“Do right and risk the consequences.” Those words were most famously said by the first governor of Texas, Sam Houston, but most frequently said by the 43rd governor of Texas, Mark White, who recently passed away. They were his motto and the creed by which he lived. Our state is much the better for it.
The fact that Texas weathered the recent downturn in oil and gas and continued to gain jobs, in sharp contrast to the economic devastation that accompanied a similar decline during his tenure as governor, is in no small measure the result of his adherence to this simple yet powerful dictum. Although his focus on public education is, justifiably, what many people remember of him, we also owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his role in laying the groundwork for diversifying our state economy.
The timing of Mark’s term as governor (1983-1987) was particularly challenging. Crude oil prices had peaked just before he took office, then had fallen significantly, and the Texas economy was suffering. In 1986, the situation became even worse, with the bottom dropping out and oil prices collapsing to less than $10 per barrel. To add to the difficulties, a real estate crisis was made worse by changes in tax laws and regulations.
Even in the midst of the ensuing economic chaos (and it was chaotic), Mark was determined to look forward, not backward. Rather than trying to cut spending and hang on till oil rebounded, he instead pushed hard for strategic investments in the future of Texas. One of his primary focus areas was education.
Mark is best remembered by many Texans for championing the “no-pass, no-play” rule, still on the books today. It basically requires students to be passing all classes to participate in extracurricular activities. It was groundbreaking when implemented, particularly given that “Friday Night Lights” was then and remains deeply ingrained in Texas culture. He also championed pay raises for teachers and basic testing for students. Mark also was a friend to higher education, working ceaselessly in its support. He recognized that education was (and is) essential to future prosperity and pushed through the needed tax increases to pay for it. It was a visionary stance, particularly given the extreme budget challenges Texas faced with the dominant industry (energy) in a major slump.
Although widely known for his work to improve education, Mark’s most important contribution to our state may well be in economic diversification. During one of the state’s most difficult periods, he was instrumental in opening the door to new industries, including technology. It’s no accident that the Austin area and Texas have emerged as a center for tech. Back in the 1980s, Mark, his chief of staff, Pike Powers, and others (including a certain young economist who didn’t know any better) worked tirelessly to bring two entities to the area: Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation and Sematech. (A few months ago, Pike was named 2017 Texan of the Year by the Texas Legislative Conference; I was pleased to present the award, subbing for Gov. White, whose health would not permit him to attend.)
The Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation was a pioneering research consortium of technology companies formed in response to Japanese technological advances and a perception that the United States was falling behind. Although the more obvious choices were Silicon Valley and the Boston area, cities across the nation competed to be the location. Many entities and individuals pushed hard for a Texas location and Austin emerged as the winner, due in large part to then-Gov. White’s considerable influence.
Sematech, a consortium including semiconductor manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Defense and research universities came to Austin a few years later and the rest, as they say, is history. There were no formalized incentive programs in the state during this period. We had to make it up as we went along.
A veritable flood of technology companies and initiatives have come to Texas since that time, and the resulting diversity is a primary reason Texas is now an economic juggernaut that can withstand substantial shocks to our largest export sector and continue to expand. That Texas routinely wins most major economic development accolades these days owes much to Mark’s vision in a time of tremendous strife and uncertainty.
Mark White wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular stand when needed and he used Sam Houston’s admonition in his appeals to the Texas Legislature to make politically tough choices (such as a tax increase in the middle of an oil bust) that would enhance and ensure future prosperity. For Mark, the consequences of such bold, selfless stands were significant indeed — including a failed bid for re-election that effectively ended his career as an elected official but not as a public servant and passionate Texan.
Over the past few days, I have looked through my frequent late-night emails with Mark. I realized that most of our time was spent railing about border adjustment taxes, efforts to undermine free trade, immigration restrictions and other ideas that would inhibit the potential and the destiny of our great state. On a lighter note, we also concurred that, if “alternative facts truly catch on,” I was an All-Star center fielder for the Cardinals while he played first base.
I have also thought of the situation in which we find ourselves in Texas — facing daunting challenges with respect to adequately funding public and higher education, infrastructure and the needs of our most vulnerable citizens as we struggle with dramatic demographic shifts and the difficulty of remaining competitive in a dynamic global marketplace. We can only hope that, as words of praise and honor rush in for Mark, our leaders will think about and embrace the call to “Do right and risk the consequences.” It would be a fitting legacy for a Texas giant.