Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2011
The Hon. John Sharp
MPA Political Science '76
Texas A&M University System*
*Note: Mr. Sharp was named Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System on Sept. 6, 2011. The following remarks were made in April 2011.
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
A former Texas legislator and senator, chair of the Railroad Commission and State Comptroller, who co-founded Texans to Cure Cancer, John Sharp has given lasting service to the people of Texas, as an elected official and as a private citizen.
He grew up in Placedo, near Victoria, where his mother was a teacher and his father was an oilfield worker. His involvement in politics started in 7th grade, when he was elected class president, and it continued through high school, where he was student body president.
He entered Texas A&M as a pre-veterinary major but, realizing an interest in government, he soon changed to political science.
One of the members of John’s unit in the Corps of Cadets was Rick Perry, the future governor, and they became friends. When Perry ran for yell leader, John ran his campaign, and when John ran for student body president, Perry ran John’s campaign. John served on the student senate with Perry and a number of other talented young men who would later hold elected offices in Texas, and he knew by the time he graduated that he wanted to go into politics.
After service as a second lieutenant in the Army, John earned a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs at Texas State while working full time for the Legislative Budget Board in Austin. He and his wife Charlotte, who was then a student at The University of Texas, were married between the Democratic primary and the general election in which John won a seat in the House of Representatives. John and Charlotte have two children, Spencer and Victoria.
After serving two terms in the House, he was elected to the state Senate and to the Texas Railroad Commission, which he chaired, and as State Comptroller of Public Accounts.
On his first day as State Comptroller, John entered his new office to find that Gov. Ann Richards was having a red hotline telephone installed on his desk. He called the Governor to find out why they needed a hotline, saying, “We’ll just use it to tell each other jokes.” She replied that, because President Bush and Prime Minister Gorbachev had a hotline, she thought she and John needed one. When the hotline was installed, John lifted the receiver to call Richards, but the line was dead. He called her on another phone to tell her the hotline wasn’t working, so she said, “Let me try.” In a minute the hotline rang and when John answered, the Governor said, “I bet you thought this was a two-way hotline.”
In a manner of speaking, John created the first two-way hotline to the people of Texas in his revolutionary management of state government. As Comptroller, he fulfilled his pledge to “make government work more like our most successful businesses.” He established the Texas Window on State Government, the nation’s first web site allowing citizens to view and participate in the daily workings of government. Because the state had a budget shortfall that was as big proportionally as the one we face today, he established the Texas Performance Review, an ongoing audit of state government that identified more than $8.5 billion in taxpayer savings. Both programs profoundly changed the way government does business and have been adopted by many agencies in other states. The Clinton White House adopted a version of the Texas Performance Review, called the National Performance Review, which John and his staff ran.
John also implemented a performance review of Texas schools, showing them how to save money while maintaining quality programs. He started the Texas Tomorrow Fund to help families pay for college education, and he commanded the most successful state lottery start-up in U.S. history. He also brought sweeping changes to public assistance, including the Lone Star Card program, which replaced paper food stamp coupons with computerized bank-type cards, dramatically reducing fraud and abuse in the program. All 50 states have now replaced paper food stamps with computerized cards.
After eight years as Comptroller, John ran for Lieutenant Governor against his friend Rick Perry, who beat him by 1 percent. In reviewing that election’s outcome, John tells of how he once saved Perry’s life. When they were students, Perry picked a fight in a parking lot with a Hell’s Angels-type motorcycle rider, who came after Perry swinging a chain. It was cricket season and the cricket population was exploding. To distract the biker, John scooped up handfuls of the insects, stuffed them in his mouth, and chewed them till cricket juice dribbled down his chin. The shocked biker got back on his motorcycle and rode away. With a twinkle in his eye John says that, had he not eaten the crickets, he’d be governor today.
In 2005, as property tax inequities were threatening to close schools across the state, Gov. Perry asked John to head the Texas Tax Reform Commission, charged with preparing a bi-partisan taxation plan to support education. The plan was approved and schools stayed open. To chair the Tax Reform Commission, however, John removed himself as a candidate for governor against Perry in 2006. He is now contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate seat that Kay Bailey Hutchison will vacate in 2012.
John is principal in the Austin office of Ryan & Co., a Dallas-based tax consulting firm, whose business he has helped to build substantially. In private life, he continues to serve public interests. He has taught several political science courses at Texas State. He founded the Travis Fund, which provides college scholarships for the children of Texas veterans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his greatest accomplishments resulted from a conversation in a duck blind with the president of M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. When he asked the president what he needed to cure cancer, the president answered, “Money for research.” Subsequently, John and others founded Texans to Cure Cancer, securing $3 billion to fund aggressive cancer research at facilities across Texas.
John’s selfless public service has been recognized in many ways. Texas Monthly named John an Outstanding Freshman during his first legislative term, and under his leadership, the Comptroller’s Office became the only government agency to receive the Texas Quality Award from business leaders. Texas State has also named him a Distinguished Alumnus of the University.
John’s talent for effective government and his public spirit have touched the lives of millions of people in all 50 states. He brings honor to the College of Liberal Arts. John, it is my privilege to present you with the College’s highest honor, The Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.