Gov. Rick Perry may or may not try to become the leader of what was once called the free world. In the meantime, he has cemented his reputation as one of the most powerful governors ever to walk the corridors of the Texas Capitol.
As the longest serving governor in state history, Perry has named more people to boards and commissions than any predecessor — 5,495 at last count, Legislative Reference Library figures show — allowing him to put his conservative stamp on every corner of state government.
The reach of his power, and his willingness to use it, have been most striking in the recently concluded sessions of the Texas Legislature, which gave Perry a fairly long wish-list of conservative reforms. If Perry does end up on the presidential campaign trail, he will be ticking them off like a pre-trip checklist. Curbs on abortion — done. Lawsuit restrictions — check. Staggering cuts to programs once seen as off-limits — yes, yes and yes.
“Basically nobody has dominated the executive branch, that I’m aware of, like Rick Perry has,” said Jim Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a very different kind of governorship now. He’s been there so long, and he’s effectively used the resources at his disposal.”
But some Republicans worry there will be political fallout for supporting the first decline in overall public education spending since at least 1949. And Perry did not get everything he wanted or successfully twist every arm of every legislator who bucked him.
Case in point: Rep. David Simpson, a freshman Republican of Longview, says he got “called into the principal’s office” to discuss his string of tirades against Perry’s pet job-luring funds, which Simpson calls unseemly corporate welfare. During the meeting with the governor, Simpson said, Perry “said, in a sense, ‘We gotta keep taking pork back to the district.’” Simpson never backed down, but the governor got millions for both the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. Mark Miner, a spokesman for the governor, said Perry would not discuss his private conversations but believed the funds had helped create tens of thousands of high-quality jobs in Texas.
Democrats also have a darker vision of Perry’s stroke: they say he is just doing what the Tea Party demands. “This session I think the Tea Party was driving the train,” said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. “I think Perry got in front of the train and managed to climb into the engine.”
Many legislative veterans, however, say Perry, a former House member and farmer, finds himself at the height of his influence and has used it to redefine the limits of the Texas governor’s office. “Texas has never been in the position we’re in with the governor,” said state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. “This governor has probably appointed every office that’s appointable.”
That, in turn, has blunted the traditional push back from agencies on the chopping block, he said. “There’s not very much resistance when we take away 100 employees from a large agency or send them less money,” Chisum said. “They know not just to cry to us, because the governor appointed and put those people in place, and so they know it’s coming directly from him.”
Even with a full schedule of profile-boosting out-of-state events, Perry kept the pressure on lawmakers to do his bidding. The governor, who has no official role in writing the budget, insisted they slash spending while mostly keeping their hands off the state’s fat reserve fund. The governor bent a little, giving his blessing to a $3.1 billion draw from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for a past deficit, but he resisted often considerable pressure to take billions more, putting him at odds at times with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, and powerful G.O.P. senators. Perry won.
Legislatures often slap around governors in Texas, where constitutional authority in the executive branch is spread out. The governor does not really have a cabinet; the lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller are all independently elected and have broad powers over legal, financial and legislative matters.
But this session, the governor threw his weight around more than usual. When a rewrite of hurricane insurance came up, for example, Perry torpedoed what some of the parties negotiating the bill thought was a deal.
“Until I agree to it, the governor’s office isn’t an agreed-to place,” Perry said when reporters asked. The issue later spilled into a special session, and the controversial legislation, opposed by trial lawyers, passed in a form more to Perry’s liking.
More recently, when Republican defections knocked a controversial school-financing bill off the rails in the House, it was not Speaker Joe Straus who talked wavering members off the ledge, several participants say. It was Perry’s chief of staff, Ray Sullivan, and his legislative liaison, Ken Armbrister (appropriately nicknamed Arm Twister).
Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said it was one of many times this session that he had called on the governor and his team to help him secure votes. Pitts said the governor was particularly influential with a group of about 25 hard-core budget cutters dominated by Tea Party-backed freshmen that “dance with the governor and sing his song.”
“The governor had a lot of influence in the Texas House, in my opinion, this session — more than any session that I’ve been involved in,” Pitts said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, he was a 91/2.”