PAUL J. WEBER,Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott signaled his unease Monday with one of Gov. Rick Perry’s signature legacies — awarding businesses millions of taxpayer dollars in the name of job creation.
It was the first sign that the state attorney general’s vision for Texas is not a carbon copy of his longtime GOP ally.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Abbott also said that Texas still needs a prosecutorial arm to investigate state corruption, a unit that saw its funding stripped by Perry last month after the district attorney that oversaw the Public Integrity Unit refused to resign after a drunken driving arrest.
Both examples stood out as early ways Abbott is forging his own identity among GOP voters in his bid to succeed Perry, who is not seeking re-election in 2014 but has spent the last decade as the face of state’s Republican party.
“The state of Texas benefits from a public integrity unit that will ensure that we have a policeman, if you will, that all public officials do the right thing all the time,” Abbott told the AP.
Abbott announced his candidacy Sunday, but already has a commanding head start. He’s raised nearly $23 million and is embarking on a 10-city tour of Texas this week after years of building support among grass-roots organizations and tea party groups, becoming the widely viewed front-runner to succeed Perry before even launching his campaign.
Abbott, 55, has been attorney general since 2002 and has served all that time under Perry. Yet in two campaign stops so far — San Antonio on Sunday and Houston on Monday — he has not uttered the governor’s name to rallies packed with supporters.
In a wide-ranging interview, Abbott carefully deflected questions about Perry’s tenure and whether a change in the governor’s mansion was needed after 14 years.
“My focus really isn’t on the past. My focus is where we’re going over the next decade,” Abbott said.
Abbott, however, appeared lukewarm toward one of Perry’s proudest achievements: Two job-creating programs, the Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund, that have doled out hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private companies since 2005.
Perry trumpets the programs as engines that have made the roaring Texas economy the envy of the nation. But both conservatives and Democrats have blasted the programs, with far-right GOP groups dismissing the initiatives as corporate welfare.
Abbott stopped short of saying he would phase out the funds if elected, but he made clear that his preferred method of job growth would be through business tax reforms. Abbott said that would give all companies — not just those picked for lucrative awards — a chance to thrive.
He declined to assess the impact of Perry’s programs.
“What I can say is that I don’t want to be involved in government picking between winners and losers,” he said. “I do want to be involved in having a tax structure that will be a natural magnet for businesses that are thinking about relocating here.
“If we can do that, you’re going to find even more businesses choosing to relocate to the state of Texas.”
Abbott returned to Houston 29 years and one day after a freak accident paralyzed him from the waist down while jogging in one of the city’s neighborhoods. He was crushed by a 75-foot oak tree that splintered at the base and struck him in the back. Abbott sued and collected millions, and now has two steel rods in his back.