Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Somebody's going to pay, and politicians are scrambling not to be that somebody."

After a series of political setbacks, Perry's skidding on the ice

March 11, 2007

Arnold Garcia Jr., Page Editor
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Looking down Gov. Rick Perry's political road is difficult these days because his car is spinning wildly on the ice. Ask people now how it's all going to work out for the governor and the most benign response you'll get is a shoulder shrug.

You have to give the governor this, though: He's not panicking, and he isn't letting go of the wheel. This isn't his first spin on political ice, but up to now it's been one car wreck at a time.

This, however, is a multiple-vehicle collision that would make an atheist reach for a rosary. Here are the contributing factors:

•Toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor. Giving over state highway construction to a private firm was a bold move aimed at getting the state moving — literally. Gas tax revenue doesn't cover the cost of building needed highways. The toll road solution stirred up legislative and citizen critics who won't go away and, in fact, are getting louder by the day.

•Coal plants. The governor may be the only one to draw heat from the 11 coal plants he wanted fast-tracked though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permitting process. Then, TXU Corp., the company that sought the permits, was bought and went to the green side. Nevertheless, that issue lingers, partly because three plants are still in play and partly because the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission raised questions about possible insider trading in connection with the proposed buyout.

•The human papilloma virus vaccine executive order. It may have been the right thing to do, but the way it was done certainly feeds suspicions of a fix. The announcement was made late on a Friday afternoon, a move which always arouses suspicion.

Mike Toomey, the governor's ex-chief of staff and now a super-lobbyist, represents Merck, the pharmaceutical company that would benefit greatly from the order. Conspiracy theorists wasted no time starting their engines and now Perry's got critics on that all over the political spectrum.

Texas senators are holding the nomination of the widely respected Albert Hawkins, the health commissioner, hostage for awhile. Before the HPV explosion, Hawkins would likely have sailed through Senate confirmation. Instead, he's answering questions from grumpy senators.

Robert Black, the governor's press secretary, said the Friday announcement was his idea and adopted because no one raised a ruckus when Perry telegraphed he would order the vaccine during the campaign. Chris Bell, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said the same thing.

•The growing sex abuse scandal at the Texas Youth Commission. It comes in last, but that should in no way minimize its significance.

The first three items could be characterized as legitimate policy disagreements. We need the roads, we need the energy, and young women need protection from cervical cancer. Perry stepped up to provide leadership on all those fronts. Leaders and critics are the classic symbiotic relationship — they need one another.

Black predicts those issues will end up in the governor's favor.

"At the end of the session, we'll have toll roads, we'll have a cancer fund, and we'll have budget reform," Black said. Black's prediction may have been a counter-intuitive — but fairly safe — bet had the sex abuse scandal not exploded at TYC. The thought that juveniles in the state's care were subjected to the vilest kind of abuse turns the stomach and offends morality.

Somebody's going to pay, and politicians are scrambling not to be that somebody.

Perry's appointees on the commission have a lot to answer for and the Legislature is working overtime to make sure they do. Even though there's plenty of blame to go around for this disgrace, legislators want to step away from the governor on this one.

Black argues that Texans will give Perry the benefit of the doubt as long as he moves firmly and decisively to correct the wrong. That may be, but Texas governors historically have paid the price for agency crackups. Even though the powers of a Texas chief executive are extremely limited, the governor is the one Texans hold to account.

Perry's attempts so far to act decisively have been second-guessed and overrun by legislators who are sending no-confidence messages to a governor they see spinning wildly on the ice.

That may not do a thing to fix what's wrong with the TYC, but it's what elected officialdom is going to do first. Like it or not, that's the way it is.

Perry? Well, at least you can say he isn't blinking or panicking. Whether he finds traction is another matter entirely.

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE