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Perry Puts Focus on Sonograms, Pat-Downs After ‘Big Issues’ Pass

Texas Governor Rick Perry won emergency passage of proposals including mandated sonograms for women planning abortion and a requirement for voters to show picture identification this year, even as lawmakers grappled with education funding and short-changed schools by $4 billion.

Critics say Perry’s agenda diverted legislators from pressing issues such as school aid and tax changes. Supporters such as Texas Right to Life Director Elizabeth Graham applaud his focus on such issues as abortion.

“Perry is very sympathetic,” Graham, whose nonprofit group is based in Houston, said by telephone. “He realizes that aborting 1.5 million Americans a year is not just a social issue but also an economic one.”

The 61-year-old Republican says his agenda for the second most-populous U.S. state mirrored the priorities of most Texans, including limits on airport pat-downs and banning local governments from blocking federal immigration law enforcement. Neither measure passed. Texas’s Legislature meets for 140 days every other year, unless the governor calls a special session.

Bread-and-butter work by lawmakers to improve schools and overhaul the tax code should have come first, say critics including state Senator Leticia Van De Putte, head of the upper chamber’s Democratic Caucus. Joined by other Hispanic legislators, she also condemned Perry’s emergency bill to ban so-called sanctuary cities.

Deflecting Attention

“Governor Perry deflected attention away from the major flaws in his governorship, which was that the failings of his tax reform in 2006 created a huge shortfall in Texas’s budget,” said Tom Smith, executive director of Public Citizen’s state office in Austin. Without the distraction of social issues Perry created, “more people would be asking whether that tax relief basically bankrupted the state,” Smith said.

Under pressure from federal courts demanding more equitable school funding, Texas revised how it pays for education through high school in 2006. The state enacted laws to cut local property taxes and expand a levy on business income. While the recession crimped state revenue in 2008 and 2009, companies using loopholes avoided paying as much as forecast.

Perry, the governor since 2000, said in May he would “think about” a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, after lawmakers passed the two-year state budget. His advisers have indicated he may announce his intentions by the end of this month.

“The governor focused on issues that the people cared about,” spokesman Mark Miner said on Aug. 6. “Sanctuary cities was a major topic in the governor’s race last year and he’s disappointed that the legislature didn’t act.”

Employment Growth

If he runs, Perry’s main campaign theme likely will stress job creation, said Cal Jillson, who teaches politics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. More than 1 million jobs have been added to nonfarm payrolls in Texas since Perry took office.

While the Legislature was in session, Perry focused on social issues popular with more conservative Republicans rather than looking for ways to boost school and university funding, said Harvey Kronberg, who has followed the Legislature in Austin since 1989 as publisher of the Quorum Reporter newsletter. Perry called for a special session in June so legislators could pass a school-finance bill.

School funding fell about $4 billion short of previously mandated levels, Kronberg said. Enrollment in primary grades through high school is projected to increase by 80,000 students a year through fiscal 2013.

‘Executive Malpractice’

“For the first time, we aren’t funding enrollment growth in our public schools,” Kronberg said. “To declare sonograms an emergency and never once mention the state’s structural budget deficit is executive malpractice.”

Democrats, who hold 61 of 181 legislative seats, complained about Perry’s emergency items, including his June special-session proposal to restrict invasive security checks by Transportation Security Administration personnel at airports.

“I don’t like TSA pat-downs either, but I don’t think that is the most pressing item in Texas,” said Van De Putte, a San Antonio Democrat. “Our priorities are very different between what he puts on the agenda as emergency items and what I think should be an emergency, which is financing education.”

Perry’s critics don’t give the governor credit for taking principled stands that often are at odds with public opinion, said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, a nonprofit group in Austin that promotes limited government. He cited Perry’s 2007 mandate to require Gardasil vaccinations for sixth-grade girls to protect against human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. The order was blocked by lawmakers.

Legislative Motives

“If he was only motivated by politics and which way the wind is blowing, he never would have opened that whole can of worms,” Sullivan said. The Legislature stepped in when it became clear that Perry’s friend and lobbyist, Mike Toomey, had worked for Merck & Co., the producer of Gardasil.

“No one thought that was good politics, but Perry believed it was the right policy,” Sullivan said.

Perry has been supported by the prolife community since he served as lieutenant governor, said Graham. The lieutenant governor in Texas presides over the Senate, setting its agenda and naming committee members and leaders.

“He structured the committees to facilitate the passage of prolife bills,” Graham said. When lawmakers proposed prochoice bills, Perry has intervened to block their progress, she said.

“Texans expect less of their governor than people in many parts of the country,” Southern Methodist’s Jillson said. That “leaves the governor a lot of time on his hands to focus on abortion, border security, school prayer and other hot-button issues.”

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