Searching for Clues in Perry's State of the State

In his Jan. 29, 2013, State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Perry avoided hot-topic issues like abortion, immigration and gun control and focused instead on infrastructure, budget reform and education.
In his Jan. 29, 2013, State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Perry avoided hot-topic issues like abortion, immigration and gun control and focused instead on infrastructure, budget reform and education.

Two years ago in Gov. Rick Perry’s State of the State speech, he set up the legislative session and a future presidential run with a laundry list of issues dear to Republican primary voters. His address on Tuesday was subtler, but still political.

Trust state legislators to give less than their complete devotion and attention to his suggestions, but the key word is “complete.” Some of his ideas make it into state policy, and some don’t. And the speeches are best read as hybrids of policy and politics, setting up the governor’s agenda for a legislative session as well as the foundation for his next election cycle. With Perry’s interest in national office, those cycles come every two years now instead of every four.

The politics are easy this time. Perry hasn’t said whether he will seek re-election in 2014 or whether he will run for president again in 2016. But a politician planning for a race in either year could have done a lot worse than the governor’s performance.

He talked about fiscal conservatism and how well the Texas economy is doing because of a light regulatory touch. He reiterated his loathing of the federal government’s health care plans while also saying the state stands ready to work with the re-elected president. And he spent something like $6.8 billion on tax breaks, water, roads and a financing swap involving highway money and state police.

He stayed out of the red meat market on social issues; for instance, the governor didn’t talk about his support for a proposal to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy to prevent “fetal pain,” though he had been at an anti-abortion rally on the Capitol grounds three days earlier.

 

Social conservatives didn’t get much. This is a fiscal program.

The tax break deserves particular attention. Perry wants lawmakers to set $1.8 billion aside for tax refunds or breaks. He asked them to back a constitutional amendment that would allow refunds.

Should the Legislature agree, voters would see that amendment in November, probably after a campaign with a slogan like, “Hey, you don’t want money back, do you?” Five months later, those voters will be passing judgment — in party primaries — on the lawmakers who offered the tax breaks on the November ballot.

That is pretty good politics.

Not that lawmakers listen to what governors want: This was Perry’s seventh effort, and if the Legislature took these things more seriously, it would be different around here.

We wouldn’t have a state-run lottery — it would have been sold to create an endowment fund for public education and an insurance program for the poor. That’s from Perry’s 2007 speech. That’s also where he raised the idea of a $3 billion fund to fight cancer, also paid for with money from the sale of the Texas Lottery. It turned into the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas, financed with government bonds and, it turns out, riddled with problems of great interest to auditors and, perhaps, prosecutors.

We would be building a huge network of roads, rail and utility easements across the state called the Trans Texas Corridor. That one didn’t survive the opposition of property rights activists. Texas is still building roads, but the idea of 1,200-foot-wide ribbons of infrastructure draped across the state is dead.

Students in Texas would be allowed to pay for private schooling with public money — a voucher or “school choice” proposal that was in the governor’s 2003 speech and that reappeared periodically after that, including in this week’s address.

Those misses have not had much effect on the governor’s success in state elections, and the rhetoric sometimes has as much political value as the idea behind it.

The governor was less overtly political this time out, but he was political just the same. He has not put any items on emergency status — a designation that allows the Legislature to consider a bill during the first 60 days of a session. Two years ago, Perry stoked the government furnaces with emergency proposals for immigration, voter photo identification, required sonograms for women seeking abortions, a call for a balanced federal budget and property rights.

The emergencies are missing this time, but not the politics. Watch the spending ideas — and the declarations against participating in the federal health care law. Those could be in play in 2014. Or 2016. Or both.

 

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