Saturday, June 09, 2007

Moratorium? 'Most of what Perry wants to do can happen in the next two years.'

Perry Had a Good Session


by Will Lutz
Copyright 2007

The Legislature huffed. The Legislature puffed. But when all was said and done, the Legislature did not blow Gov. Rick Perry's house down.

To put it another way, lawmakers may have expressed public displeasure with the governor at some points during the session, but they passed many major Perry policy proposals and left most of his signature policy plans intact.

Here are a few key Perry policy initiatives that got enacted.

Medicaid Reform

Many of the principles the governor laid out for the state's subsidized health care program - Medicaid - are incorporated into SB 10, the omnibus Medicaid reform plan. What's fascinating is that many of Perry's ideas remained in the bill and were negotiated so as to pass with bipartisan support.

Some of the big ideas that Perry and lawmakers laid out in an early-session news conference with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt included tailoring benefits to specific populations and adding co-payments to emergency room visits for Medicaid - the state-federal subsidized health care program for the poor.

Much of SB 10 will require a waiver from the federal government, but as evidenced by the press conference with Leavitt, many of those discussions are already taking place.

Another major part of SB 10 is the three-share program - a plan that subsidizes individuals and employers who provide health insurance to the previously uninsured. This program was funded, in part, by reallocating federal health care dollars - one of the many reasons legislators included an increase in reimbursement rates for health care providers in the budget. They wanted to ensure that these changes do not adversely affect key players in the health care area.

All these are proposals that Perry backed (and that were developed with input from key lawmakers in the health care area). They now await the governor's signature.

Higher Education

True, the Legislature did not adopt all the governor's higher education proposals, and reduced the scope of some. This is quite common when a Texas governor proposes major changes in the way an area of state government operates.

But the Legislature did act on some of the key ideas he proposed. It funded $100 million in incentive-funding for higher education. It directed the Higher Education Coordinating Board, working in conjunction with the Office of the Governor, to develop a plan for distributing the money.

Lawmakers also increased funding for financial aid, though not by as much as Perry requested.

For the first time in recent memory, the Legislature itemized some of the money earmarked for specific projects on specific campuses, allowing the governor to exercise line-item veto over them.

Lawmakers did not abolish special items, as he suggested, but they did try and make them more transparent and increased his authority over them.

Perry did not get as much as he wanted on higher education, but he was able to get the Legislature to lay a foundation, particularly with the incentives, that he can build on later.

Cancer research

One of Perry's big themes for the session was doing something about cancer. Much media attention went to his attempt - struck down by legislation - to mandate either the human papilloma virus or a parental opt-out for sixth-grade girls.

But Perry got legislators to pass both a constitutional amendment and a bill authorizing $3 billion for cancer research.

Yes, the Legislature disagreed with Perry's method of finance - viz., selling the lottery. But it adopted his whole spending program. Rarely does the Legislature seriously consider - much less pass - anything that would obligate future legislatures. But it did so this time.

Teacher Incentives

True, House Democrats did amend the budget to strike performance-based incentives for teachers. But the Senate insisted they stay in.

The Legislature - over the objections of teacher groups - dedicated the bulk of the money for teacher compensation increases to a program set up in 2006 to reward high-achieving teachers, rather than spending it on across the board raises.

True, there is money sent to school districts intended for across-the-board raises, but most of the new teacher compensation money is dedicated to performance-based increases.

The concept of pay for performance was pushed in 2005 by the House leadership, but it is also one that Perry has championed for years in speeches.

In addition to the above-mentioned items, getting more money for border security was a major Perry priority.

The legislature added $110 million to Perry's Office of Homeland Security to help expand border security surge operations.

Besides seeing several major policy initiatives advance, Perry dodged legislative bullets in two key areas.

Texas Enterprise Fund - Emerging Technology Fund

During the 2006 campaign, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn referred to the Texas Enterprise Fund as a "corporate slush fund" and regularly called for its repeal. Lawmakers funded both of the governor's business incentive programs with extra cash this session. Speaker Tom Craddick ruled out of order Democratic amendments to strike or reduce Texas Enterprise Fund appropriations in the budget.


There is significant discontent with toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. Two-thirds of legislators actually voted to declare a moratorium on the renting of state right-of-way for toll roads and give local toll authorities more power over local toll projects than the Texas Department of Transportation. But when Perry threatened to call a special session over transportation, the lawmakers relented. Indeed, they passed a bill that technically puts a moratorium on new comprehensive development agreements, but the bill contains lots of exemptions and loopholes. In short, most of what Perry wants to do can happen in the next two years.

Powers of the governor

The House passed a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to come back into session after the regular session to override vetoes. The Senate passed an amendment allowing it to dismiss gubernatorial appointments whose terms have expired. Both measures died.

This is not to say that Perry had a perfect session. Relations between the center office and lawmakers were certainly strained. And that tension cost Perry some of his key priorities.

In particular, the idea of giving taxpayers more protections to force elections on local property tax increases did not get far. Perry's Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform suggested many additional protections for taxpayers, but legislators seemed more inclined to leave local tax increases to the complete discretion of local authorities.

Nor did they bite on Perry's call to pass a lower state spending limit and make the state budget more transparent.

"My quarrel is not with where the dollars flow, but the lack of transparency, accountability and budgetary honesty involved in how they are allocated," Perry said.

"That being said, important investments have been made that legislators can proudly proclaim. Lawmakers came here with high hopes and have laid firm tracks that will continue Texas ' stride as a prosperous state."

Perry wanted individual lines broken down in more detail so taxpayers could see where money was being spent. The measure likewise would have made it easier for a governor to use line-item veto authority.

Under current law, in some cases, the governor has to veto an entire agency budget if dissatisfied with one item in that agency's budget. The Legislature didn't display much interest in limiting its own power of the purse.

Throughout the session, the theme of checks-and-balances came up. Did lawmakers cede too much power to Perry in 2003? Certainly, under Perry , Texas has moved closer to a cabinet form of government.

Lawmakers expressed frustration and considered seriously measures to rein the governor in. But when the session ended, Perry survived with his powers intact and many of his major initiatives awaiting signature.

© 2007

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