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.