"This measure, he doesn't get to veto."
By CHRISTY HOPPE
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Democrats always have chafed under the rule of socially conservative, fiscally tight Rick Perry. But in the current legislative session, it's not the opposition party that's pushing back.
Republicans raised red flags over the governor's transfer of $50 million from a job creation fund to his alma mater. Republicans spearheaded legislation to accept more than $550 million in unemployment insurance stimulus money, despite Perry's decision to reject it. And Republicans are offering a constitutional amendment to let the Legislature return to Austin to override a governor's vetoes.
In addition, when the session began in January, Perry designated five priorities "emergency items," waiving all rules so the GOP-controlled Capitol could speed them to him in 30 days. His charge hardly lit a fire: He will be lucky to get any of the bills in 90 days.
"With Democrats, he does not get along well at all," which is understandable, said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "The more important question is how he's perceived by the Republican members."
Perry's aides say the governor's relationship with lawmakers is good. But in the House, Burnam said, most members are frustrated, "because a lot of people work hard and are serious about their work and he won't engage."
Friction between the governor and Legislature is as old as Texas. But Perry also has the eroding effects of longevity. He is in his record fifth session as governor, with an equally record-breaking 203 vetoes in his rearview mirror.
He also has a history of making bold decisions – such as turning down a half-billion in stimulus money or his failed mandate to inoculate teenage girls against the human papilloma virus – without consulting lawmakers.
Perry press secretary Allison Castle said the governor – a former House member and lieutenant governor, meaning he presided over the Senate – has engaged with lawmakers, having almost daily conferences with some.
On the stimulus funds, the governor has always said he would not accept federal funds with strings attached that would leave the state on the hook for long-term spending, she said.
"He was very clear from Day One that this bailout, this stimulus package was bad public policy," Castle said.
His unilateral transfer of $50 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund – a deal-closing fund for relocating businesses – to the Emerging Technology Fund so it could be awarded to a Texas A&M University pharmacology research center is an argument over process, not the merits of the project, Castle said.
Perry's communications director, Mark Miner, said the tussle with the Legislature is all part of the legislative process.
"When you have all these elected officials under one roof, there's always going to be give and take, and differences of opinions. Anytime they all agree is when the public should be concerned," Miner said.
SMU political science professor Cal Jillson said it goes further than that with Perry and the Legislature.
"The support for Rick Perry has always been very thin," Jillson said, adding that the policy tweaks and compromises of a legislative process are not Perry's strong suit.
"He's more ideological than pragmatic," Jillson said. "He's been a solid politician during the good times for the Republican Party, but it's not clear he has a second gear."
His vetoes of popular GOP-sponsored legislation have sparked the movement to allow lawmakers to return to Austin after a session and consider veto overrides, Jillson said.
"It's anti-Rick Perry, but it's not a good idea," he said. "If the governor lost the veto, it would make the office inconsequential. It would slip to one of the very weakest in the country."
House members, who overwhelmingly passed the proposed constitutional amendment on veto overrides last Wednesday, were prompted in some part by bitter memories. Many cited a highly popular 2007 eminent domain bill (it passed the House 143-0 and the Senate 29-1) that would have limited a city's ability to take private property for redevelopment. Perry vetoed it, saying it would open up cities and other entities to lawsuits.
Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, a usually strong Perry supporter, voted for the override amendment as a matter of good policy. But he also was a co-sponsor of the eminent domain bill last session.
"Hey, I'm a tort reformer," Corte said, as a way of saying he also is opposed to ginning up the lawsuit mill. "The governor felt justified in what he did, but I felt that he threw the baby out with the bath water."
This year, he has a similar eminent domain proposal, but it is written as a constitutional amendment, which would go to the voters for approval, bypassing the governor.
"This measure, he doesn't get to veto," Corte said.
The veto override measure still must go through the Senate, though, and then voters would have to approve it in a November statewide election.
Most lawmakers – especially Republicans – said they do not wish to speak ill of the governor, who is preparing for a likely challenge by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
"His relationship in the House is member to member, but it's fine generally," said Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.
Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said he would never have chosen to pick a fight with the governor over the transfer of money to Texas A&M.
"It's what I perceived as right and wrong. It's sure not political," Pitts said. "On some matters, we agree to disagree."
And Rep. Gary Elkins, the Houston Republican who authored the veto override amendment, said some of Perry's actions probably helped the 131-16 support for his proposal.
"It could be a wave," he said. "But it's not aimed at Perry. We don't know who's going to be governor in 2011."
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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