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The Combs School of Business

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The standards for political leadership in Texas have dwindled to depressing levels recently. Faced with an economic downturn and a historically large budget deficit, our statewide elected officials seem more concerned with their political careers than steering the state through a difficult period. Gov. Rick Perry has been so furiously pandering to right-wing voters, he’s making George W. Bush look statesman-like. Not that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who’s eyeing a run for U.S. Senate, has been any better.

So Susan Combs’ actions of late have been refreshing. Combs, a Republican elected Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in 2006, has gotten into a very public fight with the online retailer Amazon. Combs contends the company owes the state $269 million in back sales taxes. Amazon claims it’s not obligated to pay because, though it has a distribution center in Irving, the company doesn’t have a storefront in Texas.

Combs has a fair reading of the law, which states that any company with a nexus of operations in Texas owes sales taxes. But rather than pay its share, Amazon threw a fit. It has threatened to close its Irving distribution center, depriving the state of much-needed jobs. And no sooner had Amazon announced its intention to leave than Perry threw Combs under his 2012 campaign bus. “The comptroller made that decision independently,” Perry told the Washington Examiner. “I would tell you from my perspective that’s not the decision I would have made.” He went on to dispute Combs’ interpretation of the law—though sales-tax collection isn’t in the governor’s purview—and pledged to keep Amazon in Texas.
It would have been easy for Combs to give in. She has ambitions for higher office. But to her credit, she has held strong. She’s pushed back on the governor, insisting that her take on tax law is correct.

Trying to force a major employer to pay taxes—even taking the company before an administrative law judge—was gutsy. But it was the right move. A state facing a $27 billion budget deficit cannot let huge companies get away with not paying taxes. And it’s unfair to small Texas retailers to allow their large Internet-based competitor to go tax-free.

Combs’ push-back against Perry was a rare moment of honest-to-God leadership, when an ambitious elected official refused to take the politically expedient path and did what was best for the state. If only it weren’t so unusual.