Lassoing Jobs in Texas

We’ve always believed that talking directly to a state’s chief executive is the best way to get an accurate fix on where that state is going in terms of economic development and jobs creation.

That’s why we created our high-profile Governor’s Report series, which has given us the opportunity to get up close and personal with governors from across the nation. Most of the governors we’ve chatted with have talked the talk when it comes to their overall development strategy–but the devil is in the details, which sometimes are left to state ED officials to explain after the governor has said his piece. A few have candidly admitted that jobs creation as a priority has to find its place on a to-do list dominated by fiscal restraint.

Not so in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has fiercely embraced his role as champion of the state’s economic development program, ready to saddle up and steer herds full of jobs into the big Texas corral from near and far.

When we headed over to the Texas State Capitol in Austin last week to personally deliver our 2012 State of the Year Award to Gov. Perry, we didn’t expect to get much face time with the governor. Awards ceremonies usually are what we call in our profession “grip-and-grin” photo ops. A quick handshake, a few pleasantries, snap, snap, nice to see ‘ya, goodbye. So our expectations for an in-depth conversation weren’t high when Gov. Perry ambled into the august Governor’s Reception Room under the Capitol rotunda without fanfare and gave us a friendly Howdy. Since the governor had already greeted and posed with two other groups, including a Scout troop, on the way up the stairs, we figured we’d better talk fast.

We told Gov. Perry that Texas (a 2007 Business Facilities State of the Year standard-bearer) had made our 2012 State of the Year selection an easy one. The Lone Star State was the consensus choice of just about every major national business publication as the most dynamic, business-friendly state economy in the U.S. While the rest of the nation was still mired in the depths of the worst Recession in our lifetimes, Texas blew past its pre-Recession employment level with a diversified growth strategy that combined high-tech success in everything from semiconductors to solar panels with traditional strength in the resurgent oil and gas sectors. Aggressive incentives, great infrastructure, a first-class system of higher education, low labor costs and a growing population position the state to fend off challengers to its hegemony for years to come.

But when we casually mentioned that we’d like to bottle up what Texas is doing and ship it to the other states to replicate, Gov. Perry’s face lit up and he launched into a passionate discourse about what is clearly one of his favorite subjects, economic development. He was still talking nearly an hour later.

“That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to tell people,” Perry said. “We’re happy to have other states follow our example, do it right and succeed the way we have.”

Gov. Perry–who raised some eyebrows last month when he arrived at the BIO show in Chicago and promptly told Illinois businesses they’d be better off in Texas–made it clear he won’t hesitate to take his message extolling the Lone Star State’s business-friendly policies wherever the jobs are.

“We’re not gonna be shy about telling everyone what works here and why Texas is a great place to do business,” he declared.

Warming to his subject, the governor gave us a detailed tutorial on growth-spurring reforms that have been enacted in Texas during the past 15 years (pausing briefly to give some credit to his predecessor as governor, George W. Bush).

“I started working on this when I was an itty-bitty state legislator,” he recalled. “Then, when I became governor [in 2001, Lt. Gov. Perry moved into the top state office when then-Gov. Bush became president], I got my staff together and told them that we’ve been promising all these (reforms), so why don’t we just keep our promises and get it done.”

At the center of Perry’s effort to continually improve Texas’ business climate is deregulation, the elimination of bureaucratic red tape and “unreasonable” restrictions on business. During our chat, Gov. Perry put these measures in the larger context of the role of government in a 21st-century economy.

“What it’s really about is freedom,” he said. “Everyone should have the freedom to succeed, to grow their business, to be the best they can be.”

Perry is particularly proud of his success in getting meaningful tort reform enacted in Texas. “I just got off the phone with the head of one of our largest medical centers,” he said. “He told me they’re starting a $5-million expansion with the money they’re saving on lawyers.”

Perry also has been ahead of the curve on the sensitive subject of immigration, combining a compassionate approach to reform with a firm stance on border security. We thought we might bring a smile to the governor’s face when we pointed out that, after taking some heat on his immigration stance in the presidential campaign, it looks like his position now has been widely adopted as the sensible mainstream approach to resolving this thorny issue.

The Texas chief executive set his jaw, locked eyes with his interlocutor and wheeled into what we imagined is his “shooting” posture.

“I learned some lessons in that campaign. You can’t parachute into the middle of those things, especially a few weeks after you’ve had major back surgery,” he said firmly. “You’ve got to start early and get your message across that this country needs strong leadership, it needs somebody with real experience in getting the job done.”

We won’t call it an airtight declaration, but we got the strong impression that the governor of Texas is more than ready to climb back up on that horse and take his pro-growth message to a jobs-starved nation eager to hear solutions from somebody who can walk the walk as good as he talks the talk.