Will Perry's "Pre-Veto" Work This Time?

The second annual Texas Tribune Festival kicked off with with a conversation between Texas governor Rick Perry and Tribune founder and CEO Evan Smith in the Grand Ballroom of the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas on September 21, 2012.
The second annual Texas Tribune Festival kicked off with with a conversation between Texas governor Rick Perry and Tribune founder and CEO Evan Smith in the Grand Ballroom of the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas on September 21, 2012.

Gov. Rick Perry has been very successful using something you could call the pre-veto — telling lawmakers not to even bother sending him something that would be doomed on arrival at his desk.

Except he doesn’t say he will veto it. He just says, very publicly, that he doesn’t think it will ever reach his desk.

Governors, like lawmakers, have a million ways to kill legislation. An ancient axiom around the Capitol holds that the legislative process is built not to make new laws, but to kill bad ideas — not to pass things, but to smother them.

Odds are that a given legislative filing won’t become a law. A governor’s support can increase its chances but doesn’t guarantee success. Look at public school vouchers, which have had a champion in the governor’s office since Perry first took the oath almost 12 years ago. They still don’t exist. Or voter ID, which made it through the legislative obstacle course only to unravel in court. The governor made it an emergency issue in the 2011 legislative session, moving it into the headlines, the newscasts and the public eye. That helped.

But the real power is negative, and Perry is a master at the wheeling and dealing of a session. Legislators’ darling issues will often get hearings, members will get a chance to showboat a bit and their bills will die in some quiet corner as the session ends. That’s just how things go.

One of those deals, back in the day, gave in-state tuition to the American-born children of Mexicans and other foreign citizens living illegally in the U.S. Hardly anyone noticed it going into law, politically speaking. The argument — to the extent that anyone made one — was that if the children were going to live in Texas, it would probably be helpful to educate them.

It’s a case of something working just fine in a particular political environment and landing with a clunk in another environment. It hasn’t been much of a political issue in Texas, but it made a huge splash in the Republican presidential debates a year ago.

Before “oops” and all the other misadventures and misfires in Perry’s run for president, he was getting sliced and diced by fellow candidates for treating those children like regular Texans. Perry responded in a presidential debate last year with an argument that didn’t sound at all odd to Texas ears, saying to opponents of the policy, “I don’t think you have a heart.” But it clanked in the ears of Republican primary voters on the national stage.

Fast forward a year. On stage in front of an opening night crowd at this year’s Texas Tribune Festival, Perry got another swing at the policy.

What he learned on the presidential trail wasn’t what you might expect. Instead of saying he wants the in-state tuition repealed, he defended it, said he wants to keep it in place and pulled out the old pre-veto ploy.

“I don’t take the bait of ‘Will I veto something?’ ” Perry told his interviewer, the Tribune’s Evan Smith. “My bet is that bill will never get to my desk to make a decision on.”

See there? He didn’t say he would kill it — he just said it would die.

The governor said he welcomed “an open and vigorous debate” on the issue, but added that it wasn’t controversial when it passed and suggested that it might be just as acceptable now.

“We have to deal with reality,” he said. “The reality is that we have a substantial population of young people in this state who are here through no fault of their own, who have been here for the vast majority of their lives and they have finished high school.”

Last time it came up, he said, lawmakers had a choice between “putting these young people on a path to be successful” or on a path to “some form of government subsistence in some form or fashion.”

Perry has been remarkably perceptive about the political winds in Texas; think of his early and strong shift to federalism in front of Tea Party crowds in Texas on tax day in April 2009.

He said that only four lawmakers had been against the in-state tuition idea a decade ago. At least four new state senators have already declared their support for its repeal next year. What about now?

The governor might have to use his pen this time.

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