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LEARN more about the debate over obligation bonds at!debtbond White during his time as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy under President Clinton PHOTO COURTESY BILL WHITE FOR TEXAS Bill White’s Resume Highlights U.S. DEPUTY SECRETARY OF ENERGY 1993-1995 FOUNDER & CEO, FRONTERA RESOURCES 1996-1997 CHAIRMAN, HOWE-BAKER INTERNATIONAL 1997-2000 CEO, WEDGE GROUP 1997-2004 MAYOR OF HOUSTON 2004-2010 the newly elected Annise Parker. White’s governing style and approach to decision-makingone focused very much on the final goal or bottom linewas unlike any Stein had seen before. “Because he was a businessman, he did things in ways that I thought were very different,” Stein says. With the pension cuts, White showed that he was willing to implement what he thought was the right policy even if it wasn’t politically popular. The cuts may have been sound fiscal policy, but they didn’t entirely shore up the pension system. White’s administration borrowed money to help paper over the remaining pension shortfall. In 2003, the Legislature had allowed cities to issue so-called pension obligation bondsessentially borrowing money to cover pension obligations. From 2004 to 2008, the city borrowed more than $500 million to cover pensions. Parker ended the practice in her first budget as mayor. When she presented the budget to city council, Parker said, “It is also the first budget in the last five years that has not used pension obligation bonds to balance it. I have long been uncomfortable with the idea of using debt for current obligations. And you will see that our debt payments are down as a result of that.” You can now find that quote on Gov. Perry’s campaign site. The Perry people are using Parker’s comments in an attempt to shred. White’s self-characterization as a competent businessman. They claim that White left the city with a budget deficit, and call White’s handling of the Houston budget “Enron” accounting. That’s a wild exaggeration. Obligation bonds are a legitimate and legal budget technique, though there’s a debate over whether they should be used. White’s campaign has defended the bonds and argued that the city’s budget was balanced during his tenure. \(In the strictest sense, the budget was balanced, though with the noted that Parker didn’t publicly object to the bonds during the past five years, when she was the city’s controller. Nonetheless, Perry’s criticism of ‘White’s fiscal bona fidesaided by the remarks from Parker’s office appears to have hurt White politically. \(A spokesperson for Parker said the mayor didn’t want to interject herself into the governor’s race and Stein says the obligation bond issue isn’t blackand-white, especially if White thought the economy would continue to bloom. “You can debate both sides of it. But it’s clearly something a businessperson would be OK with if you were bullish on the economy, which he was.” In nearly every major decision or initiative during his six years as mayor, White took a similar businesslike approach. He raised public and private funds to create Discovery Green, a 12-acre park on the lip of downtown. White believedcorrectly, as it turned outthat well-maintained green space would spur private development in the area. Then there’s the crisis for which he’s best knowntaking in the estimated 200,000 Louisiana residents who fled to Houston in August 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. White’s foresight and understanding of the private sector again were on display. The mayor realized from the start that many Katrina evacuees would never return to New Orleans and would need permanent housing. White’s office worked directly, and successfully, with landlords to find apartments and permanent residences for tens of thousands. In 2006, White decided to take on the city’s major petrochemical facilities over property taxes. Houston’s sprawling refineries and chemical plants had been paying below-market tax rates for years. The companies had long fought paying higher taxes and, with their deep resources, usually trounced the county tax appraisers in court. Though the mayor technically has no role in property valuation, White decided he could help. He arranged meetings in the mayor’s office between the county tax assessor’s office and the heads of the city’s largest refiners, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, Lyondell and Pasadena Refining. He even chartered a flight to San Antonio to meet with executives from Valero, according to the Houston Chronicle. White was the moderator at these meetings. According to Chronicle accounts at the time, he told the executives that he knew they wanted to stay out of court and pressed them to agree to fair land values. Shell, headed by White’s friend John Hofmeister, was the first to strike a deal. The county numbercrunchers later reached similar agreements with ExxonMobil and Lyondell. \(Valero, despite White’s The businessman-mayor took a similar strategy in trying to reduce pollution. White reached out to industry leaders to sign pollution-reduction deals, arguing that it was in the companies’ interests to set emission goals well into the future. And he was determined to cut down on the release of carcinogens like benzene and butadiene into Houston’s air. Some companies were more receptive than othersand some that did strike agreements didn’t follow through on their promises to curb emissions. White then showed that he was willing to fight. With limited success, he tried to use the city’s nuisance ordinances to compel polluters to reduce emissions, while also imploring state environmental regulators to crack down on the recalcitrant polluters. Even in the day-to-day operations of the city, White preached sound business principles. He bought his staff the book The Price of Government. “[The book] was about squeezing the value out of each tax dollar,” he says, “and how there was a limit on what anybody could pay for anything whether it be your car, your house or a subscription to a periodical, and the same is true of government. One of the challenges our country has is trying to get the most value out of each of those dollars.” That last quote might be Bill White in a nutshell competent, thoughtful, insightful and, well, kind of bland. Making the most of each tax dollar might be a recipe for good government, but it won’t have anyone chanting “yes, we can” at campaign events. Still, his approach made White wildly popular in Houston. “I’ve been polling here since ’79,” Stein says, “and he’s gotten the highest ratings of any incumbent mayor I’ve ever seen.” White left office with an 84 percent approval rating. But that was last fall, before Perry’s campaign started its barrage of press releases and negative Web ads, and before the recent revelations about White’s relationship with BJ Services. “Of course,” Stein says of White’s popularity, “it’s dropped quite a bit.” 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG