He recently completed his “Road to Prosperity” tour of 13 media markets in Texas since he announced his candidacy last month. The Democratic Primary is set for March 2, 2010.
The Smith County cattle rancher and small businessman, who taught high school in Pittsburg for eight years, identified transportation and education as two major issues that need addressing in Austin.
Gilbert, 49, was his party’s nominee for agriculture commissioner in 2006. He lost that race to Republican Todd Staples, 55 percent to 42 percent, but received the highest vote total of any statewide Democratic executive branch candidate that year.
He said the Trans Texas Corridor and other toll road issues, which have been promoted by current Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the solution to the state’s transportation infrastructure problems, is what got him involved in electoral politics. He said he was against “selling our infrastructure to the highest bidder,” and also said the Texas toll roads completed so far are losing money.
Gilbert has been a board member for several years of the grassroots organization called TURF (Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom) to fight the toll road onslaught from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
According to its Web site, “TURF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate the public on our government’s new shift to tolling using controversial financing methods called public-private partnerships (called Comprehensive Development Agreements or CDAs in Texas), the tolling of existing corridors, and the eminent domain abuse inherent in these plans (confiscating private land to give to a private company for commercial gain). TURF also educates the public about the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), the first of the planned NAFTA Superhighways connected to the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) and coming merger with Mexico and Canada through a North American Union (NAU). TURF is a grassroots group of Texans who are asking for reforms that require accountability and good public policy as well as promoting non-toll, sensible transportation solutions.”
Gilbert said most of the people he has worked with on those issues have been Republicans.
“We have 300,000 members in TURF, and 75 percent of them are Republicans.”
He also said “one-party rule” was not good either in Washington, D.C., or Austin, and that Texas needs a Democratic governor to provide “checks and balances” on Republican dominance in the Legislature.
“We’ve gotta have good eminent domain protection in this state,” he added, “because the way the laws are now, particularly concerning the Corridor and toll roads, the state can take your property for any number of reasons and turn it over to foreign investors to build projects on and that has to stop.”
Gilbert said recent legislative sessions had “temporarily” stopped TxDOT’s further implementation of CDAs, but the battle is far from over.
“A grassroots organization of just plain old folks from around this state was able to defeat millions and million and millions of dollars of special interest money and get the right thing done,” he said of successful efforts to block Gov. Perry’s agenda in this year’s sessions.
Gilbert chided Gov. Perry’s playing politics on the issue of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds (aka the “stimulus package”). The state eventually accepted most of the $21 billion offered to it, except for $555 million which would have gone to replenish the unemployment insurance fund.
He said the Legislature used $12.1 billion from the federal government to balance the state budget. Yet, he said, whoever is elected Governor will still face at least a $10 billion state budget deficit, “not counting the deficit TxDOT has us under,” when he or she takes office in January 2011.
He said Perry’s remark “What recession?” which went “viral” on YouTube a few weeks ago shows how out of touch he is with the concerns and needs of ordinary Texans.
“Rick Perry has become a millionaire while holding public office,” Gilbert said, adding that there is no way to do that just based on the salary a Texas public office holder is paid.
He also touched on his frustration with the insurance business in this state, recounting personal woes he has had with respect to home owners’ insurance and health insurance.
His family’s home burned almost completely to the ground years ago. The insurance company disagreed on how best to reconstruct the house and Gilbert had to take it to court to force it to honor the policy. Eventually, after a 3 1/2-year delay while district and appellate courts heard the case, the insurance company gave up. Four years and two months after the fire, the family finally moved into a new house, not the rebuilt one the insurance company had first demanded.
He said he went shopping for health insurance years ago for his family of four, three of whom had preexisting conditions. He found only one company in the entire state that would even offer coverage. That “60 percent” coverage had a $5,000 deductible and required premiums of about $25,000 a year. He said once his two sons were old enough, he and his wife decided it was no longer worth it to pay that yearly amount and now they are among the ranks of the estimated 46 million Americans without health insurance.
He quoted a study which found that wages for Texans have risen 19 percent since 2000, but insurance rates have risen 100 percent since then.
He said his appointments of commissioners to oversee the Texas Department of Insurance would come from the ranks of ordinary Texans, not insurance industry insiders or lobbyists.
Right now, he said, “Every one of them are ex-lobbyists to the insurance companies they’re supposed to be overseeing.”
He said he goes to Austin quite often while the Legislature is in session, not as a paid lobbyist but as a citizen.
On days the Legislature is considering bills involving a lot of money, he said the place is so crowded you can barely get around. That is because so many lobbyists are there at the Capitol whenever a lot of money is involved, he asserted.
“You need a governor that’s going to work on your behalf and not that of the special interests, and that’s what I pledge to do.”
He presented a report detailing his platform on primary education called “Pledging Allegiance To Texas Public Schools — Hank Gilbert’s Plan for K-12 Education in Texas.”
“We have the highest uneducated, unskilled workforce because of our dropout rate.” he said.
The state’s dropout rate is among the highest in the nation, and 70 percent of the inmates in Texas prisons are dropouts, he added.
“Right now we’re spending as much to feed, clothe and shelter (the inmates) as we are to educate the rest.”
Texas has the highest number of people over the age of 25 without a high school diploma, he said.
“We’re the third-leading state in the country in dollars spent in public education, yet we’re 45th in the country in dollars spent per student,” he said, calling this a “huge disconnect.”
His K-12 public education plan starts with universal pre-K starting at age three by 2013. He plans to create a dedicated vocational- technical-entrepreneurial track in high school for students who don’t want to go to college.
He wants to eliminate the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test and “develop this track where they can actually learn a trade in high school, and we’ll do that by partnering with business and industry in the communities, where we turn out kids graduating at apprenticeship levels in various different trades.”
On the issue of higher education, Gilbert wants to expand the number of Tier One research universities to nine in the next 10 years “to keep the brightest minds here.” There are only two such state institutions now — UT-Austin and Texas A&M.
Gilbert graduated from A&M in 1981. He said when he drives around College Station now, “I get lost because nothing’s where it used to be.” And that growth, he said, is largely due to the prestige A&M has as a Tier One campus.
Details of Gilbert’s plans for education as well as other issues are at HankGilbert.com.
The East Texan also invited citizens interested in his campaign to come meet with him in Pittsburg this Sunday, Oct. 11. He will be at the Pilgrim Bank Community Room from 2 to 4 p.m.