AUSTIN, Texas — In a joint session of the Texas Legislature Thursday afternoon, Texas Governor Rick Perry delivered what was not only his final official speech as Governor, but laid out the blueprint for his expected presidential campaign. As predicted, Perry prominently featured the amazing growth of the Texas economy, but he also took time to discuss criminal justice reforms passed during his tenure and issue a call for bipartisanship.
Entering the House floor with First Lady Anita Perry, Perry greeted the crowd with a double thumbs up gesture and a wide grin. He began by expressing his gratitude, saying that he appreciated “this one final opportunity to speak to you in this chamber where it all began,” calling out the handful of legislators who had been there when his time in office first started.
“It’s been the highest of honors to serve as your Governor for the last 14 years,” continued Perry, waxing poetic about the state he described as the best place in the world to find a job, raise a family, and pursue your dreams.
The economic opportunities in Texas provided the heart of Perry’s speech, who proudly noted that this was a place “where the son of a tenant farmer can become the governor of the greatest state in the nation.”
Perry recalled his humble upbringing in Paint Creek, cracking a joke about how he was “proud to say that I graduated in the top ten” — out of a class of thirteen. Perry remarked that he was sure none of his teachers knew they were teaching a future governor, but “in Texas it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going.”
The state has faced tough challenges, said Perry, like the space shuttle explosion, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, wildfires, and this summer’s border crisis, but “each time, Texas has responded to these crises with great character.” Texans “respond to tragedy with grace and look to the future with hope.”
Even recessions were unable to tarnish Texas’ shine. Perry described how the state had weathered the most recent Great Recession much better than the one in the 1980s, due to the more diversified economy. Moreover, Perry bragged, twice during his tenure as Governor, the state had faced major budget shortfalls, but “both times, we faced those budget shortfalls without raising taxes,” drawing applause from the chamber. Perry also touted a Rainy Day Fund “flush with cash,” containing billions of dollars, only a few years after a 27 billion shortfall. “I’m leaving the next governor with over 100 million dollars in trustee funds managed by my office.”
Perry acknowledged that new developments in fracking were a significant part of Texas’ energy boom, and “ending America’s dependence on hostile sources of foreign energy.” He also mentioned how Pennsylvania was following Texas’ lead, allowing fracking to create new jobs, while New York just enacted a new fracking ban, “appeasing a political base at the expense of the people.”
“In Texas, we have chosen jobs,” Perry said proudly, mentioning how 441,000 jobs were created just in the last year in Texas. Since December 2007, 1.4 million jobs were created in Texas, while during the same period, the rest of the country lost 400,000 jobs. In the Austin area, the unemployment rate is below 4%. The new jobs in Texas were created in every income category, said Perry, creating new opportunities for Texans to climb up the ladder.
Besides the economic benefits, Perry also described positive environmental developments. Texas produces more energy from wind turbines than all but five other countries, according to Perry, and measures of major pollutants were all down across the board.
“We don’t accept the false choices,” said Perry, “between a clean environment and a strong economy.” Texas has protected natural resources, clean air and water, “without declaring war on American industry.”
Reflecting back to when Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) was first elected Speaker in 2003, Perry credited the Texas Legislature for doing “two things that set the tone” for the successful years to come. “First, we refused to raise taxes,” said Perry, along with smart spending controls like zero-based budgeting. “Second, we passed the most sweeping lawsuit reforms in the nation.” Perry acknowledged that the tort reforms were “controversial” among opinion writers and lobbyists, but continued that they were not controversial “for the trucker, the waitress, the farmer, the quiet majority who feel over-regulated and taxed to death.”
Texas’ economic boom has brought investments in cultural arts, which Perry described as a “cultural boom [that was] not a product of government grant program,” but instead resulted from policies that created a decade of economic growth. The American Film Institute moved their headquarters from California to Dallas, a city that is now the “largest cultural arts district in the country,” with a long list of newly opened and expanded museums. Austin boasts the largest film and music festival in the world (South by Southwest), a new Museum of Modern Art, and the only Formula 1 race in the United States. There are more theater seats available in Houston anywhere in the country outside of Broadway, added Perry.
However, “job creation is not the answer to every problem,” said Perry, for it brings challenges like stresses on our water resources, the power grid, and traffic gridlock. “Work remains to be done if Texas is to continue to lead the nation,” said Perry, but important progress had been made in each of these areas and he expressed confidence that the next generation of Texas’ leaders would rise to the challenge.
Perry took a moment to briefly address the immigration crisis, noting that the state’s economy meant that “many attempt to reach our state by any means, legal or illegal,” but it was highly troubling to see so much activity from drug cartels and dangerous transnational gangs that smuggle people. “They are the face of evil,” Perry said firmly, mentioning the many children who were abused and women who were sexually assaulted along the dangerous journey across the border.
Securing the border would continue to be a major challenge for Texas, but “as long as Washington won’t secure the border, Texas will be more than up to the task.”
Perry mentioned how he had switched from being a Democrat to a Republican early in his political career, quipping, “that day, I made both political parties happy,” but that throughout his time in office, he had firmly believed that “government must do a few things and do them well, [so that] Texans, uninhibited by over-taxation and excess regulation, can make the most of freedom.”
However, when it came to our criminal justice system, said Perry, “many of our citizens aren’t free today.” He told how he came to believe that Texas’ approach to nonviolent drug offenders was flawed, and credited contributions from both Democrats and Republicans in passing criminal justice reform legislation that now serves as a model for the entire nation.
Texas’ reforms are working, said Perry, noting how the state had shut down three prisons, reduced repeat offenses with drug offenders, and has the lowest crime rate the state has seen since 1968. Among the most important reforms were the expansion of drug courts and diversion programs, that treat drug addiction and alcoholism as a disease. “We must remember,” said Perry, “when it comes to the disease of addiction, the issue is not helping bad people become good, but helping sick people become well.” These alternative programs have proven to be “not soft on crime, but smart on crime,” he continued.
Criminal justice reform was not the only area where Perry found bipartisan success, who said that “there is not a single accomplishment that occurred without bipartisan support…I believe we are at our best when we get beyond our differences and attempt to seek common ground.”
Perry challenged Republican legislators to make the effort to seek areas of agreement with Democrats. “There’s room for different voices or disagreement,” he said. “Compromise is not a dirty word when it moves Texas forward.”
Keeping with his reputation as one of the Lone Star State’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders, Perry ended on an optimistic note. “I believe the best is yet to come,” he said, adding that he “could not get a better successor than Greg Abbott…and he couldn’t have two better partners to lead this state than Dan Patrick and Joe Straus.”
Texas is “the new frontier of freedom and opportunity,” said Perry, “a state whose landscape glitters with millions of dreams, big and small.”
“Be true to Texas, always, and she will be true to you,” concluded the Governor. “Good luck, Godspeed, God bless you, and through you, may God bless Texas.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.