Just as Gov. Rick Perry steps out on the national stage in a possible run for president, lawmakers back home are moving to limit public scrutiny of what taxpayers are being charged to protect the governor when he's out on the road.
Under a compromise adopted by the state Senate Tuesday, the public could still get the total cost figures. But for a period of 18 months, the public would not know how or where the money is being spent. That would put off any detailed disclosure of security costs for Perry that are paid for by the state past the 2012 election. The Texas House still has to approve the measure, tucked in a school finance overhaul, before it can become law. That is expected to happen before the Legislature wraps up a special session, which Perry called, by Wednesday.
While private donors pick up the cost for Perry's political travel, the Texas Department of Public Safety pays the tab for security, using money primarily pulled from the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. It can add up: According to a report by the San Antonio Express News in 2010, taxpayers spent almost $1 million protecting Perry and his wife on 23 foreign trips during the previous seven years. In one case, before the government began keeping most of the details secret, taxpayers paid for the rental of scuba gear and a golf cart during Perry's 2005 trip to the Bahamas, records show.
In the last three weeks alone, Perry has hit Los Angeles, New York, North Carolina, New Orleans and Vail, Colorado. He is off to San Diego on Wednesday.
Spending on the protective detail will probably increase dramatically if Perry starts traveling to early nominating states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, in a White House bid. When former Texas Gov. George W. Bush began running for president, state security costs skyrocketed, shooting past $1.8 million in 1999 — more than a sixfold increase from the previous year. Perry has said he is considering entering the 2012 presidential race but has not yet made a decision.
The governor's office has said it's willing to release raw spending totals on security. But, citing possible threats stemming from providing too much information, officials said they don't want potential wrongdoers to know where or how the money is being spent — what hotels guards are staying in, which restaurants they frequent or how many guards there are.
Trying to strike a balance between government transparency and the safety of the state elected officials, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, sponsored a measure that would seal off the detailed travel vouchers for 18 months. It would apply to any elected official or family member receiving protection from the DPS.
Duncan said the legislation would not apply to any records compiled before the effective date of the legislation. It's an important distinction. Two newspaper companies, Cox and Hearst, sued Perry in 2007 to compel release of the detailed records. The case is pending in the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, the DPS has only been providing aggregate spending amounts.
The legislation is "prospective only," Duncan said Tuesday.
"It doesn’t apply to any records or travel vouchers for expenses that would be incurred or paid prior to the effective date of the bill," Duncan said. "Then the records are only confidential for a period of 18 months."
Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said it would be up to the DPS to determine whether to release any detailed records of security expenses for past trips.
Keith Elkins, director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said delayed disclosure is better than nothing at all. But he said there is no evidence that releasing travel vouchers for trips that already occurred endanger any officeholder.
"We're disappointed that the Legislature did not follow their previous ruling and provide this information to the public as they have in the past," Elkins said. "We are glad that they eventually will be provided to the public . . . These are public records."