Fun With Carole, Rick, and Greg

Budget battle just a warm-up to redistricting title match

Fun With Carole, Rick, and Greg
Illustration By Doug Potter

Who ever thought Republicans could be so much fun?

There was Carole Keeton Strayhorn, comptroller extraordinaire, waving her oath of office to the TV cameras in the Speaker's Committee Room and insisting that the Texas Constitution gave her no choice but to refuse to certify the state budget -- an unprecedented rejection -- because, on its final afternoon, the 78th Legislature had fumbled the ball on a major transportation bill and left the account $185.9 million short. Moreover, said Strayhorn, the budget could not be self-balanced by its own contingent "rider" mandating across-the-board cuts if it didn't balance -- because if the comptroller hadn't certified it as balanced, the governor couldn't sign it, and if the governor couldn't sign it, the budget wasn't enacted and the rider couldn't take effect.

A few hours later, there was Gov. Rick Perry, in a distinguished I-35@Round Rock motel conference room, ceremonially signing the very same transportation bill (HB 3588, the "Trans-Texas Corridor" Imperium), then staring down virtually the same group of reporters with the response that the whole matter was a simple misunderstanding -- "a typographical error" -- that would be remedied and forgotten in a matter of hours. When the reporters inquired too closely how that error came to be or misstated the relative amount -- "You're only $100 million off, you must have worked for the government," the governor sneered -- Perry dismissed the controversy as a media distraction. "I'm not interested in the process," declared Perry. "I'm interested in results."

Before the reporters could fully ponder the significance of the highest executive authority in the state disdaining all interest in the legal process, Perry was gone, leaving HB 3588 co-sponsors Sen. Steve Ogden and Rep. Mike Krusee (who had already been moved nearly to tears at the prospect of so many years' worth of poured concrete) to explain how the bill got bungled into costing the biennium an extra $186 mil. "It was unambiguous when it left the Senate," said Ogden. "Something happened when it went back to the House."

House member Krusee replied that whatever happened to the bill, it had nothing to do with those handwritten amendments adopted on the House floor on sine die. Besides, the Highway Twins insisted, they had written a letter to the comptroller clearing up the whole matter.

My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter

For 24 hours -- while the governor muttered and Attorney General Greg Abbott (at the direction of Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick) threatened a lawsuit -- Strayhorn stood firm. "The letter has no impact whatsoever," she announced. "The constitution does not permit me to consider after the fact letters that purport to change the clear terms of enrolled bills."

When a reporter was so crude as to suggest that perhaps some internal Republican politics lay at the root of the dispute -- based on abundant historical evidence, Strayhorn is always presumed by the Capitol press corps to be running for something -- the comptroller was characteristically eloquent. "Hogwash, hogwash, hogwash!" she declared.

But at 3pm Friday she called a 3:30 press conference, held under the stately live oak outside her office. "A historical event has occurred," she began solemnly. "My baby boy, Scott McClellan, has become the press secretary to the president of the United States." There was a bit more banter about Strayhorn's children and grandchildren (current and prospective), and then she got down to business: "I am delighted to announce we have a balanced budget that I have certified today. ... I said we would solve this, and we did."

In the end, rather than force a courtroom showdown, the governor had vetoed two bills worth $212 million in potential "cash management" appropriations for the comptroller's office. (Perry had his own press conference, 30 minutes later, using the opportunity to repeat his allegiance to results.) Strayhorn said she was pleased at the source of the money (not from her operating budget) and the governor said the vetoes were not retaliation.

As it turned out, the whole damn posse -- Perry, Strayhorn, Dewhurst, Craddick, Abbott, Ogden, and Krusee -- had been saved by Juneteenth. Strayhorn's office had returned the uncertified budget to a puzzled staffer in the speaker's office on Thursday, June 19, and a few hours later her office was informed that the comptroller's refusal to certify could not be "enrolled" (officially recorded) by the House clerk because of the state holiday. Had it been enrolled, Perry's subsequent vetoes would have come to naught -- because there would no longer have been any budget bill to balance, at all. The day's delay allowed the governor's vetoes to take effect before the comptroller's decertification -- making the latter unnecessary.

Perhaps Speaker Craddick will now give private thanks at the failure of his long-ago vote against a state holiday in honor of Texas emancipation.

The Governor's Process

However much or little "politics" had to do with the budget disagreement, it is clear that politics has everything to do with the special legislative session that begins Monday. Much of the consternation over the budget snafu had to do with preventing serious money matters from obstructing the main GOP business at hand: congressional redistricting. By law, that couldn't take precedence over a failed budget bill, and Democrats had quickly signaled their inclination to use the special session to reopen the budget-slashing wounds that have hardly begun to bleed, let alone heal.

Now the ball is again in Perry's court, and he's taking hostages. His special-session announcement noted that once redistricting is under way, he might add other "unfinished business ... such as funding for the Regional Academic Health Center [planned for the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo] and Texas Tech medical school [at El Paso]." In his February State of the State address, Perry said that these border health care initiatives would be funded through his $295 million "Texas Enterprise Fund," and legislators confirmed their own intent that $41 million of the TEF (created by SB 1771) be dedicated to these programs.

Now the governor is not very coyly suggesting that desperately needed medical funding for the poorest regions of the state may well be dependent upon legislative cooperation in congressional redistricting. And by the way, the dailies report this week that Boeing is nosing about for a site for its new "Dreamliner" manufacturing plant -- and it sure wouldn't mind a taste of the TEF to seal the deal.

Who do you suppose has more stroke at the mansion? Border health care or Boeing?

The fun has just begun. end story

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Carole Keeton Strayhorn, comptroller, Rick Perry, HB 3588, Trans-Texas Corridor, Steve Ogden, Mike Krusee, Greg Abbott, David Dewhurst, Tom Craddick, Scott McClellan

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