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Abbott Signals a Break From the Perry Era

Taken together, Gov. Greg Abbott’s actions in the early days of his gubernatorial administration seem to belie the notion — circulated by opponents during the 2014 campaign — that he would be Rick Perry 2.0.

Gov. Rick Perry and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott shake hands after reviewing Matthew 20:25-28 in the Gov. Pat Neff Bible on Jan. 19, 2015.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been on the job for less than a month, so it’s a little early for deep analysis or judgment. But two weeks into his reign as the 48th Texas governor, one thing is crystal clear: He’s no Rick Perry.

From his new picks for the University of Texas System Board of Regents to his wholesale dismantling of one of Perry’s signature economic development tools, Abbott has already taken a machete to several of the former governor’s policies. He's sure to do some more chopping in coming weeks. 

No one expects a big ideological shift from one Republican governor to another. But taken together, Abbott’s actions in the early days of his gubernatorial administration seem to belie the notion — circulated by opponents during the 2014 campaign — that the former attorney general would be Perry 2.0.

Right out of the chute, just two days after he was sworn in, Abbott sent shockwaves through higher education circles when he signaled his desire to end the cold war between the governor's office and the University of Texas at Austin. 

The battles had raged for years, pitting conservative reformers Perry appointed as regents against UT-Austin President Bill Powers and his legislative supporters. But they appear to be waning with Abbott's re-appointment of Regent Steve Hicks — who opposed the conservative reformers — and his appointment of two new regents in Hicks’ mold. Those appointees still need Senate confirmation but are unlikely to run into trouble getting it.

Hector De Leon, the former head of the Texas Exes alumni group and a founding member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an organization that formed in 2011 in opposition to Perry’s vision for higher education, said Abbott was “demonstrating his independence” by selecting more traditional regents.

“I don’t know if I can put into words how massive a sea change this is,” De Leon said. “Our long state nightmare in higher education has come to an end. We truly have the dawning of a new day.”

Abbott has also made quick moves to restore transparency to some of the more opaque corners of his predecessor’s administration. Perry drew scorn from open government advocates for records retention policies that deleted emails from governor's office inboxes every seven days. Abbott has extended the retention policy to 30 days.

And in the wake of contracting scandals inside the agencies that dole out billions of dollars to private health care companies, some of them politically connected to Perry, Abbott has called on all state agencies to develop more rigorous contract approval procedures, publicly disclose no-bid contracts, and avoid conflicts of interest between contractors and government officials.

One of the biggest shifts under Abbott involves one of Perry’s cherished economic development initiatives, the Emerging Technology Fund. Designed to promote promising high-tech start-ups and foster job creation, the fund has weathered numerous bankruptcies and unflattering news coverage.

An Associated Press investigation in July found that at least 16 of the startups had failed, and others listed “out-of-state employees and short-term hires as being among the jobs they created.”

A week after Abbott took office, he announced that he planned to dismantle the tech fund, transferring half of the money into higher education research and the other half into the Texas Enterprise Fund, another one of Perry's pet job-creation programs that has become a target for critics and reformers.

A state audit last year found that the Enterprise Fund was riddled with weak oversight procedures and doled out tens of millions of dollars to companies that never formally applied for grants. 

What the Enterprise Fund will look like under Abbott isn’t clear yet. The governor told reporters last week that if legislators decide to keep it, he wants it cleaned up.

“Its current structure is not a structure that I am pleased with,” Abbott said. “If we continue the Enterprise Fund, it needs to be restructured. It needs to be done in a way that provides for a deal-closing fund that will ensure that Texas remains competitive with other states but has a a higher level of transparency and removes any of this appearance that it is being used inappropriately.” 

Asked if Perry was to blame for the lack of transparency, Abbott laughed and said, “You know I never blame anybody for anything.”

If any of the changes bother Perry, it didn’t show in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post.

Though he defended the programs, he said Abbott and the Legislature had every right to make changes.

“This is a thoughtful process we’re going through,” Perry said. “I’ve always supported transparency and asking the questions.”

In the Texas Legislature, which has drifted even farther to the right since Perry was governor, lawmakers are generally welcoming Abbott’s changes to the job-creation funds so far. 

Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, a libertarian-leaning conservative who caught the 2010 Tea Party wave, has been a consistent critic of giving taxpayer money to private businesses for the purpose of job creation.

“I’m very grateful that he supports the elimination of the Emerging Technology Fund,” Simpson said. “Gov. Perry saw that as a way to bring people to Texas. I don’t think we need that. … If we’re ever going to have the moral high ground to say we need personal responsibility with social welfare, we have got to end corporate welfare.”

Another Tea Party-backed Republican, Rep. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, applauded Abbott for adhering to "free market principles" in his moves on the Emerging Technology Fund. But he said he was a “little bit disappointed” about Abbott's UT regent picks.

Stickland said Perry — first elected to the Texas House in 1984 — had been in Texas politics for so long that he had expanded the power of the historically weak governor’s office. He said it could shrink a little under Abbott.

“One of the reasons that Gov. Perry was so powerful is he understood this building and every level of how it works, so it’s going to be interesting to see if Greg can grab that power that Perry wielded from that desk,” Stickland said. “It may come back down.”

Democrats seem willing to give Abbott his political honeymoon. Party chief Gilberto Hinojosa said the governor’s early moves on the regents and transparency reforms were “no-brainers” and don’t say much about where he’ll try to take Texas over the next four years.

“The verdict is still out,” he said. “He’s got an opportunity to move the state forward in a positive direction instead of the direction that allows these right-wing Tea Party people to control how government in Texas operates.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education was a corporate sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government Greg Abbott Rick Perry Texas Legislature