Brian D. Sweany: Governor, tell me about the moment it became real to you that you were the new governor of Texas.
Greg Abbott: The first moment was when I took the stage on election night. I was with my daughter and my wife, and it was so cool because my daughter introduced me as she had done when I first announced my campaign. The other moment when it became real for me was on Inauguration Day. When the cannons are going off and you take that oath of office, you feel the awesomeness of the position but also the responsibility ;of the position.
BDS: How has the change affected your wife, Cecilia, and your daughter, Audrey?
GA: One of the neat things about this process has been the way that my family has embraced it. My daughter—sometimes teenagers don’t have a close relationship with their parents—has remained close and engaged and has enjoyed this as much as anybody else. My wife loves being first lady of this state. She is the “Comforter in Chief,” and she’s been going to places like Van, where a horrific tornado destroyed the homes of so many families. She’s been to areas devastated by floods and has attended several funerals. Today she happens to be giving a presentation to a Hispanic organization, and as a Hispanic first lady, she has been getting a lot of requests to participate in activities like that.
BDS: Has the transition to the daily routine of being the governor been harder or easier than you expected?
GA: I’ll tell you the biggest surprise about that: it was not surprising at all. It seemed very normal, very comfortable. And I think the reason for that is that I had been through six legislative sessions and multiple special sessions during my time as attorney general. Pretty much every one of those special sessions, for example, focused on issues that were intricately involved with my office as attorney general, whether it was redistricting or abortion. So I was comfortable dealing with legislators and working on the challenges we face over here. I have been surprised at how comfortable it has felt being the governor of Texas.
BDS: I attended your swearing-in ceremony, on the south steps of the Capitol, on what turned out to be a very hot day. You laid out your priorities for the session, and now that it is over, tell me about the high points and low points for you.
GA: The high point of the session is very simple: we set an agenda during the campaign, and now that the gavel has come down, we have accomplished virtually everything I set out to achieve. I had five emergency items, and four and a half of them got passed—which, listen, I’ll take 90 percent any day. Texas is positioned to be more and better economically empowered than ever because of tax cuts that have empowered business to create more jobs, a budget surplus, and an investment of more than $4 billion toward building roads without raising taxes, tolls, and fees, or taking on more debt. In fact, during my campaign and during my State of the State, I asked for $4 billion; we got more than that. We got all of that funding and were still in a position to secure the border, which was another pressing demand by the citizens of this state. I had a vision for the future of this state, looking ten, twenty years down the road, wanting to see Texas elevate nationally, in the results and quality of our education, and knowing that we are building a strong foundation for education at the earliest ages—from pre-K to third grade. And it wasn’t just a pre-K bill; there were proposals such as a reading and math academy, so that we will be able to work toward ensuring that all children are reading and doing math at or above grade level by the time they finish the third grade. I’ve already signed into law my higher education plan, which elevates the Texas public higher education institutions. You see California, you see Illinois, you see New York, and they are unable to match Texas in that regard. If you look at what I proposed during the campaign, I challenge you to find another governor in your adult lifetime in the state of Texas who has come out with a more detailed plan than mine. And to see us finish the session having passed at least 48 of my blueprint proposals is pretty stunning.
BDS: With a $3.8 billion tax cut coming out of this session, are you concerned that that’s a bill that will have to be paid in the future? Have we created a structural deficit for the 2017 session?
GA: That’s one of the things that we closely evaluated as we went through this budgetary process. The reason why I think this is the most conservative session ever is that not only were we able to deliver those tax cuts but we were able to do so in a way that left $11 billion in our Rainy Day Fund and left another $4 billion to $5 billion unspent.
BDS: A lot of the victories you are claiming require investment at a moment when some members of your party are concerned about any form of new spending. Of course, you passed sizable tax cuts, but were those designed in part to balance against this spending?
GA: Whether it’s education or anything else, Texans want to see one thing: results. We don’t consider it to be about the amount of money that I spent. We look at it from the perspective of, what results did we achieve? It’s important that we be strategic in the way that we spend taxpayer money. And if we can’t spend it in a way that’s going to make Texas a better place, we shouldn’t spend it.
BDS: One of your priority items was the initiative for high-quality pre-K education, which received $130 million. How do you begin to evaluate that program’s efficacy? And if you believe it’s heading in the right direction, would you ask for more in the 2017 session?
GA: Here’s what’s important to understand: not counting my pre-K proposal, the state was already spending about $1.5 billion on pre-K education. What my proposal did was come up with a program of establishing high-quality pre-K. You can put me in the camp of people who believe some pre-K education is inadequate and could be an ineffective use of taxpayer money. So the purpose of my proposal was to establish high-quality standards, which would require high-quality teachers, high-quality curriculum, assessments, reporting, and parental involvement. And then we are able to assess that information and determine what works. This is really a way to ensure that we’re going to be saving taxpayer money going forward.
So let me mention a couple of numbers together, and then we’ll do the math. We are currently spending about $1.5 billion in pre-K education alone. In total revenue, we’re currently spending about $1.5 billion in the state of Texas on remediation education. Remediation education, almost by definition, means that we’ve been ineffective in the way we are using our education dollars. And so what I want to do is, I want to find ways to reduce the amount we’re spending on remediation by providing a better education product up front. You’ve heard of the “smart on crime” approach as being just as effective at punishing wrongdoers and keeping dangerous people off the streets at a lower cost. I want to have a “smart on education” approach, where we’re going to be getting better results at a lower cost.
BDS: You’ve also mentioned border security, and the new budget includes $800 million for that. Are you confident that there’s a price tag that will allow you to say, “The border is secured,” depending on how you define that?
GA: Well, first, what the money will do: we’re going to add more Department of Public Safety officers, who will be more effective than the National Guard because they will have the ability to make arrests or take assets. Remember this: part of our strategy is to go after those individuals who are causing the cross-border activity in the first place. And those are the cartels. Even the women and children who are coming across the border, sometimes in excess of one thousand a day, many of them are coming here because they’ve paid cartels between $5,000 and $25,000. Many women were the victims of human trafficking at the hands of the cartels. We’re going after the lifeblood of the cartels—we’re going after their money. We’re sending a message to the cartels: take your business elsewhere. If you try to do business in the state of Texas, it’s a money-losing proposition.
And remember this: the criminal activity that comes from the illegal entry into Texas is not something that happens on the edge of the border. It crosses the entire state. When I took [Wisconsin governor] Scott Walker to the border, we showed him a map that was provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety about how cartel activity begins in Central Mexico and goes all the way up to Wisconsin. So we demonstrated to a potential presidential candidate something that I want whomever the next president is going to be to understand: it is imperative that the United States of America secure the border because of the huge impact that an insecure border has on every state in the country.
BDS: Do you think we can ever declare victory on that front?
GA: I know we can.
BDS: To switch gears, you campaigned openly on the expansion of gun rights and even appeared on the cover of our magazine with a shotgun [“The Overcomer,” October 2013]. Two of the bills that have come through the Legislature are open carry and campus carry. How do those bills make Texas a better state?
GA: There are several broad concepts of what government should do. Government should keep people safe, government should promote liberty and protect people’s liberty, and government should create a structure that promotes prosperity. And by promoting open carry of guns or campus carry of guns, we are promoting the liberty that is guaranteed in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. I think it’s kind of stunning that Texas is the forty-fifth state to have open carry, as opposed to the first state.
BDS: There was also talk among some members of so-called constitutional carry. Is that something you would be comfortable with?
GA: What I said is that I would sign the most pro–Second Amendment bill that reached my desk. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
BDS: So the door is open for that in the future?
GA: I am very pro Second Amendment. And the Second Amendment has the end phrase “shall not be infringed,” and I’m a strict constitutionalist.
BDS: The old saw around the Capitol is that only one bill has to pass during the regular session, and that’s the budget. Can you give us some insight into your office’s role in managing the House and Senate, the compromise, getting it across the finish line?
GA: We had a game plan from the beginning about how we would do this. As the governor, I believe it is very important to allow the elected members of the House and Senate to have their say and make the best arguments for the needs of their constituents. We had a team from my office who was working constantly with the chairs and the leaders of the various committees in both the House and Senate that dealt with the budget process, letting them know what numbers were acceptable to us—making sure that we came in within population plus inflation, what numbers were important to us with regard to all the major issues such as border security, and what numbers were important to us for my initiatives, such as my higher education initiative. So we had people from my office who were daily, sometimes hourly working with the appropriate members in the House and Senate.
From the more narrowed-down perspective of my personal level of interaction, it was multifaceted. Part of it was dealing with the speaker and lieutenant governor, and we hashed out some of the bigger issues, but part of it was me working with certain leaders from both the House and Senate. I worked with countless leaders on the House side, whether it be Representative Dennis Bonnen, Representative John Otto, Representative Charlie Geren, or various other representatives who were involved in the budgetary process as well as the tax cut process. I worked with Senator Kevin Eltife, Senator Brian Birdwell, and Senator Jane Nelson. I worked with various senators literally sitting right where you are, hammering out negotiations. We are in the middle of the House and Senate, and we play the role of shuttle diplomats, brokering deals where sometimes one side was intractable on an issue and we found ways to break the ice. And the final product is good for Texas.
I think this is the most important takeaway from this session: Texas showed that conservatives can lead and can pass meaningful legislation. Critics say that conservatives in Washington, D.C., know one word, and that is “no.” That they don’t know how to govern. I will not offer commentary one way or the other on that point. The observation that can be made from the perspective of the Texas Legislature is that conservatives can govern effectively. We can pass meaningful reforms, we’re able to cut taxes, and we’re able to spend meaningful amounts of money to address the needs of the people of the state of Texas while finishing with a budget that is less than the expansion of population growth plus inflation.
BDS: You campaigned on making our public schools the best in the country, but one of the things that did not happen this session was a plan to address school finance. How would you like that issue to play out? Will there be a special session? Can it wait until 2017?
GA: As the attorney general in charge of that litigation as it took place, I think that the reforms and funding that were provided during the session more than adequately address any legal concerns that could exist regarding school finance in the state of Texas. But legal concerns are one issue. Improving schools is another issue. I think there is more that we can and need to do to improve schools, and those will be some of the issues that we take up next session. Opportunity school districts, or achievement districts, is one thing we will press for. We have to help kids who are trapped in failing schools—they deserve to have a way out.
BDS: Describe your relationships with the speaker and the lieutenant governor.
GA: Remember this—and this is something that’s lost on people who don’t follow this or maybe don’t know the history of it: I have worked on multiple sessions with Joe Straus in his role as speaker on countless pieces of legislation. And Dan Patrick is someone I’ve known for decades. And I’ve worked well with the speaker. I’ve worked well with Dan Patrick during his time as lieutenant governor, before he was lieutenant governor, and before he was even elected. And I think the proof is in the pudding. All of us worked very effectively to produce a finished product that I think is superior to any product we’ve seen in any recent legislative session. We sine die’d earlier than any time in the past decade. And we did it with no special session. We got our work done on time, very effectively, very cooperatively.
BDS: Earlier you said that four and a half of your emergency items passed. Talk about the ethics bill, which was the half.
GA: Well, it got bogged down. As we neared the end, we actually thought we had a very meaningful pathway that was going to lead to resolution. It was very close to what we were asking for, but we didn’t get everything we wanted. But when you consider the backdrop: There was a sense of urgency that we do something about the border. There was a sense of urgency about transportation. People didn’t come into the session with a sense of urgency about ethics. So in that context, to see the reforms we were able to achieve, I think it was remarkable.
BDS: As you know, a lot of people are in the business of assigning grades to the Legislature and its members. But despite all of the successes you’ve mentioned, some of the grades from the grass roots, or the movement conservatives, have not been kind. What is your message to that wing of your party?
GA: The message is really very simple: we got a remarkable amount done that addresses the concerns of conservatives. This was the most conservative legislative session that we’ve ever seen—and it was very effective. But we recognize that there’s more work to do. And that’s why we have another session.
BDS: One of the things that you received criticism for was your response to the Jade Helm military operations, in Bastrop. Are you comfortable with how that was handled?
GA: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the response was overblown. What was done was really very simple. First, in hindsight, I think people saw that the number of people who had concerns about this was more sizable than what people originally anticipated. We received a lot of questions about it. And when we saw the way the meeting transpired in Bastrop, we felt there was a need to improve communication. The reality is that there is no one in this state who has greater admiration or respect or trust in the United States military than I do. What I sought to do was try to communicate to our fellow Texans that there really isn’t anything to be concerned about here.
BDS: You did not see any hidden agenda in the operation, but you were concerned for the people who did?
BDS: Was it reasonable for people to be concerned?
GA: I want to make sure that you don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t know the extent to which people are concerned about the military operation. I know that people are concerned about the Obama administration in general. They see an administration that comes to Texas and says that the border is secure, only to then see it overrun by more people than ever before—by having more than a thousand people cross the border every day. They see an administration that says that “ISIS is the JV,” only to see homegrown ISIS terrorists be right here in the state of Texas. They see an administration that sees a mass shooting take place at one of our military installations right here in Texas, at Fort Hood, and the president calls it “workplace violence” as opposed to categorizing it as the terrorism that it really is. And as a result there are Texans who distrust the administration. And so again, I felt that maybe I could play a role in trying to allay concerns and engender trust in the military, who put their lives on the line to protect us.
BDS: So you have no regrets as to how that was handled?
GA: The goal was good. I regret that the response to it got overblown.
BDS: Earlier you mentioned Governor Scott Walker, who is a likely Republican candidate for president in 2016. Your predecessor, Rick Perry, has already announced. If you haven’t already decided on a candidate, can you give me a sense of what you’re looking for in the Republican field?
GA: First, I’m looking for someone who will be a true constitutionalist. Second, I’m looking for someone who’s going to do the job of the federal government and step up and secure our border. Texans should not have to be paying out of their pockets to fill the constitutional responsibility of our federal government to protect our sovereignty. Third, I’m looking for a candidate who’s going to rein in the overreaching tentacles of the federal government, particularly as it relates to regulation. Which, if I can add a fourth one to it, I would expect the candidate that I support to stop this process that we see in the Department of Education, that we see in the Environmental Protection Agency, that we see in Health and Human Services through the Medicaid program, of holding the states hostage to follow their funding flows and to adhere to whatever dictates they demand in order for us to get money, whether it’s education dollars, Medicaid dollars, or whatever.
BDS: Are you confident someone will emerge who checks those boxes for you?
GA: I’m hopeful.
BDS: Let’s turn back to the future of Texas. The man who took your job as AG, Ken Paxton, has unresolved legal issues. He has admitted to certain state securities violations, and there is an ongoing investigation. Right now, do you have any concerns about his ability to lead the AG’s office?
GA: I have not looked into those issues and really am uninformed about those issues. But what I have done is I have dealt with him on a professional level, and I am proud to see that he has taken up my legacy of holding the federal government accountable to the Constitution.
BDS: You’re pleased with the job he’s doing?
BDS: If there is an indictment, should he continue to hold office?
GA: I can’t get into any kind of speculation like that. I’m not going to indict anyone here at a press interview. I have no factual knowledge of anything about this, so I am completely unqualified to comment.
BDS: You’re about to tour the country and the rest of the world to sell the “Texas model” to governments and businesses. What is your notion of how the job changes after sine die?
GA: There are different phases of what a governor does, and I’ve been involved in two of what I’ll call the four phases of what a governor does. One is the session, the other is responding to emergencies. And I’ve been involved in emergency response to the flooding by doing things like deploying Black Hawk helicopters to rescue people but also by providing relief to families and communities. I’m unaware of any governor of this state getting as quick a turnaround on a request to the federal government for aid. The very same day that we made our request to the federal government for aid, we got that request granted. In fact, it was about six to eight hours after we made the request. And so we showed that we have an emergency management team that is very effective at responding to the challenges that Texans face.
So the session and emergency response are two of my jobs. Three is working with all the various agencies of the state of Texas to ensure that they are appropriately managed. And then the fourth thing is that process of being the leader of the Texas chamber of commerce and working to bring more businesses to the state. Given what the Legislature did this session, they have set the table for me, which allows me to go sell Texas across the country and across the globe very effectively.
BDS: Our barbecue editor claims that the most controversial statement you made all session was when you said that sauce is the most important part of good barbecue. Would you care to comment on that?
GA: Of the things that have happened during my first session, that’s my biggest regret.