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.”
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 that has not lived up to anybody’s expectations. Would this be a revenue-neutral swap that would lower property taxes and dedicate part of the sales tax to property-poor districts?
TP: One quarter of one percent will raise you the amount of money that is currently being re-distributed under the Robin Hood tax scheme. So what you would do is essentially eliminate or lower property taxes to get rid of Robin Hood. The $1.1 billion that is currently being taken from 374 districts would stay local, and $1.1 billion from the additional, new sales tax would be earmarked for property-poor districts. When you’re trying to raise revenue, you’ve got a choice of a state income tax, which I’m opposed to, or you’ve got a choice of higher property taxes or higher sales tax, which is the preferable way of funding. There’s got to be a way to figure this out and get everybody in the room together, like what we did on education policy. It’s not going to be perfect, but the current system is broken. Greg Abbott defends the existing system as legal and constitutional. I don’t believe it is constitutional. You have a state property tax prohibition in our Constitution, and when you’re taking money from 374 districts and shipping it elsewhere, it’s a state property tax.
BDS: You mentioned General Abbott, and I certainly want to talk about him, but let’s back up a little bit to Governor Perry. I think one of the issues that the voters will be asking candidates as the primary approaches is: do you represent an extension of Perry’s brand of leadership, or do you expect to lead the state and the Republican party in a different direction?
TP: No, no. There will be major differences. I like Rick personally, but I did not endorse him in his presidential race. I think we have a real problem, and it may be because people stay too long, which breeds too much cronyism in Austin. It gives too much influence to the Austin insiders. It’s almost like state government is for sale. Take CPRIT, the cancer fund, for example. Greg Abbot served on the board, but he never attended one meeting. There are all kinds of questionable commercialization grants, and then he turns around and gets millions in contributions from individuals and entities that benefited from those grants? I mean, this is a huge breakdown in fiduciary responsibility. There’s so much influence by the people who write the big checks and not enough influence by the people out there who don’t have lobbyists in Austin who just want the government to be a servant of the people. I have nothing against these guys personally, but it is too much of an incestuous, insider-driven, money-driven approach to government. That’s not true conservatism. My election as governor will be a real break with the powers that be. I mean, look at the political consultants. Greg has hired Dave Carney. Well, Dave worked for Rick and worked for David Dewhurst and is now working for Abbott. It’s the same kind of bunch that has flowed in and out, and I just think they’ve got too much influence.
BDS: In your letter to your supporters, two of your priorities would be term limits for statewide elected officials and eliminate so-called crony capitalism. Those are both lines of attack that critics of Perry have used.
TP: Not just with Perry, but also Greg Abbott. I’m for term limits, he’s against term limits. He’s been part of this rubber stamp on looking the other way on some of these questionable cancer grants. This stuff has to stop. It isn’t true conservatism. I mean people aren’t giving Greg Abbott $22 million because they love him. They’ve got a guy they are able to influence.
BDS: You have challenged Abbott to a series of debates in advance of the primary. Where are you right now in that dialogue with the Abbott campaign?
TP: Well, they’re ducking it. I can see why they’re reluctant to debate because they don’t want to have to answer these questions. He’s not even laid out his specific policies he’s going to put in place if he’s elected governor. He just says education, water, and transportation are serious problems. Well, that’s nice to know, but what are you going to do about them? People told me when I started this campaign, “Oh, don’t you dare run against him because he’s got the money.” It’s like the state is for sale. But I’ve talked to business people who are committed to him, and I don’t hear them say, “Wow, we really think he’s great. He is going to make a terrific Governor.” If I felt that way, I wouldn’t be running. I don’t have a desire for office or power at this stage in my career; I’ve done plenty. But I just see this thing blowing up on us at some point, and it could happen sooner rather than later.
BDS: I suspect it’s fair to say that journalists like myself might make too much of campaign finance reports, but that is a measure of support. So far you’ve raised a little under $250,000, and in July you raised less than $45,000. Doesn’t that add legitimacy to his campaign? And how do you compete with that? Do you believe that you will be able to make it all the way to primary?
TP: I think so. We knew we were going to be heavily out-spent in the very beginning, but I was heavily out-spent when I ran for state party chairman, and we were able to win because people wanted to go back to a grass-roots approach rather than a top-down approach. But is that a reason to elect somebody, because he’s got $25 million? That’s their biggest argument. Money is no reason to nominate a guy to be governor of Texas.
Another issue where there’s a fundamental difference between the two of us is Abbott’s intervention with Eric Holder to block the merger of American Airlines and US Airways. Clearly, if they succeed, it’s a job killer for North Texas and makes no sense from an economic standpoint. I think it’s another indication that Abbott is not a true conservative but a big-government Republican. All this talk about waking up and suing Obama—except for the morning he woke up and joined with Obama.
BDS: General Abbott argues that the merger would violate anti-trust laws, but beyond that he has argued that it will reduce competition and allow the new company to increase baggage fees, increase handling fees, and pass along costs to the consumer. You clearly don’t buy that argument.
TP: That statement by Abbot clearly reflects his lack of understanding of the private sector and his lack of any direct involvement in running businesses, where you’ve got to make a profit in order to succeed. There is plenty of competition in the airline industry. If this is such a bad merger, why did he and Eric Holder not intervene when United and Continental merged? But to do what he did with American, which was wait until the last minute and then try to blow it up, is not evidence of someone who has a pro-business philosophy or even an understanding of how the business sector works.
It’s another reason why I think this election is a battle for the soul of the Republican party. It seems like we have a divine right of succession, and now it’s Greg Abbott’s turn in to be governor. “How dare the peasants challenge his right to move up the ladder?” But that’s exactly why I’m in this race. Texas won’t continue to lead the way if we have this insider-driven, top-down approach, and I think Greg represents that.