Dear Governor-elect Abbott,
Congratulations on having been elected the forty-eighth governor of the great state of Texas. I think you and your team deserve a lot of credit for a landslide victory that surpassed all expectations and gave you an unquestioned mandate. The final score wasn’t even close: the Republicans routed the Democrats in what looked like a game between the varsity team and the junior high kids who had just picked up a football for the first time. In your race against Wendy Davis, you ran a careful, well-scripted campaign that minimized your exposure, kept you on message, and insulated you from attacks. In other words, you played the role of the front-runner and never looked back. This election was always yours to lose, and you may remember that when you appeared on the cover of the October 2013 issue of Texas Monthly, the type read “The Gov (Barring an Unlikely Occurrence).” But part of what I tried to explain in my profile of you from last year continues to nag at me and other people around the Capitol: What kind of governor do you intend to be?
Certainly we know that you are a rock-ribbed conservative. You ran hard against Barack Obama and the federal government during the campaign, an easy task in Texas. And you checked off reliable issues to bring out your base, such as border security, abortion, and gun rights. Rick Perry may have switched to the Republican party after serving as a Democrat in the Texas House, but for you, those issues are deep in your bones. Still, you’ve provided few clues about whether your administration will offer more of the same—essentially Perry’s fourth full term—or if you plan to take the state in a different direction. I hope it’s the latter.
I realize that the answer to my question will in part reflect the historical moment Texas is in. A Republican has not lost to a Democrat in a major statewide race since 1994, and that streak continued in this cycle. As governor, you will lead a state that has never been redder, and you will be heading up the most conservative slate of statewide officeholders in history. I realize that is a point of pride for Republicans, but it is dangerous as well: you will also be leading the weakest slate of statewide officeholders the state has ever produced. Key offices are being run by rookies who are far more interested in ideology than they are in public policy. The far-right element of your party—one that is fiscally inflexible and socially dogmatic—has become the mainstream, and that presents problems for you that no other governor has had to face. The proverbial dog has caught the car, and now everyone is wondering if this team can govern. Or if it even wants to.
Making things even more complicated for you is the fact that the state has become used to an all-powerful governor. In part because of the way he approached the job, and in part because of his longevity, Perry bent the limits of the state constitution, which keeps the governor’s role in check. Perry served so long that he was state government, and he appointed every single member of every single board and commission. That power was unprecedented. You find yourself in a situation in which Dan Patrick, the incoming lieutenant governor and a man prone to sideshows and stunts, will be running the Senate, the former domain of giants like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock. Because of the constitutional power of his job, Patrick will wield enormous influence over your agenda. That puts you in a tough position. Despite your long service in state government, you’ve never been part of a legislative body. At the attorney general’s office, you were the final word, and you seemed to enjoy head-on collisions in high-profile cases. That’s not how the Legislature works. History tells us that when the governor tangles with the Lege, the Lege wins.
It also strikes me that Perry has done you very few favors as you prepare to wrestle with the broader challenges confronting the state. Perry cheered on the so-called Texas miracle, but he sat on the bench when it came to the hard choices our explosive growth required. The stunning economic boom of the past few years and its attendant surge in population are not the solution to every problem, as he wanted us to believe. The boom hasn’t solved the long-standing problems with our school finance system; it was once again declared unconstitutional earlier this year. The boom hasn’t helped results in our classrooms; the most recent SAT scores were some of the lowest in the past twenty years. The boom hasn’t eased our health care problems; Texas still ranks dead last in the percentage of residents who are insured. Perry mastered the politics of “no”—he was unwilling to consider any new revenue in part because he was as afraid of conservative voters as anyone; he didn’t want to open himself up to the charge of raising taxes when there was a presidential campaign on the horizon. He lacked political imagination beyond getting himself elected to another term.
Don’t fall into this trap and allow yourself to take a knee-jerk stance on funding. You said throughout your campaign that you want our public schools to be the best in the country. I can support you on that—I have two young children in the public schools myself. But until you devote just as much time to talking about where the funding will come from to make that happen, it’s an empty promise. During your campaign you also called for an end to diversions, the trick budget writers have used to take money that is supposed to go to one area (highway funding, for example) and redirect it to something else (say, the Department of Public Safety). Let’s be honest, no one favors diversions, and you’re not the first politician to call for their demise. However, in this climate, the prohibition on revenue, largely instituted by Perry, has made them necessary. For you to call for an end to them without explaining where the money will come from to cover the shortfall isn’t leadership. It isn’t even accounting.
Our transportation woes are a perfect example of our state’s myopic planning. Highways and roads are under a terrible strain because of population growth and increased economic activity, but no one wants to support the infrastructure needs in a meaningful way. I’m reminded of the floor debate during the 2013 legislative session over House Bill 3664, known as the Transportation Reinvestment Act. The bill would have ended diversions on highway funding and increased vehicle registration fees across the board for the first time since 1985, prompting one of the bill’s authors, Drew Darby, a Republican from San Angelo, to quip, “There are some members on this House floor today who were not alive the last time we adjusted registration fees.” The debate was fascinating, and it marked the Lege’s last-ditch effort to pass a transportation-funding bill before the end of the session. Darby pointed out that since 2001, voters had approved $17 billion in highway debt, which will cost $32 billion to retire, and he added, “If we’re going to address our transportation problems, we have to address the revenue side.” When asked by another member about how he felt about asking the House to take a hard vote, Darby responded, “I feel a little bit like the skunk at the garden party right now.”
As the floor debate went on, Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican from Killeen, tried to provide support. Referring to the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1991, Aycock said, “We can’t live on 1991 revenue streams at 2013 prices. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but at some point this body must govern.” But it was for naught. One member even asked why they were bothering to discuss the measure because they knew that Perry would veto it. Darby pulled the bill down, and that was the end of that.
The members were running scared because so many of them realized that if they voted for anything that increased revenue—even for something as essential as road repairs—they ran the risk of being branded “tax-and-spend liberals” and threatened with a primary opponent who would pledge never to raise taxes or fees under any circumstance. The reality was that members were more concerned about their political futures than they were the needs of the state. Perry likes to brag that the Texas economy is the envy of the country, but the state entertained the ridiculous notion of converting paved roads to gravel ones because it didn’t have the money to pay for repairs and maintenance.
So how did the Legislature solve the transportation problem? During the third and final special session of 2013, the Legislature passed a weak transportation bill in which it kicked the question to the voters in the form of Proposition 1, which voters passed on election night 2014 by nearly 80 percent. The measure asked voters to approve the reallocation of oil and gas severance taxes destined for the Rainy Day Fund and use them to provide $1.2 billion a year for highways. That may sound like a lot of money, but the Department of Transportation has said that it needs $4 billion to simply maintain “current levels of congestion.” The members were too timid to pass a substantive bill, and they were too hesitant to do so without asking the voters for their approval. When it came to addressing one of the most pressing needs of the state—one that was directly related to the economic boom—the Lege showed all the courage and leadership of a week-old kitten.
Texas has always been a low-tax, low-service state, and that was true even when the Democrats were in charge. Our fiscal discipline is written into the constitution—the budget has to balance, after all—and it has served us well. But you can change the tone of the discussion from one of wasteful spending to one of wise investment. If conservatives don’t realize that not all additional spending is irresponsible, they may win the next election but they will shortchange our prospects for long-term stability.
Texas is strong enough to invest the money it needs for its future—and that investment extends far beyond just roads and infrastructure. We can help teachers struggling under an unprecedented load. We can help students who are learning English as a second language succeed. Our state is powerful enough to invest in the future in a way that is prudent without shirking our responsibility for generations to come. But it will require your leadership—and your steadfastness in the face of predictable criticism. It won’t be easy for you to step outside the shadow of Perry; already people are referring to you as a transitional figure, perhaps the last Anglo governor of Texas from either party. But just as LBJ brought civil rights to the rest of the country and Nixon went to China, you have the opportunity to speak more thoughtfully on government spending. As the economy expands and the population balloons, Texas won’t live up to its full potential if we don’t realize that everything—even success—comes at a price.
Brian D. Sweany