Monday, March 12, 2007

Rick Perry: The Incredible Shrinking Governor

Texas Legislature:

Lawmakers increasingly challenge Perry

Legislators oppose agenda; his office defends bold moves

March 12, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – In two short months, Gov. Rick Perry has gone from proposing that the state sell the lottery to cure cancer and expand health insurance to defending his right to even issue an executive order.

He is the incredible shrinking governor.

Many blame it on what they see as an overreaching edict that schoolgirls receive the human papillomavirus vaccine, an order that surprised lawmakers and angered some of their constituents. But the backlash Mr. Perry faces in the Legislature has been building for years over his push for toll roads and coal-fired power plants. The blast of the mushrooming sex-abuse scandal at the Texas Youth Commission hasn't helped.

"When you've been called governor for five or six years, you tend to forget that the office is mostly ceremonial and advisory," said Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson.

"You're the governor of the state of Texas, your chest swells and if disaster strikes, you get in the helicopter, cameras come and you feel reasonably authoritative. Then the Legislature comes back into town, and it's a different story," Dr. Jillson said.

Starting today, thanks to legislative rules and schedules, the House and Senate will rush to make hundreds of new laws before adjourning at the end of May. When the session began in January, it seemed Mr. Perry's agenda might dominate the coming period. Now, he might be lucky to just prevent lawmakers from curtailing his own power.

Consider some bills advancing through the Legislature: a constitutional amendment to allow lawmakers to reconvene to override any vetoes the governor signed in their absence; a bill to limit the service of the governor's appointees; and a provision that makes executive mandates subject to approval by the Legislative Budget Board.

Plus, a senator has asked the attorney general to determine the limits of a governor's executive orders. And the House is scheduled Tuesday to begin debate on rolling back the HPV order.

"The Legislature is asserting itself," said Warren Chisum, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget and is key to many of Mr. Perry's ideas.

Enthusiasm lags

Mr. Chisum said there's little enthusiasm among lawmakers for selling the state lottery. Less for the toll roads. And the HPV executive order has caused major headaches, he said. "Those all got political, and we're not buying in," said Mr. Chisum, R-Pampa.

He and other lawmakers said they are not picking a fight. They are just standing their ground and protecting themselves from the political firestorm over the HPV vaccine.

"We catch the flak from the stuff that comes off his wheel," Mr. Chisum said. "So I guess we're the fender and he's the wheel, and the fender catches all the [dung]."

The governor's press secretary, Robert Black, said the Legislature is performing its role: to deliberate state policy. But he said the governor is also playing his part, to make recommendations and push for progress.

"The governor's put out where he stands on the issues," Mr. Black said. "In truth, the ball is very rightfully in the Legislature's court."

The agenda Mr. Perry outlined for this year was ambitious – and expensive.

He asked the Legislature, dominated by his fellow Republicans, to sell the lottery and use the proceeds to create trusts that would pour millions into cancer research, providing health insurance for the working poor while continuing to fund public education.

He also wants to put millions into college grant programs, while tying some university funding to graduation rates and other efficiency standards.

The HPV vaccine order, which would stop strains of the sexually transmitted virus responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, also requires funding to pay for vaccines for poor children. Under the governor's executive order, parents could refuse the vaccine for their children.

Mr. Perry has "thrown out very big ideas for debate" and is hoping that most lawmakers will share his priorities, Mr. Black said. With the legislative session less than halfway through, he argued, there is plenty of time to win support.

"It's way too early to write a postmortem on any of those initiatives," Mr. Black said.

He pointed out that the governor's higher-education plan is moving. There is a cancer research initiative being funded. And the HPV executive order still stands.

Pushing back

Yet some of the legislative action has been a direct push-back to Mr. Perry or his appointees.

For instance, Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, has filed a bill that would forcibly remove Mr. Perry's TYC board appointees because they were blindsided by two years of horrendous sexual abuse in juvenile detention facilities. Mr. Perry forced the former chairman of the board out but has defended the remaining commissioners.

Also, Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, has filed a bill that would prevent the governor's appointees from serving after their term ends. And his bill would allow the Senate to specially reconvene to review nominations to state commissions that are made between sessions.

The proposal was sparked by lawmakers' frustration over Ric Williamson – the smart but sometimes abrasive chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. His term ended Feb. 1, but he continues to serve. Senators suspect that Mr. Perry is waiting until after they leave town in May to reappoint him so that Mr. Williamson – a huge advocate for public-private tollways – won't face a hostile nominations fight.

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, has even offered a constitutional amendment that would dull the sharpest tool a governor has in a legislative session – the threat of a veto.

Mr. Elkins' measure, which he expects the House to debate this week, would allow the Legislature to reconvene for three days in the month following a regular session to consider overriding vetoes issued by the governor.

Currently, all bills passed in the last two weeks of a session – which almost all bills are – can be held by the governor until the Legislature adjourns. He can then exercise his veto and as a result, overrides are extremely rare – there's been just one in the last 25 years.

"What I'd like to do is get the Legislature back in the ballgame," Mr. Elkins said. "There's a lot of bipartisan support for it."

Mr. Black believes the backlash is part of being a leader and setting a bold agenda.

"Critics will say he's pushed that envelope too far. Perhaps. But voters expect a governor to lead, and Rick Perry's record shows that he has," Mr. Black said.

"Some people like to get all twisted up in the methods he has used, like executive orders. But the proof's in the pudding. The agencies have followed, and by-and-large, the Legislature has, too," he said.

The rebuff of Mr. Perry and the deflation of his agenda are more than a difference over HPV; it is part of a "power rebalancing," said Ross Ramsey, editor of the Capitol newsletter Texas Weekly.

After six years in office, Mr. Perry has appointed every board member in the state, and most of the agency directors. And he has worked to control hiring within agencies and had those offices report to him, Mr. Ramsey said.

Sparked by the HPV mandate, Mr. Ramsey said: "The Legislature is doing a push-back. The governor screwed up and is reaping the whirlwind."

Coupling all this with his underwhelming showing in last year's election – Mr. Perry won with 39 percent of the vote in a crowded field – it's clear the governor has lost some of his mojo, Mr. Ramsey said.

"Is there anything the Legislature is going to do because he's Perry? The answer is no," Mr. Ramsey said. "The things he gets done now are the things the Legislature wants done."


Some issues on which the Legislature has pushed back against Gov. Rick Perry's proposals:
  • HPV vaccine: Lawmakers stand ready to overturn the governor's order to require the inoculation for schoolgirls.
  • Coal plants: Mr. Perry sped up permits for new power plants, but lawmakers were poised to halt the expansion based on pollution concerns.
  • Toll roads: A popular bill in the House and Senate would stop new toll roads for two years, a direct challenge to Mr. Perry's vision for new highway projects.
  • Executive power: Lawmakers want the attorney general to determine whether the governor can tell state agencies what to do.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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