By Gromer Jeffers Jr.
The Texas economy is humming, but it’s not because of Gov. Greg Abbott — it’s in spite of him, Beto O’Rourke said Monday.
“It’s not doing well because of any politician — Democrat, independents or otherwise,” the Democratic nominee for governor said of the Texas economy during a meeting with The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board. “It’s doing well because of entrepreneurs and risk takers, the workers who provide the value day in and day out.
“In Greg Abbott today, we have someone who is undercutting so much of that strength and success in our economy.”
By most measures, the Texas economy is a long-running success story, but O’Rourke has been trying to undercut one of Abbott’s greatest strengths. He says Texans are paying too much in taxes and inflation-related costs and, if elected governor, he would improve their standard of living by expanding Medicaid and compelling corporations to pay their fair share of property taxes.
Abbott has countered that O’Rourke would wreck the Texas economy, particularly because he supports energy policies that the governor says would burden oil producers. Abbott has been invited but has not agreed to interview with the editorial board.
The former El Paso congressman told The News that energy bills have gone up an average of $45 per month after the Texas power grid faltered during the 2021 winter storm and left millions without power.
In the aftermath, O’Rourke noted that the Toyota plant in San Antonio had to cancel its third shift this year because it is drawing too much power from the grid.
He also said Texans are now paying $20 billion more in property taxes.
“The average Texan is now paying more taxes than the average Californian,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said Texas could recover between $4 billion and $6 billion in additional tax receipts by closing loopholes enjoyed by corporations. He also said expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would bring back $10 billion annually in federal tax dollars paid by Texans.
That money, he said, could not only provide property tax relief for homeowners but also improve health care access by reopening shuttered rural hospitals and relieving local governments of the responsibility to fund indigent care.
Last weekend, O’Rourke’s campaign began running a statewide television ad on the need to expand Medicaid in Texas.
The Democrat also said he would increase the state’s funding of public education, which would provide relief for local taxpayers who don’t have the high-powered resources to protest increases in the appraised value of their property.
“You and I as homeowners and renters don’t have the lawyers or the lobbyists to be able to do this,” O’Rourke said. “Corporations uniquely do in the state of Texas, and they’re not paying their fair share. We don’t begrudge them their success. There’s nothing punitive about this. This is fairness and equal treatment under the law.”
O’Rourke said Abbott’s divisive policies — including the state’s abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest and his directive to investigate reports of transgender children receiving gender-affirming care — could derail business investments in the state or lead to boycotts.
“It is making what really has been an extraordinary success story, again thanks to entrepreneurs and workers and the people of Texas of both parties, and turning it into something that we might very well lose,” he said. “And so I want to make sure that … we end these culture wars, that we find the common ground, that we work on a bipartisan basis and make this the best state in the country in which to start a business, raise a family or go to work.”
In the hourlong meeting, O’Rourke touched on an array of topics, including border security and gun control.
The Democrat said that, as governor, he would implement a Texas guest worker program for immigrants, even though the federal government is responsible for instituting such policies.
“I’ll work with local, state, federal partners to address a Texas-based … guest worker program,” O’Rourke said. “If we’re unable to implement that, we could use state resources to help those farmers and construction company owners and people who have industries where jobs are in demand but unfilled today to navigate or even pay for that process.”
O’Rourke also said he would lift visa caps for countries such as Mexico, where he said the wait time to join a family member in the United States is 20 years. He also said he supports pouring more funding into speeding up the adjudications for asylum claims, which now is a six-year wait.
“I don’t condone anyone who jumps the line and crosses in between the ports of entry,” O’Rourke said. “But if I were there with my 5-year-old kid in a refugee camp in Ciudad Juarez and my number wasn’t going to come up for six years, I might do the same.”
The Democrat blasted Abbott for busing migrants from the border to northern cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington.
“We’re playing that very poorly right now under Greg Abbott,” he said. “It’s headlines about busing migrants, when it should be headlines about a governor who can bring Democrats and Republicans together around shared solutions.”
O’Rourke reiterated his position that no average American should own an assault-style weapon. He’s taken heat from gun owners for saying at a 2019 presidential debate in Houston that he would confiscate such semiautomatic rifles.
But he said he knows it’s more practical to push gun control efforts that have some bipartisan agreement, such as expanded background checks, “red flag” laws and raising the age to buy an assault-style weapon from 18 to 21. A recent Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll found that half of those surveyed “favor a great deal” laws that would raise the age limit. When including those who said they favored age increases “a moderate amount” or “a little,” the percentage climbed to 73%, including 69% of Republicans.
O’Rourke also said he would repeal a 2021 Texas law that allows people to carry guns without a permit.
He said most of those gun control proposals are feasible because Texans want action after the May 24 mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that killed 19 students and two teachers.
“I don’t see the reason or need for AR-15 and AK-47s in civilian life. Ultimately, a ban on the sale of those weapons makes sense,” O’Rourke said. “It’s going to be a function of what we’re going to be able to do in Texas and with the Legislature, but I hope, as more of these stories are shared by these families in El Paso and Uvalde and others from across the state, we can come to our senses on something like this and do something that’s going to protect and save more lives going forward.”