buildings in impacted communities. I spoke directly to Gov. Abbott about the specific needs of my district. I’m proud to say that Gov. Abbott assured me that he would make my district a priority! ”
    and it drew this comment:
    “Cynthia A. Spooner JD Were any blacks seated at the head table or appointed to serve to your knowledge.”

    Maybe she didn’t know Rep Reynolds was black……let the looting begin.

  • John Bernard Books

    John Sharp the guy that masterminded the Aggie football loss to UCLA?
    How embarrassing……oh well dems are used to losing. It has been 20 years since dems have won a statewide election in Texas….

  • r.g. ratcliffe