Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Perry's lagging appointments are no accident."

Senators: Perry evading law with expired appointments

Aug. 29, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry's campaign Web site touts public education as a long-standing "top priority" of his, but the school year began this week with teachers and administrators still wondering who will be the next commissioner of education.

That question mark is one among many with nearly 400 expired gubernatorial appointments this year alone to state boards, commissions and universities.

Senators — worried that Perry is dodging their constitutional role of confirming most gubernatorial appointments — are crying foul.

By Friday, 388 of Perry's appointments will have already expired so far this year, but only one in eight have resulted in new appointees or reappointments. Most of the expired terms this year are filled with holdovers from six months ago, two years ago or — at last public count of the governor's office — as long as eight years ago.

Senators also complain that Perry waited until the Legislature left town before filling key posts overseeing the rebuilding of Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, the gambling activities of the Texas Racing Commission and the tuition-setting boards of regents for such universities as Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Stephen F. Austin.

The bottom line is that senators won't be able to vet the delayed appointments until the Legislature reconvenes in January 2009.

And, to the extent holdovers stay in office indefinitely, senatorial confirmation power simply disappears.

Noting that controversial Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, whose term expired in February, stands out among the holdovers, senators of both parties say they'll support new laws when they next meet to prevent future gubernatorial appointments from evading timely Senate approval.

Last spring efforts to force the governor's hand by ending appointments as soon as they expire or within 30 days died.

'It smacks of arrogance'

Among Perry's top critics is Dallas Republican Sen. John Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, who said he believes Perry's lagging appointments are no accident.

He's especially angry that senators weren't allowed to vote on Williamson's continued service at a time when the transportation commissioner supported unpopular toll roads and private concessions to a Spanish company for Perry's planned Trans Texas Corridor.

"I think it's a deliberate effort to expand the powers of the governor," he said. "I think it smacks of arrogance. In my 19 years in the Legislature, I've never seen such obstinacy and abuse with regard to such critical appointments."

The nine-member board of regents at Texas Southern University in Houston, which Perry disbanded last spring amid a financial scandal, still lacks four new members.

By this Friday, the board of regents for the University of Houston will have four expired terms, including Morgan Dunn O'Connor of Victoria, whose term expired Aug. 31, 2005.

And the University of Texas Board of Regents continues meeting with three regents whose terms expired last February and one whose term expired in February 2005.

"It matters because regents at our universities in Texas now have more power than they've ever had in the history of the state over setting tuition," complained Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "It is totally at their discretion."

Ellis urged Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick to appoint committees to take up the issue before the next session.

Perry's aides had no immediate responses to criticism of holdover appointments and Perry's apparent effort to evade Senate oversight.

And they have not provided up-to-date numbers, as requested last Friday, detailing how many total nonjudicial appointments Perry makes, how many are currently holdovers versus vacancies or how long ago appointments expired.

They did confirm on Wednesday, however, that as of last April, holdovers made up 750 of 2,200 nonjudicial appointees Perry has made. Of those, 175 of the terms had expired in 2005 or earlier. One dated back eight years.

Perry's holdover practice for key appointments, which some compare to the tactical advantages of President Bush's recess appointments while Congress is off duty, is not a tradition in Texas, say former staffers of past governors.

Different circumstances

The most generous explanation offered is that Perry, unlike his predecessors, has served so long he's no longer replacing appointments from previous administrations.

"It may be the times and circumstances were different than they are today," said James Huffines, chairman of the UT Board of Regents and former appointments secretary for former Republican Gov. Bill Clements.

"We were trying to replace appointments from another governor and usually it was from a different party," said Huffines, who also chaired Perry's transition team in 2000 and his re-election in 2002.

Dwayne Holman, former appointments secretary for Democratic Gov. Mark White, said holdover controversies weren't an issue for his boss, either.

"Several of the people whose appointments came due had been appointed by Gov. Clements, and we didn't approve of anything Clements did," he joked.

During Gov. Ann Richards' administration, the biggest problems arose from troubles besetting appointees, not from holdovers, said her former press secretary, Bill Cryer.

He remembers a media flap over an appointee to the Parks and Wildlife Department who spoke out against hunting, but said it could have been worse.

"We appointed someone who committed murder and put the body in a barrel and refused to resign," Cryer said.

Chronicle researcher Amy Raskin contributed to this report.

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