Gov. Rick Perry isn’t known for his ideological consistency or his sense of propriety. Some governors might try to hide their repeated appointments of big donors to coveted positions like university boards. As the Dallas Morning News reported during the election, his Emerging Technology Fund handed out money to corporations owned by political supporters, sometimes even circumventing the process. He has no problem shrugging off those concerned about the state budget—which faces an unprecedented $27 billion shortfall—as “doomsayers.” Critics might call it corruption, but it turns out to be a pretty effective political strategy. Somehow, by openly doing things most lawmakers would only consider doing in secret, Perry rarely seems to suffer from the scandals.
His track record on consistency isn’t much better. He doesn’t like federal stimulus dollars, but he’s taken credit for last year’s budget, which used federal money to balance. He doesn’t like big government but in 2007, he did support a doomed effort to mandate HPV vaccines for middle-school girls. (It’s one of the only times that public health community supported Perry while hardline conservatives howled.)
But Wednesday, Perry took things up a notch at the Senate Finance Committee hearings. Well, not Perry himself, but Milton Rister, the director of administration. Rister came before the committee asking for an extra $81.5 million for the Governor’s Office. Perry’s fond of saying that balancing shouldn’t mean raising taxes or spending the Rainy Day Fund, a $9 billion piggy bank the state’s stored up. Instead, he says, it means tough choices.
Well, apparently he wanted to make one choice a little easier. With a $27 billion shortfall, many who rely on government programs are (rightfully) fearing life-altering cuts. I’m just guessing here, but the governor’s requests for an extra $20 million in video game and film incentives might not stack up against the grants that fund all-day pre-k, which are cut from the draft budget. He asks for $50 million to be restored to the Enterprise Fund, which tries to offer cash to companies that relocate to Texas, and perhaps more shockingly, $15 million in additional funds to the Emerging Technology Fund. That’s the same fund the Dallas Morning News largely discredited in a series of investigative stories showing how it favored Perry’s campaign donors and their companies.
The senators weren’t exactly pleased, and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said what I imagine would be on most people’s minds.
The Dallas Morning News‘ Bob Garrett transcribed the exchange (bless him!) but the meat of things was pretty simple. ”We’re going to be spending millions of dollars on tourism and movie production, but we’re going to be cutting back on Medicaid, letting teachers go, [cutting the Texas] School for the Deaf and autistic children?” Whitmire asked.
Rister stuck to the party line. “The governor has put a priority on bringing jobs to Texas,” he said.
It’s the same line we heard throughout the campaign, but for some reason, I’m not sure that’s going to work this time. After all, it’s hard to miss the steady drumbeat of witnesses entering the Capitol to beg for things more personal than a corporation getting extra money to move to a state that already has low taxes and minimal regulation.
“I don’t think the people of Texas that I represent would understand that,” Whitmire told Rister. I’m not sure there’s much to understand.
The Senate Finance Committee has had to listen to a lot of tough stories over the past few weeks. It’s emotional stuff—parents begging the senators to keep programs for their disabled children, advocates painting pictures of thousands without healthcare. In the wake of those testimonies, Rister’s explanations just seem banal. Even Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who chairs the Finance Committee, told Rister not to expect much. After all, he’s had to tell witnesses begging for various services that all he can do is his best. $20- and $30-million programs that serve small but important programs would be normally small potatoes not worth cutting.
This year, everything’s on the chopping block. Perhaps even the governor’s scandal-proof shield.