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For Perry, Veto is a Seasonal Power

Who is really in power in state government? According to the calendar, the clout is days away from moving firmly to the governor's office.

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Look at your calendar. It’s about to be Perry time.

Texas governors like Rick Perry have three primary sources of power.

First is the bully pulpit — the ability to draw attention to a particular issue or cause, to get widespread media coverage, and to try to sway public opinion simply by saying things and being heard.

Governors also have the power to appoint most of the people who run the executive branch. It’s not a cabinet government, and it takes years for governors to put their own people on all of the state boards and commissions in Texas. But eventually the power of those alliances and appointments accumulates.

Perry, who has been the governor since 2000, has extended that second power further than any of his predecessors. He doesn’t just have the appointees; those appointees have, to a remarkable extent, hired former Perry aides, supporters and acolytes to fill agency positions. The professional people at the top of those agencies are often obliged to Perry, or to his operation, for their positions. His control of the executive branch has undone the cliché about the constitutional weakness of Texas governors. Someone caution his successors.

Then there is the power of the veto, which is coming into play as the legislative session draws to a close. Legislation that makes it to Perry’s desk becomes law whether he signs it or not, unless he uses his veto. And he’s been willing enough, vetoing 273 bills since taking office. When Perry tells a lawmaker he might veto something, he might actually veto it.

Perry has never had a veto overridden by the Legislature, and that’s where the calendar comes in. Lawmakers leave on Monday, and Perry will have until Father’s Day, June 16, to decide which bills should become law.

That means they won’t be here in Austin to try to override any veto. Even if he calls a special session, Perry’s aides say, lawmakers acting in a special session can’t override a veto of a bill from another session.

So this is his time.

Other high officials have their own seasons of power. When the Legislature is in session, the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor are at the peak of their power. Those two Cinderellas — Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — are approaching their midnight hour. They will still have some political juice after the session is over, but not what they have right now.

Comptrollers are powerful going into legislative sessions and, when they play it right, coming out: Those are the times when lawmakers need someone to tell them how much money they will have to spend, and then that their budget arithmetic was correct.

Comptroller Susan Combs started the session by telling lawmakers, in essence, that they have more money than they are allowed to spend.

That was terrific news for the lawmakers, but it also dampened Combs’ clout. In a session like 2011’s, when the state was short of money, any pennies a comptroller can produce are welcome. That is potentially a trading proposition: The legislators need money, and the comptroller wants things from the Legislature.

With money to spare this time, Combs’ leverage dipped a bit. In fact, the House killed one of her pet projects this week, calling a rule violation on a bill that would have required more disclosure of debt and debt payments from local governments across Texas.

The comptroller still has to score the budget when lawmakers are finished, making sure that they spent no more than allowed from each account, that her forecast of state income was correct and so on. Again, when the state is relatively flush, that’s not as tense as when state revenue is low or the economy is tight.

That leaves the attorney general. The state’s top lawyer has the same powers no matter what’s on the calendar. Greg Abbott, like the head of every state agency, has to get his budget from the Legislature, but that’s usually not a big issue. His ability to file lawsuits, issue opinions and run a large public sector law firm is pretty steady. He has a bully pulpit second only to a governor’s. His power doesn’t wax and wane like the others.

But for the next three weeks, the clout belongs to the governor.

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State government 83rd Legislative Session David Dewhurst Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joe Straus Rick Perry Texas Legislature