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Rick Perry: Deft Leader or Teflon Governor?

Attribute it to a Teflon coating, to his decisive win in a divided primary last year, or to luck, but Gov. Rick Perry is coming out of the 82nd legislative session without many bruises.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry blows a kiss to his Secretary of State Hope Andrade (not shown) during his speech to the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) in San Antonio on June 23, 2011.

Gov. Rick Perry went five-for-six on the emergency issues he declared for this session. A ban on sanctuary cities, an idea borne of his 2010 reelection campaign, died in the Senate during the regular session and in the House during the special session. Everything else got through the Legislature: Voter ID, pre-abortion sonograms, limits on eminent domain, an appeal to Congress for a balanced federal budget, and making losers pay the costs of the lawsuits they start.

Some of those were outright wins, like the Voter ID bill that reads pretty much like its promoters wanted it to read. Some, like loser pays, were heavily amended versions of what was originally proposed. It's still a potent political line, but isn't the big policy change Perry and others originally sought.

Conservatives — even some who aren't happy with the session's outcomes — generally praise the governor. He's got a knack for keeping the factions in the party happy, or at least subdued in their criticism. Attribute it to a Teflon coating, to his decisive win in a divided primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and GOP activist Debra Medina last year, or to luck, but Perry is coming out of the legislative session without many bruises.

"I would say it's masterful," says Michael Williams, a former railroad commissioner who's now running for Congress. "I don't think I've seen a politician as artful as Perry."

He remarked on Perry's ability to recover from missteps like his "alphabet" proposals for TTC and HPV, or the Trans Texas Corridor and the human papillomavirus vaccine. Neither issue hurt him in his elections, and two of his emergency issues this session — eminent domain and sonograms — play well with the groups most upset by the earlier miscues.

Will that work elsewhere if Perry runs a national campaign?

"What we do down here plays a little differently down here than in the rest of the country," says Williams.

Tea Party and social conservatives like what Perry says, even if what comes out in Austin is something short of what was promised, says Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant.

"There's a good reason why Republicans say buzzwords like 'states rights'," he says. "He's giving them the buzzwords to hear that he's one of them, while leaving the rest of the electorate clueless."

For most of the year, the governor let lawmakers do their thing. His staff monitored and advised, but he asserted himself infrequently. Exceptions included his vocal opposition to any budget relying on money from the Rainy Day Fund, and his threat to call a special session on the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association if lawmakers didn't institute reforms that cut costs and lawyer fees in lawsuits stemming from hurricane and other storm claims.

He ended up compromising on the budget issue, telling lawmakers he didn't object to using Rainy Day money to help cover a $4 billion deficit in the current budget. And he didn't object when clever budgeteers chopped $4.8 billion from Medicaid spending and promised to make it up with either changes in law, better efficiency, or with a draw on the Rainy Day Fund in January 2013.

Early in the session, the governor sided with budget hawks who wanted to cut spending in the 2012-13 budget by about $28 billion. That number came up significantly as budget writers did their work and the House and Senate negotiated over whether and how much to cut schools, nursing homes, and other specific areas and programs. Perry stuck with his general orders — balance the budget without new taxes and without spending the RDF — but left the details to legislators.

He did get them to write a budget without increasing taxes, whether it ends up — after Medicaid is patched over — actually cutting overall spending. And without any of the adjustments that will probably be done in 20 months or so, the new budget is smaller than the current one.  

The sanctuary cities legislation didn't make it. With his emergency order, Perry plucked that issue from a long list of immigration reforms pushed by the Republican Party of Texas, legislators, outside groups, talk show hosts and writers, elevating it and leaving the rest of the list for others to worry about. On this issue, the Republican rhetoric was stronger than the governor's remedy.

Perry has been outspoken about the porous U.S. border with Mexico and about the need for border security. That's been featured in both of his last two campaigns, and with some of the same footage of the governor talking to law enforcement people on the Rio Grande.

The state GOP platform on immigration is explicit. It includes support for "… criminal penalties and aggressive enforcement for those who knowingly employ illegal workers … amending the U.S. constitution to suspend automatic U.S. citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants; elimination of federal and state funding to cities with “sanctuary” laws; empowering state and local law enforcement agencies with authority and resources to detain illegal immigrants … elimination of day labor work centers … elimination of laws requiring hospitals to give non-emergency care to illegal’s … elimination of social security benefits or federal and state funding to illegal’s for education, housing or business loans … requiring all employers to utilize E-verify system to confirm the legal status of all new hires."

From that list, sanctuary cities is the immigration issue he chose to highlight and, having done so, let lawmakers do their work.

"The far right would have liked it better if Perry had gone whole hog and done a full Arizona on that policy front," says Cook. "Perry understands the nuance, I think. He said from the start that the Arizona way wouldn't work in Texas."

It passed the House and died in the Senate during the regular session. It passed the Senate more than a week before the end of the special session and never advanced in the House. In a news release on the final day, Perry singled out Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, for refusing to put the immigration legislation into a budget bill. Duncan replied that the bill was in enough trouble without the sanctuary cities controversy and, in fact, it initially failed in the House before Republicans caucused, flipped some votes, and won approval.

The governor also danced between his party's conservatives and its moderates on what became known as the TSA "anti-groping" bill — a proposed restriction on invasive pat-downs by federal security guards at airports and other public buildings. It failed during the regular session.

Perry added it to the special session agenda with only ten days left, after a widely circulated video of an activist asking him at a book-signing why it wasn't on the list. The governor replied that it didn't have the support, but added it when he got back to Austin.

With the late start, it ran out of time. But, as with the sanctuary cities bill, Perry ducked the blame while the House and Senate each blamed the other for the bill's demise.

The House bill was too late for the Senate to avoid a filibuster, and the House couldn't muster the votes to pass the bill on the final two days of the session. After putting it on the call, Perry didn't say anything publicly about the bill until lawmakers were gone. "Although the airport pat-down bill did not pass, it did initiate a public discussion and some changes in airport security procedures," he said in an end-of-session press release.

Perry, like his predecessors in the governor's office, gets to hit the high points and leave the messy details, for the most part, to legislators. He gets the credit for putting things on the list and for setting broad guidelines. Legislators get blamed for any unpleasantness in the details. And while they're still bickering, he can turn the session's news into a political message in no time at all.

In a fundraising email sent by his campaign a few hours after lawmakers left town, his post-session bragging points were in evidence, as were his intended targets: "With another legislative session behind us, Texans can again celebrate yet another balanced budget under Gov. Perry's leadership — attained without raising taxes — despite the destructive fiscal policies of the Obama Administration and Congress. In addition, the session yielded legislation to protect the integrity of our elections and "loser pay" elements to our legal system that do even more to combat the frivolous lawsuits that kill jobs."

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Demographics Health care Immigration State government 82nd Legislative Session Budget Griffin Perry Medicaid Rick Perry Sanctuary cities Texas Legislature