There was poignant irony that former Gov. Mark White laid in state in the capitol rotunda for three hours Thursday, ((Aug. 10)) while lawmakers discussed school funding elsewhere in the building.

It was six days before the 30-day special legislative session ended. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's agenda for legislators was to set up a commission to study school finance.

He later expanded that to not just studying Texas' outdated, clunky school finance system, but actually doing something about it.

So, the Senate and House were wrangling. The Senate wanted to increase spending by just one-sixth of the $1.8 billion the House wanted.

Democrat White, 77, who died Aug. 3 at his Houston home of a heart attack after a long battle with cancer, was governor in the 1980s when Texas gave public education spending a huge boost.

White had pledged a teacher pay hike as a major campaign tool to stymie incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Clements' re-election bid in 1982. Other factors contributed greatly to White's upset victory, but teacher pay was a big part.

As it played out, however, White spent just one term as governor. Clements in 1986 got his revenge, spoiling White's own try for re-election.

White, whose mother was a teacher, had a major problem. In addition to the teacher pay hike, he had also echoed the campaign pledge of his political mentor, Democratic former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, of "no new taxes."

White had served as Briscoe's secretary of state from 1973 until 1977, when he left to seek the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

The presumed shoo-in favorite was former House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr, who had presided over the 1973-74 "reform" session of the House, following the Sharpstown stock fraud and banking scandal that became public in 1971.

Daniel had a famous name. His dad had been speaker three decades earlier, in 1943. He then served as attorney general, U.S. senator, governor, and Texas Supreme Court justice.

But in 1978, White borrowed half a million dollars for a late round of TV ads, while Daniel reserved his stash for the general election against Republican James A. Baker III. White won in an upset.

In 1982, White won the Democratic nomination over Railroad Commissioner Buddy Temple and Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong to face Republican Gov. Clements.

Clements was expected to win. But then-U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, up for re-election, were nervous; Republicans Clements for governor in 1978, and Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, had carried Texas.

In 1981, before the Democratic nominees were even known, Bentsen and Hobby agreed to raise more than a million dollars for a Democratic coordinated campaign and voter turnout effort in 1982.

Bentsen's top political operative, Jack Martin, masterminded the operation. Just before the general election, Bentsen asked Martin how things were going.

Martin told Bentsen he would win. In fact, Martin said, all the statewide Democratic candidates should win.

"Even Mark White?" asked Bentsen, who had gotten to know Clements when Clements was the Pentagon's operational chief during the Richard Nixon Administration.

"Yes, sir," Martin said.

"Ohhhh," Bentsen said. "Bill's not going to like that."

So White became governor.

His mentor Briscoe was able to honor his 1972 "no new taxes" campaign pledge because, on Oct. 18, 1973, the Arabs declared an embargo on oil exports.

That spurred a huge increase in domestic prices and production – and tax revenue.

No such luck for White. In the 1981 recession, domestic consumption declined, oil prices nose-dived, and business and tax revenues slumped.

Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby said, after the 1982 election, that White would be unable to keep his promise to hike teacher pay unless he broke his promise about no new taxes.

In 1983, the Senate was okay with a tax increase for a teacher pay raise. But the House challenged White to offer his proposal on which taxes to raise.

That didn't happen by the session's end. The compromise was a committee to study Texas education. White named blunt-spoken Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot to head it.

The result was a 1984 special session, and the largest tax increase in Texas history, including doubling the gas tax. But for their pay raise, teachers had to take a skills test, and students had to make their grades to participate in extracurricular activities.

The teachers felt insulted, and the coaches saw some good players benched. That, plus continued economic problems, doomed White.

He tried a comeback in 1990, but lost the Democratic primary to State Treasurer Ann Richards and Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox. Richards won the runoff, and the election – the last Democrat to be governor.

Mark White was the next-to-last. 

 

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