The Continuing Education of Rick Perry

An old refrain was sung yet again Tuesday in a Senate hearing – the governor goes on a veto rampage, leaving legislators (and others) to wonder why his objections to their bills didn't come up earlier

An old refrain was sung yet again in a Senate hearing Tuesday – Gov. Rick Perry goes on a veto rampage, leaving legislators (and others) to wonder why the guv's objections to their bills didn't come up earlier in the process. The veto in question was his line-item rejection in June of $154 million in community-college funding, which he nixed on the grounds that such schools were illegally paying employees' health-care benefits with state funds, when the law dictates that those benefits come from local funds.

In his veto statement, Perry even went so far as to accuse community-college administrators of committing fraud. In passing the budget, legislators had decided that the funding mix – known as "proportionality" – could slide for the next biennium, because a rider in the budget allowed for it, but the guv decided to be a stickler. The veto drew furious op-eds from college administrators, who said they would have to cut taxes, raise tuition, and cut back on programs to balance the books – points they reiterated on Monday.

When former state senator and faux Demo­crat Ken Armbrister, who now serves as Perry's legislative director, appeared before the committee, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked, "One question: Why?" The crack was met with approving laughter from the many community-college officials in the room who likewise have been scratching their heads over the veto.

Armbrister and others from Perry's staff responded that community colleges had gotten plenty of warning that Perry intended to start enforcing the law more strictly, starting in 2006, when his office told the Texas Assoc­iation of Community Colleges that the guv disapproved of their failure to comply with proportionality. Senate Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Judith Zaf­fir­ini, D-Laredo, and other senators questioned that assertion, claiming the proportionality issue "never" came up during the many working groups and committee hearings. Moreover, they said the governor's office had not communicated such concerns to Senate staffers.

Looking forward, Whitmire asked Armbrister if the governor's office planned to meet with community-college officials to resolve the matter. "Our door is always open," Armbrister replied, which was met with derisive laughter. That raised Armbrister's ire: He swung around in his chair, gave a menacing glare to the standing-room-only crowd, and barked, "Is that funny?" His challenge was met with several replies of "Yes."

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the veto crisis could have been avoided had the governor discussed his concerns with the Legislature, funded the 2009-'10 fiscal year, and worked toward solutions for the next biennium. What most appalls some senators is that Perry's veto effectively rendered the $154 million flat-out unavailable for this biennium. Even though the cash exists, it is no longer considered a part of the budget approved by the 80th Lege – so restoring the funds would require siphoning dollars from other programs and agencies. Perry has suggested money might be found elsewhere to restore the college funds, but the precise shape and effect of his proposal remains unclear. Sen. Mario Gallegos expressed shock that the college funding exists but can't be touched. "It's sitting in the treasury?" he asked incredulously. "If it's sitting there, why do we have to look at other funds?"

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

community college funding, Rick Perry, Ken Armbrister, John Whitmire, Judith Zaf­fir­ini, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Mario Gallegos

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