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Perry’s jobs record draws applause, critics

Wages, benefits in Texas called low

Governor Rick Perry of Texas says his success in boosting jobs makes him the right candidate to try to beat President Obama. Governor Rick Perry of Texas says his success in boosting jobs makes him the right candidate to try to beat President Obama. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / August 29, 2011

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Governor Rick Perry of Texas autographed Bibles recently at a campaign stop in South Carolina, but he was really there to enlighten Republicans on the “Texas miracle,’’ a creation story about jobs.

Since the end of the recession in June 2009, Texas has netted approximately 220,000 jobs, far more than any other state. The new GOP presidential front-runner attributes the increase to his small-government, antitax, antiregulatory philosophy.

His critics, however, say too many of the jobs pay low wages and do not include benefits. Still, with the nation languishing in a painfully slow recovery, jobs are the heart of Perry’s economic platform and his best case for why he is the right candidate to take on President Obama.

“It’s pretty hard to argue we haven’t created a job-creating machine in the state of Texas, and I think that’s what people are looking for,’’ Perry told reporters while campaigning in Iowa.

GOP voters have taken notice: A national Gallup poll suggests Perry leads the field of Republican presidential hopefuls with support from 29 percent of primary voters, well ahead of second-place Mitt Romney, at 17 percent. Those numbers are backed up by two other recent national polls.

Perry, as the new front-runner, and his record on jobs will be targeted by opponents from both parties looking to blunt his momentum.

During his more than 10 years in the governor’s office, Perry has occasionally taken stands that seem to conflict with his promises to rein in the influence of government and keep it out of private enterprise. One example is his use of tax breaks and other carrots to lure business to Texas.

His sharp tongue and fiery partisanship could alienate some independent voters: He has attacked Social Security as a Ponzi scheme; said Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke would be acting in a “treasonous’’ manner if he further eases monetary policy; mused about Texas seceding from the union; and questioned the science behind evolution and climate change.

Through the Republican Governors Association, Perry signed a letter in April in support of the GOP budget proposal forged by the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The Ryan budget was one of the most controversial bills approved this year by the GOP-controlled US House. Under the plan, seniors would no longer get blanket coverage from Medicare but would receive vouchers from Washington to buy insurance from private companies.

Political analysts and Perry’s critics say the details behind the Texas job numbers paint a more complicated picture of the state’s economy - and Perry’s role in supporting it.

“He’s been a good cheerleader for business, saying the right things, but it’s hard to say he turned things around or he had policies that made a substantial difference,’’ said Roger Meiners, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The basic tax and regulatory policy of the state hasn’t changed since the 1970s.’’

Unemployment in the vast state, known for laissez-faire economics, is now 8.4 percent, up nearly half a point since May, which puts Texas in the middle of the pack nationally and worse off than Massachusetts, at 7.6 percent.

The “miracle he performed is more of a Texas tall tale,’’ said US Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, in a conference call with reporters recently. “I believe he has no plan except to do less.’’

Texas is tied with Mississippi for the highest percentage of jobs that are at or below minimum wage, said Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit antipoverty group based in Austin, Texas. “What distinguishes us from all other states is the high proportion of jobs that don’t offer any medical benefits,’’ he said.

“There has been job growth, without a doubt, but you can’t just count the numbers,’’ Lavine said. “You have to go a little deeper and see what kind of jobs they are.’’

Perry’s late entry into the race seems to pose the greatest primary challenge to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had enjoyed front-runner status for months. Comparing the gubernatorial records of the two candidates is difficult, as Perry had the political advantage of a state Legislature run by his own party for most of his tenure.

“Romney couldn’t quite do what Perry did - [Romney] had a Democratic Legislature that didn’t necessarily want to row in the same direction,’’ said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an influential group in conservative politics known for persuading political candidates to sign ironclad pledges to never raise taxes. “So in trying to figure out who is the better governor, you have to grade on some kind of curve.’’

While Romney’s campaign is about his business skills and experience, Perry’s remains focused on job statistics.

Employment in Texas has increased by about 1.2 million jobs, to 11.2 million, during Perry’s tenure as governor, despite the losses suffered during the 2008 financial crisis and the deep recession that followed, according to figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Clearly the policy environment of Texas has generally been favorable for business,’’ said Lori Taylor, associate professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “We have a generally low tax burden. We don’t have an income tax; everybody brags about that.’’ Texas has higher property tax rates than many states and depends heavily on a state sales tax, which is “clearly far from the lowest, but relatively stable over the past few years,’’ she said.

All told, Texas has one of the lowest per-capita tax burdens in the country, ranking 45th among states in combined state and local taxes, according to 2009 figures from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. That is the same ranking Texas had the year Perry took office. New Jersey has the highest tax burden; Massachusetts ranks 11th.

Perry deserves some credit for maintaining low taxes, said Taylor, though it has come with a cost. “Taxes are just the prices we pay for public services,’’ she said. “We tend to have a very lean social services budget and a relatively lean infrastructure investment budget.’’

Critics of Perry’s record point to the 26 percent of Texans who lack health insurance, the highest percentage in the nation, according to US Census surveys. Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of uninsured residents, fewer than 2 percent.

With Tea Party Republicans demanding more spending cuts on the federal level, Perry’s record of financial restraint gives him credibility on budget issues, said Norquist.

Perry’s tax and spending record also gets a positive review from the Club for Growth, a conservative antitax group whose stamp of approval can make or break a candidate in a Republican primary.

“On taxes, he’s got some dings, like everybody, but he’s pretty good,’’ said former GOP congressman Chris Chocola, the club’s president, who noted that Perry started his political career as a Democrat and has supported tax increases. “He’s gotten better over time.’’

Still, Chocola and others fault Perry for his willingness to use tax money as bait to attract private companies to move to Texas, which does not fit with his hands-off rhetoric.

“When you have an environment like Texas, we’re not sure you need to make deals to get businesses to move to your state,’’ said Chocola.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.