On the Lege

Combing Out Grandma

Comptroller Susan Combs
Comptroller Susan Combs (Photo By Alan Pogue)

At her swearing-in ceremony early this month, Comptroller Susan Combs jokingly told a crowd of well-wishers and elected officials that she comes to her new job fully "House-trained." She may have been only half kidding. The remark was a light-hearted reference to the two terms she served as an Austin state representative, but it also conveyed a subtle message to lawmakers that she understands and respects the legislative process and the enormous egos that drive it.

In other words, Combs seemed to be saying, the new chief financial officer is not like the old one. Combs, in fact, built her election campaign on distinguishing herself from former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who had spent much of her second term feuding with legislators and duking it out with Gov. Rick Perry in her unsuccessful run for governor. Many people admired Strayhorn's fighting spirit, but Perry and company were more inclined, and better positioned, to dole out punishment in return. Strayhorn's lack of "House-training" carried a heavy price. The Legislature took away two of the comptroller's highly prized and visible performance review programs and thus the agency's best vehicle for influencing public policy on education and government efficiency.

Two prior state comptrollers, Bob Bullock and John Sharp, were both former legislators who understood the give-and-take structure better than Strayhorn. Tom Duffy, who served as a chief of staff under Sharp, believes Combs will run her agency in the spirit of Strayhorn's predecessors, who strengthened their relationships with lawmakers the old-fashioned way – by dropping by every once in a while to chew the fat. Combs, said Duffy, "will be strong and assertive but cooperative in the sense that she's not looking to fight everybody."

The new Republican comptroller also had the luxury of kicking off her term on a rosy note – news of a $14 billion surplus (expected to shrink substantially during the budget-making process). But she will still need to work to restore the agency's image with the GOP-controlled Legislature, Duffy said. Judging from Perry's ear-to-ear grin as Combs took the oath of office, she appears to have accomplished that goal with the leadership. On the other hand, Democrats and independent Republicans likely will not find Combs as willing to launch investigations into Perry-inspired boondoggles. Strayhorn was always eager to accommodate such requests.

But Combs has already made good on two of her campaign promises of transparency. She has posted the agency's expenditures since 2005 on the agency Web site, and she has transferred tax hearings from her office to the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Combs turned the latter into a campaign issue after a 2005 state audit report found that the agency had settled a slew of tax cases totaling $461 million within a year of Strayhorn receiving $2 million in campaign contributions from people connected to the cases. The audit did not allege wrongdoing, but recommended transferring contested tax cases out of the comptroller's office.

Inaugural Freeze Squeeze

Somewhere between the hotly contested speaker's race and the ice storm of the decade, Gov. Perry took the oath of office, delivered his "Imagine the Possibilities" address, and wore his smartest tux to his inaugural ball. As you may have already heard, Perry's address took on grand, global proportions as he begins what is widely rumored to be his VP tryout era. He talked tough on terror, gentle on immigration, and strong on patriotism ("Young Texans must never be taught about rights without also learning about responsibilities").

He spoke of his vision for Texas – a vision that seemed to blur with the vision of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell. "We are of many faiths, traditions, heritages, but we are all Texans," Perry said to a crowd of supporters downsized by bad weather. Perry's immigration platform calls for beefing up border security while allowing for a guest-worker program – the former will generate hysterical headlines, while the latter will likely face stiff opposition from the anti-immigrant forces in the Legislature and across the state. "We must secure the border with manpower, not unmanned walls," Perry said, in near-perfect Veep pitch. "We must have a guest-worker program that recognizes the economic contributions of foreign workers and the desperate conditions that bring them here." Then Perry swung the opposite way, closing the door on the idea of amnesty because, he said, it wouldn't be fair to those who legally migrate to the U.S. to pursue job opportunities.

Forgetting for a moment the lingering bitterness of the speaker's race that pitted Republican Jim Pitts against Speaker Tom Craddick – also a Republican – Perry issued a plea for more bipartisanship in government. "Texas is better off when Republicans and Democrats work together," he said, "because our potential is too vast to be spoiled by a politics leavened with partisanship." Or in Craddick's case, strong-armsmanship.

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Texas politics, Susan Combs, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Rick Perry, comptroller

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