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Perry Faces Awkward Policy Debates, More Scrutiny in 2013 Session

After a botched run for the presidency and with growing disenchantment among Tea Party activists, Gov. Rick Perry is facing some potentially strained policy discussions when the Legislature convenes in January.

Gov. Rick Perry at the state Capitol on Dec. 19, 2012.

Gov. Rick Perry was at the height of his power in 2011 when the most Republican Texas Legislature in modern times enacted deep spending cuts and handed him one victory after another.

But after a botched run for the presidency and growing disenchantment among Tea Party activists, Perry is facing some potentially awkward policy discussions when the Legislature convenes in January, as well as deeper scrutiny of an administration that has endured for 12 years.

For starters, fellow Republicans want to ban a provision Perry has used to “double dip” — taking both his salary and his state pension — a benefit that has boosted his earnings by more than $90,000 a year. Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, has filed a bill to end the perk, reserved for long-serving elected officials. It would not apply retroactively to the governor.

Meanwhile, Tea Party conservatives are upset about all the money going to “corporate welfare,” including tax subsidies and incentive payments that Perry champions as vital to luring companies to Texas. Perry says the state economy is stronger as a result, but not all Republicans agree.

Rep. James White, R-Hillister, who represents a conservative swath of southeast Texas, said he does not understand why big corporations get tax dollars when his district needs more money for roads and schools.

“We are against any type of program that unfairly picks winners and losers,” he said. “I’m not against the governor, I’m just telling you what I’m for.” 

The Legislature is also poised to look more closely at the grant-awarding practices at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, overseen in part by Perry appointees. Investigations of the agency have again put allegations of “crony capitalism” — a tag opponents of Perry have long hung on him — into the political spotlight.

“He’s in a different position — diminished, perhaps, but not done,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a Texas Tribune pollster. “He may well have worn out his welcome with the conservative end of the base in Texas.” 

Incoming Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the governor still has a lot of strengths. His seasoning and veto power give him a lot of authority.

“I’m sure the perception is after his presidential run he’s dropped a notch,” he said. “He certainly has the opportunity to bring it back up with a good session.”  

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said the governor would “thoughtfully consider” any reforms that come his way.

Perry rode the Tea Party wave during his 2010 re-election campaign, and in the 2011 session he successfully championed new abortion restrictions, curbs on lawsuits and a voter ID bill. Perry continues to court the Tea Party, possibly with an eye toward a 2014 re-election bid or another stab at the presidency in 2016.

Perry this week spoke to the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party near Fort Worth, where he again bashed Washington and touted his support for allowing teachers to carry firearms in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

But one of the group’s leaders, Konni Burton, said many Tea Party activists have soured on the longest-serving governor in Texas history.

“Most Tea Partiers would like to see Perry move on and elect another governor,” Burton said. “We don’t really like lifelong legislators.”

A Tea Party umbrella group that advises the Legislature has now gotten behind a proposal that would limit statewide officeholders to two consecutive four-year terms in office. Exactly 12 years ago — on Dec. 21, 2000 — Perry was sworn in as governor; in less than three months, his longevity in that office will exceed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, is proposing the term limit measure, which would require voter approval. He says it has nothing to do with any statewide incumbents, all of whom are Republicans. The bill exempts people in office now.

“I’ve tried to keep personalities out of this,” Eltife said. “I don’t want to make the current statewide officeholders a target of this legislation.”

Taylor, the incoming senator from Friendswood, dismissed the notion that Perry is down and out.

“I think he’s still in a very good position,” he said.

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