Monday, September 25, 2006

Perry leverages gubernatorial power with stealth legislation, political appointees.

The ever-presumptive Mr. Perry

September 25, 2006


Cox News Service
The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2006

WACO, Texas — For better or for worse, Rick Perry is making a few of us eat our words.

The words, between two slices of white bread: "weak governor."

Commentators like me used the words, for instance, to wonder what it was about being Texas governor that made George W. Bush such a hot commodity. Dixie's forefathers had no intention of arming Texas governors with much more than a quill for initialling what the Legislature does.

Perry, mocked as a lightweight swept along in his predecessor's wake, has turned into the most powerful governor in recent memory.

For better or worse? November is a dandy time to decide. Perry has given voters quite a few referenda onto which his name can be attached.

One is the Trans-Texas Corridor. One is the gallop to build coal-fired power plants. One is the long-delayed, long-botched quest to equitably fund schools. One is the protracted, life-sucking, all-consuming gambit of redrawing congressional districts twice in a decade. That one's not done, by the way.

Election-wise, opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor may be the Loch Ness Monster in Perry's pond. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that in setting the TTC in motion, less debate was given to the mammoth undertaking than lawmakers might give to proclaiming Pinto Bean Appreciation Week.

Many Texans now inflamed don't realize it, but they effectively approved the TTC in 2001 when they amended the Constitution to create the amorphous-sounding Texas Mobility Fund.

With little debate, and near-unanimity, lawmakers then passed an omnibus bill to enable the use of tolls and bonds on highways. So doing, they gave the governor the power to set in motion negotiations for a massive superhighway paid for by tolls and contracted to a foreign company.

That's power granted by the Legislature. Some of Perry's power has come through regulatory agencies, though the Legislature may reserve the right to intervene.

Perry issued an executive order cutting in half the normal permit process for a spate of coal-fired power plants proposed by TXU Corp. This was in exchange for an agreement by TXU to phase in a big rate increase in two increments rather than one.

We know it's all about "good government," but that very day Perry signed his order, former TXU chairman Erle Nye donated $2,000 to the good governor's campaign. It was followed shortly by $5,000 from a TXU political action committee, then another $25,000 by Nye. Ah. So, that's where Perry gets his power.

Last week, State Sen. Kip Averitt, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said that the fast-track matter is essentially moot. The permitting process will take as long as is necessary, he said.

More significant, however, was Perry appointing Martin A. Hubert to the vacancy on the three-member Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That's just in time to break any possible stalemate on the plants. TXU's donors will be watching.

All of the above might trouble those who thought governors in Texas were feather dusters. Some were, but they didn't use their regulatory power the way Perry does.

The most eye-opening instance was Perry's declaration that schools be penalized on the state's fiscal accountability system unless 65 percent of all expenditures go to "classroom" needs.

This attempt to pit dollars for transportation, security and maintenance against whatever the state deems "instructional" has been roundly booed by analysts who say it makes no difference in education.

But it is a well-placed gig at school districts for lobbying (not an instructional expense) against Perry's pet school reforms like vouchers and policies that put tax cuts ahead of school needs.

Perry is no pipsqueak. He's more like Spider Man, a mortal of near-mythic power. Now, voters: Does he use his powers for good? Or are those powers better vested in another set of tights?

John Young is Opinion Page editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.

© 2006 The Lufkin Daily News: