NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Perry appoints Sharp to lead school finance, tax reform panel

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

Just days after a statewide poll placed former State Comptroller and potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Sharp in a statistical tie with Gov. Rick Perry in next year's General Election, Sharp today quelled any rumors that he would challenge Perry when he accepted the governor's appointment to lead a bipartisan panel focused on school finance and property tax reform.

"I have always maintained that the Legislature should act, not because of a court order but because it's their duty," said Perry. But after legislators failed to bring a school finance reform bill to the governor's desk amid several sessions, "It's time for a different tact," he said. Every school finance proposal so far has come from inside the Capitol, said the governor. "It's time to look outside the Capitol. We need a new approach that puts partisanship aside."

Perry said he chose Sharp, the Texas comptroller from 1991 to 1998, to head the panel because he is "someone who doesn't have a vote in this building." He noted that the two have known each other for 37 years and used to room together in college. But the two also ran contentious campaigns against each other for the Lt. Governor's seat in 1998. "Whatever political rivalries existed in the past are exactly that," said Perry. "In the past."

Members of the panel will be named in the next few weeks, during which time Perry said he will be working with the House Speaker and the Lt. Governor to determine its make-up. The panel is charged with the singular goal of making "long-term, stable tax recommendations" for the next legislative session, he said. Still, while the work of the panel impacts school finance, efforts will focus exclusively on developing a new tax structure.

"There is nothing more important than a stable funding source for our children," said Sharp. He said he "is not very good at politics" but is very good "at trying to solve problems in public policy." Sharp pointed to "lots of times in Texas history" where people have put aside political differences to work toward a common goal. The governor "has given me a chance to do that, and I'm not going to mess it up," he said.

Still, Sharp acknowledged that tackling tax reform is no walk in the park. "It's going to be difficult," he said. "We're going to work harder than we ever have on anything." When asked if a state income tax is on the table, Sharp said the panel "is not going to bring something to the Legislature that the public is not supportive of."

Although friends have contacted him about running for governor, Sharp said they can "rule out all politics during this process," adding that he will not attend any fundraisers while working with the panel. "It's safe to say no politics, probably ever, after this," he said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity I thought I'd never have." Sharp added that if legislators take the same bipartisan approach to tax reform as Perry is taking with the panel, "We have a shot."

Perry called attention to the "substantial effort" put forward by Dallas businessman and former Presidential candidate Ross Perot in the mid-1980s to educate the public about tax reform options. This approach "is a blueprint that John will go forward with," he said. Asked how the idea for the panel came about, Perry said in the last two weeks he simply talked with Sharp about serving on such a panel and Sharp said yes.

Perry noted that the school finance reform lawsuit currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court is "not connected in any fashion" to the work of the tax reform panel. Regardless of what or when the court rules in the case, the work of the panel "needs to be done," he said. In addition, said Perry, it is "premature" to discuss if he will call the Legislature back into a special session on school finance reform since the high court has not yet ruled on the case.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell congratulated Perry for creating the tax reform panel. "John Sharp brings to the commission a long record of service to our party and our state," he said. "I, for one, am relieved that Rick Perry has finally given up on the idea that divisive partisanship is the answer to the school finance crisis."

A Hamilton Beattie and Staff poll released last week found that Perry has strong support among Republican Primary voters but lacks support from General Election voters. The poll found that, in the Democratic Primary, Sharp held an almost 3-to-1 lead over the other Democrats in the race. After hearing a short description of each candidate, the poll showed Perry and Sharp in a statistical tie, with 45 percent in favor of Perry and 41 percent in favor of Sharp.