Re-reading Perry's State of the State Speeches

Gov. Rick Perry delivering his State of the State address on Feb. 8, 2011
Gov. Rick Perry delivering his State of the State address on Feb. 8, 2011

One 2012 presidential candidate wanted to sell a government-run lottery to finance a health insurance program. He wanted to deregulate college tuition, and then freeze it. He proposed leaving the state's Rainy Day Fund alone — or, sending all of that money back to taxpayers. He wanted to cap increases in local property taxes, to spend tax money on companies moving to Texas, and increase the number of kids in the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Hint: He's from Texas.

Another hint: He's not Ron Paul.

As governor since late 2000, Gov. Rick Perry has presided over six regular sessions of the Texas Legislature, and he's started each of those with a State of the State speech. It's his opportunity to share his assessment of how things are going, what's lacking and what might be better — to lay out his proposals, his goals and his ideas for what the Legislature ought to be doing.

The six State of the State speeches provide a unique window into understanding what Perry's priorities have been over his almost 11 years as governor and reveal a chief executive often pushing big ideas and battling persistent budget problems. They also show him becoming increasingly irritated by the federal government, even when a Republican is in charge.

 

Perry's State of the State speeches all have a section where he acknowledges his wife, Anita, and name-checks some people in the audience. There's the section where he talks about the state's greatness and points out some shortcomings.

His first speech, in 2001, is an example. He talked about advances the state had made in public education (while he was lieutenant governor and George W. Bush was in the Governor's Mansion), about stronger criminal and juvenile justice laws, electric utility deregulation and about — turn on the wayback machine — the state's budget surplus.

Then came the section where he talked about "warning signs" — only one in five Texans had college degrees, fewer than half of the state's high school seniors could pass the math portion of college entrance exams. He complained of suburban and urban drive-time delays, about the lack of water and sewer services in the state's colonias, and about signs of a softening economy.

The particulars vary by year, but you get the idea.

Next comes the section about what Texas ought to be doing, and over the six speeches, that section provides a window into Rick Perry the Governor, as opposed to Rick Perry the Campaigner.

Perry was in a spending mood in 2001, asking lawmakers to put more money into Texas Grants for college students, boost funding for research and faculty recruitment in state colleges and universities, increase technology allotments in public schools and funding for pre-K and early childhood literacy programs. He wanted to take $700 million from capital gains in the Permanent School Fund for teacher compensation and benefits and to increase the multiplier used to figure pension benefits for educators.

He talked about traffic as a major state problem, a predicate for his later proposal for a Trans Texas Corridor.

Perry was addressing a state Legislature that was split, with a Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the Senate. He asked them to increase enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program, to increase funding for nursing homes and child protective services.

 

Here's an item he could have mentioned yesterday as easily as a decade ago: "We must remain committed to significantly reducing pollution, realizing that decisions affecting Texas' air quality should be made by Texans, and not federal bureaucrats."

The governor promoted the use of DNA evidence for proving innocence or "further assurance of guilt." He asked lawmakers to make campaign finance reporting in Texas more transparent, requiring donors to list their occupations and employers, and candidates to report the cash balances in their political accounts.

 

Two years later, the state was in an economic bind. Republicans had taken both houses of the Legislature. Perry had been elected governor on his own account. He started with a budget full of zeroes — his staff actually printed a full budget where every number had been replaced with zeroes — to say the state should start from the ground up. He called for budget cuts and for efficiencies in state government.

He joined then-House Speaker Tom Craddick's call for tuition deregulation, allowing Texas colleges to set their own prices without legislative approval. Perry asked lawmakers to close a "loophole" in the state's business tax to collect $400 million more, and to change a gasoline tax provision to bring in $300 million. He complained the state wasn't getting its fair share of federal Medicaid dollars and asked lawmakers to work on that.

This was the year Perry proposed the Texas Enterprise Fund, a $390 million account he could use to lure businesses to the state. The money, he said, could come from the state's Rainy Day Fund, which then had a little over $1 billion in it. He asked lawmakers to give the highway department "the tools they need to build a 21st century transportation system." And he called for medical malpractice reform, which he touts today as one of the components of the state's relative economic health.

School finance problems were bubbling, and while they weren't addressed until a special session in 2006, Perry talked about them in his 2003 speech. He proposed several public education programs and he made a push for school choice, "whether that school is public, private or religious," that never fully got off the ground.

 

The 2005 speech gave the governor a chance to brag a bit. The state budget was in better shape, and it was the first time he said these words in a State of the State speech: "Trans-Texas Corridor." It was under way, he said, "with the private sector willing to expend $7.2 billion up front without asking for one dime in state money for construction."

He pushed again, and at some length, for a school finance solution. He wanted an aggressive incentive pay system for good teachers, a program for shutting down failing schools, and he made another push for school choice, beyond what was already being offered through charter schools.

Perry called for property tax cuts in a state that doesn't administer its own property tax. He wanted lawmakers to raise enough state money for schools that it would allow, or force, local school districts to lower their property taxes. He also called for appraisal relief, asking lawmakers for a 3 percent cap on annual increases in a property's taxable value. He refined his pitch on school finance, saying the state tax system should be modernized.

"The goal is to create greater tax fairness, not a greater tax burden on the people of Texas," he said.

The governor asked lawmakers to expand on his Texas Enterprise Fund by creating a $300 million Emerging Technology Fund that would be used "to grow our world-class research institutions, develop cutting edge technologies and harvest the miracle of modern science."

He was talking a lot about health care in those days. "The most startling fact regarding the uninsured in Texas is not that we rank 18th in the nation in the percentage of children covered by Medicaid but that we rank 46th in the percentage of children receiving employer-sponsored insurance," he said. He wanted lawmakers to approve health savings accounts, to fund a new pharmacy school in Kingsville and a medical school branch in El Paso.

He asked for legislation requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortions, and a ban on human cloning.

 

Health care and insurance were at the top of Perry's agenda in 2007. He wanted the state to provide monthly insurance premiums of up to $150 per month for the working poor. How to pay for it? By selling the state's lottery to a private operator. He took care to say he was against mandating coverage — another issue that has appeared in the presidential debates — and took at shot at the Bush administration, saying "Washington's one-size-fits-all approach to Medicaid will bankrupt the states."

The lottery money, he said, could pay for the insurance plan. It could endow a $3 billion cancer research program. The rest of the money — he put it at $8 billion — could become a public education endowment. The lottery is still run by the state, but the cancer research program was later approved and funded with $3 billion in bonds.

Lawmakers had approved a school finance package in special session in 2006, and Perry pushed for increased funding for higher education in his State of the State address. He bragged about the school property tax cut in the 2006 legislation and called for a one-time tax rebate, saying the state should take the $4 billion in its Rainy Day Fund and give it back to taxpayers. "The appeal of a one-time rebate is that future legislatures don't have to find the money to sustain it." He said any solution would be better that "having the money spent on more government."

Perry renewed his push for property appraisal caps, and pushed for continued funding for his enterprise and technology funds. He didn't get the former, but lawmakers kept the money coming for his economic development accounts.

 

For much of the country, Perry's boasts about job growth are new. It's old hat in Texas. Look at this line from the 2009 speech: "Our state is home to one out of 10 Americans, but seven out of 10 new American jobs were created here in the Lone Star State." He pushed for funding for his economic development accounts. The governor called for revisions to the state's primary business tax — the one created in 2006 — to patch holes that appeared early and that continue to plague that levy today; it doesn't raise the money it was expected to raise.

The governor who backed tuition deregulation was back with a response to one of its effects, saying lawmakers should freeze each student's tuition rates at what they were when that student starts college. He said veterans should get in-state tuition rates whether or not they were from Texas. He asked lawmakers to fund the state's water plan, though he didn't put a number to that multibillion-dollar proposition.

He took a fresh pop at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which remains a favorite foil of Texas Republicans (and some Democrats, too).

Perry renewed a call for a state answer to high obesity rates and suggested the state should "get in on the ground floor and invest in adult stem cell research." He endorsed legislation that would require women seeking abortions to view their ultrasounds, another bill that would address eminent domain laws, and a third that would call on the federal government to balance its budget. All three of those came back as Perry-designated emergency items two years later.

And he said this two years ago, defining the terms of a budget fight that took place earlier this year: "You may be tempted to dip into our Rainy Day Fund. If you do, let's limit our use of those funds to significant one-time expenditures, not recurring items."

 

The 2011 State of the State speech came after Perry had vanquished U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a GOP primary, consolidating his control there, and then breezing past Democrat Bill White in the general election. While he denied any interest, there was plenty of speculation about a presidential candidacy. And the state faced the worst set of financial projections in Perry's term as governor.

He started with brags about the state's relative prosperity. He told lawmakers, "We must protect the Rainy Day Fund" — effectively taking $9 billion out of their budget-balancing toolkit. He set up a buffer for cuts to public education, saying the state had over the years increased spending in that area to $20 billion from $11 billion.

Perry enumerated his "emergency" items and asked lawmakers to act quickly on voter ID, eminent domain, sonograms, a balanced federal budget. He made another pitch for a four-year tuition-rate freeze for incoming college students, for incentives for employers who push employees to finish high school or get a GED, and he introduced a new idea, saying the state's colleges should come up with a $10,000 bachelor's degree.

He pressed for "loser pays" legislation that would require losers in some lawsuits to pay the legal fees of the people or businesses they sued. He asked lawmakers for a ban on sanctuary cities that don't enforce federal immigration laws, picking up a strand from his 2010 campaign against White. He renewed a perennial call for funding for border security and — with his book Fed Up! in the bookstores — took a swipe at the federal government for not sending more troops and resources to police the state's border with Mexico. He even suggested that members of Congress seeking redistricting help in Texas ought to be asked about help with federal Medicaid costs.

In fact, the 2011 speech featured a long section that could have been taken from the governor's book, or from the stump speeches he's delivering now on the presidential campaign trail. "In this and other areas of overreach," Perry told lawmakers last January, "We must be united in sending one clear and simple message to Washington: 'Enough.'"

 

 

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