Will Governor Perry Really be in Charge in 2013?

With more than half a year to go before the next time the Texas Legislature meets to make big decisions, battle lines are already being drawn.

Gov. Rick Perry isn’t waiting. Fresh off a presidential bid many see as the lowest point of his political career, the Republican who had previously never lost an election is trying to re-establish his leadership position and put pressure on lawmakers ahead of what could be just as bad a financial situation as Texas faced last year. The 2011 Legislature cut its way to balancing a $27 billion shortfall.

University of Texas Political Scientist James Henson said Perry’s making it clear that “he’s not fading into any sunsets after his failed presidential bid.”

Many see Perry as weakened after his much anticipated campaign for the White House fell flat.  Henson said it’s made sense for Perry to “acknowledge it went badly and reinforce the tendency of GOP loyalists to make a distinction between Perry the Presidential candidate – who is best forgotten – and Perry the Governor, who is still a reliable fiscal conservative and still leading the charge back home in Texas.”

Perry has hinted he may run for re-election in 2014 and has not ruled out another run for the White House.

The GOP-dominated legislature last year gave Perry almost all of his conservative wish list.  Among other things, they balanced the budget through a “cuts-only” approach, did not impose any new taxes, and passed new restrictions on abortions.  Only one of Perry’s major initiatives did not become law:  A proposed crackdown on cities that harbor illegal immigrants.

Perry wants a repeat performance, particularly on fiscal issues. That’s why he’s making appearances around the state asking legislators, candidates, and other leaders to agree with his “Texas Budget Compact,” a set of principles he would like them to follow.

Perry says lawmakers need to get back to the “the Texas way,” by practicing “truth in budgeting,” supporting stricter constitutional limits on the growth of spending, avoiding any new taxes, and preserving the state’s rainy day fund.

“We want to be sure, constitutionally sure, Texas never turns into Washington, D.C.,” Perry told reporters gathered at a moving company in Houston where he unveiled the compact.  Even though Perry has said he isn’t collecting signatures of lawmakers who agree with his principles, he did say “People are either going to be for them or they’re not. There’s not a lot of gray area.”

At a similar event in suburban Austin last week, Perry told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters – mostly like-minded officeholders – that they should take out their cell phones and text their support for his budget guidelines.

Democrats dismiss the “compact” and call it “dangerous.”

Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in Austin who’s now the director of Progress Texas Pac, said what Perry’s advocating is “dangerous.”  Smith compared it to someone who says they’ll never go see a doctor, no matter what.  “But, what do they do when they get sick? They go to the doctor or they die,” he said.

“It would be just as silly to say we’re going to have to raise taxes,” Smith said. He agrees there’s too much “gimmickry” in the state budget, but Smith laid the blame for that at Perry’s feet. “What we do know is what the consequences have been for not spending on our critical needs, especially public education and higher education,” Smith said.

Conservatives have a different view.   

“Laying forth principles of action for the next budget is entirely warranted,” said Joshua Treviño, Vice President of Communications at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.

“We know school finance will be a big issue. We know Medicaid may spur a crisis. We know there will be a contest between those who know state government can still be more efficient, more accountable, and more transparent — and those who believe the hard choices made in 2011 were the last word,” Treviño said.

“The cuts will continue.”

Educators across the state say they can’t take much more in the way of cuts in state funding for schools.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff has been crunching the numbers. By his estimates, the state outspent its income by $27 billion over the last decade.  More than 170,000 Texas students are in crowded classrooms, according to Ratliff, a retired Republican.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the state for the way it finances public education.

“Cuts will continue,” said Jerry Burkett, Principal at Milam Elementary in the Grand Prairie ISD.

“Some people think the cuts they saw last year were all that’s coming, but it’s only the beginning until our structural tax deficit is fixed.” Burkett said Perry’s budget compact seems to be “political pandering” and does not address the underlying problems with how the state comes up with money for schools. “The next session will likely be the same,” Burkett said.

Henson, the UT political scientist, said it remains to be seen whether lawmakers in 2013 will bend to Perry’s will in the same way the last legislature did. “As policy, it (the budget compact) is certainly consistent with the approach he’s taken toward budget policy in the last session and the last couple of election cycles.  The politics of the gesture work to re-establish his political alliances,” Henson said.

Republican Strategist Matt Mackowiak said after the May 29th primaries the political landscape, and how lawmakers will deal with policy, will be clearer. “Next session will be very different, with major challenges ahead but with a younger, less experienced, perhaps more conservative House and Senate,” Mackowiak said.

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