Undaunted by the defeat of a sweeping ethics overhaul during the just-ended legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said he will revive the issue when legislators meet again in 2017 and will call on Texas voters in the next election to choose lawmakers who are “going to stand up and fight for ethics.”
In an hourlong media roundtable that included the Star-Telegram, the first-term governor applauded lawmakers for enacting key elements of his agenda, including tax cuts and border security, and unveiled plans to travel the country and parts of the world to tout the Lone Star State and its “gold-star brand.”
Abbott revealed that, like his predecessor, he will be a traveling emissary for Texas as he goes to other states and countries to lure businesses to the Lone Star State. But he will go further by seeking to recruit top-flight researchers — “the best and the brightest minds from public universities” — to move to Texas.
“I am sending a message across the country that if you are a driven researcher and driven in what you want to achieve … Texas has more resources and is more inviting than it has ever been,” Abbott said.
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The list of potential countries that Abbott might visit “is almost limitless,” he said, without providing specifics. He will likely begin traveling in July, he said, but he began his recruitment campaign during the session in meetings with CEOs from “across the nation, as well as from other countries,” including Pakistan, Mexico, India and Ireland.
A fundamental message that emerged from the 140-day session — and one that he will trumpet outside the state — is that “conservatives can lead,” Abbott said. “They can achieve meaningful legislation and improve the lives of people in this state. Unlike Washington and some other states where gridlock exists, we can improve meaningful reforms that improve this state.”
Abbott, the 48th governor, took office Jan. 20. He replaced Rick Perry, who served 14 years as governor — a record for Texas — and plans to unveil his intentions Thursday to make a second run for president.
Lawmakers passed more than 40 pieces of legislation tailored from an ambitious 214-page Bicentennial Blueprint that Abbott presented as a candidate, calling for improvements in early education, higher education and research, as well as transportation, border and ethics reform.
Major initiatives include a proposed constitutional amendment that would pump $2.5 billion a year into transportation and a nearly $4 billion cut in business and property taxes that Abbott said will boost Texas’ stature as an economic spark plug and the envy of other states.
“We set out on what I believe is the most ambitious proposal or plan that I’ve ever seen any governor propose during my lifetime,” Abbott said. The higher education measures — including a research initiative aimed at luring world-class researchers to Texas universities — are seen as the most aggressive focus on colleges and universities since Gov. John Connally was in office in the 1960s, Abbott said.
Proposals will return
Lawmakers passed House Bill 3736 by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, which is aimed at strengthening rules governing conflicts of interest and transparency on state governing boards. Besides that, Abbott’s call to dedicate the 2015 session to ethics went largely unanswered. A multifaceted ethics bill collapsed in the closing hours before Monday’s adjournment.
“Some of the pieces were successful, and some of the pieces that we requested didn’t pass,” Abbott said. “Those that did not pass, the legislators can expect to see them again.”
Many of Abbott’s initiatives were part of a Senate-passed ethics overhaul that died in an eleventh-hour stalemate after the House included a contentious “dark money” provision requiring politically active nonprofit groups to disclose contributors.
On Monday, Abbott effectively revealed that he would have vetoed the measure, noting that, as a Texas Supreme Court justice, he wrote in an opinion that such a ban is unconstitutional.
“I thought it was important that I come out and be clear about my position on it,” Abbott said Wednesday.
In the next legislative session, he said, lawmakers will be “wasting their time if they try to hold up or hijack ethics reform by focusing on issues that are going to be meeting with a gubernatorial veto.”
While he got “some of the things that … improved ethics,” Abbott said that “over the next 18 months, as people are lining up and campaigning for offices,” he will make the case with voters to decide “whether or not the person they are electing is going to stand up and fight for ethics in Austin, Texas.”