Gov. Rick Perry has delivered his fiscal message loud and clear: Balance the cash-strapped state budget with cuts, not with the Rainy Day Fund or new taxes. Yet in a legislative session that’s almost all budget, all the time, some of Perry’s most loyal advisers, past and future, find themselves representing clients beating a very different drum.
Former Perry speechwriter Eric Bearse, who has worked on the governor’s campaigns and helped write his first book, is managing communications for the Texas Association for Home Care and Hospice, which is facing steep Medicaid rate cuts that could force in-home nursing companies — some of them specializing in critically ill children — to close. The organization, which could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying and attorneys this session, according to state filings, has called the budget cuts “cold-hearted.”
Delisi Communications, the public relations firm run by longtime Perry campaign consultant Ted Delisi and his wife Deirdre Delisi, Perry’s former chief of staff and the appointed chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, is advocating on behalf of the Providers Alliance for Community Services. That organization — which has contracted with the Delisis’ firm for between $25,000 and $50,000 this session — has called on lawmakers to use additional Rainy Day funds to prevent “devastating” cuts for people with disabilities living in the community, and the redirection of health care costs to local jails and emergency rooms. (“Persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve better,” the organization’s president says.)
Even Albert Hawkins, whom Perry appointed as Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner in 2003 and served until 2009, is a registered lobbyist for the Texas Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, a group that has warned the House version of the budget — the slimmer version Perry has lauded — would lead to the closure of hundreds of nursing homes. That organization, which expects to pay Hawkins between $50,000 and $90,000 for the 2011 legislative session, according to state records, even commissioned a survey showing 52 percent of Republican Texas voters would be less likely to re-elect a lawmaker who cut funding for nursing homes.
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Lobbyists and political consultants say these kinds of political discrepancies surface all the time; the budget is hardly the only realm. Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist who has worked with clients on both sides of the aisle, said Perry allies who have been “dutiful and loyal” can go out and make a living without worrying how the governor’s office will respond — indeed, clients seek them out because of their relationship with the state’s top elected official.
“It all comes down to how you behave in the context of being loyal opposition,” Miller said. “You do your client’s bidding, you try to succeed. If you make it personal is when it crosses the line.”
But political observers, and some of Perry’s political opponents, say it raises serious questions when some of Perry’s longtime allies are helping interest groups protest budget cuts, or shopping their worst-case-scenario budget tales to reporters. At a minimum, they say, it gives the awkward appearance that Perry’s confidantes think the cuts are worse than the governor is letting on.
Or else, said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, it’s just about the money. “From the perspective of Rick Perry’s scorched-earth, austere budget, I see a little irony,” Coleman said. “Then again, lots of people would sell their mama if the money was there. And there’s big money in health care.”
On Tuesday, Perry’s office reiterated the governor’s stance on the budget, saying Texas must “separate wants from needs,” and cut spending to balance the budget. “He appreciates the service of the employees of the governor’s office, both past and present, and their commitment to making Texas a better place,” said Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokeswoman.
Perry staffers turned consultants say some of them have had relationships with these health care firms for years — and have brought their friends and colleagues in Perry’s office along with them after the fact. And their policy objectives often align. Bearse said that when he worked for the governor, he saw a serious commitment to getting people with disabilities out of institutions or nursing homes and into independent living. That’s why it didn’t feel like a stretch to take the Association for Home Care and Hospice as a client.
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But Bearse acknowledged that he takes clients on a case-by-case basis — and doesn’t always know at the time he signs on the dotted line what big issues will bubble up, and where they’ll pit him with regard to the governor’s office or other state leaders.
“It’s possible to be on different sides of the issue," Bearse said. “You just ensure to engage in respectful, constructive dialogue.”
Ted Delisi said there’s a “tough-love reality” in the odd-numbered years that house the Texas Legislature. In a difficult budget year like this one, that can mean pushing aggressively to try to wring out as many dollars as possible — efforts often targeted more toward influential House and Senate budget writers than toward the governor. But he said it’s always done thoughtfully, respectfully, and in the context of what’s philosophically possible.
In the case of the budget, “these are critical services, needy populations,” he said. “We’re essentially trying to outline what’s possible given the economic and political climate.”
Hawkins calls that operating "within the parameters."
"Gov. Perry makes his position clear and known" from the get-go, Hawkins said. "I give [clients] policy advice so they can have an impact and get their needs met."
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