Looking a little tired, but still standing tall on the center stage of Texas politics, Governor Rick Perry was triumphant at an Austin press conference Monday. He got most of what he wanted and then some from the regular state legislative session that ended this weekend, and perceived dissatisfaction with the prospective GOP presidential field has launched him into the national conversation.
In the statehouse, lawmakers passed a lean — some critics say mean — $172.3 billion biennial budget that saw statewide spending cut by a little more than $15 billion. There were no new taxes, of course, and lawmakers also passed a raft of conservative measures including a voter ID bill and legislation requiring women to receive sonograms at abortion clinics before going through with the procedure. They also approved two measures hailed by human rights advocates, a law combating human trafficking and an anti-bullying bill.
It wasn’t perfect for Perry — he had to agree to dip into the state’s $9 billion rainy day fund to the tune of $3 billion, and state senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) filibustered the school finance bill, a crucial part of the overall budget picture, pushing lawmakers into an overtime special session. But for Perry, who has repeatedly defied the odds and emerged victorious from tough political battles throughout his career, even a special session has a silver lining.
As one key statehouse leader summed it up, the session is a “gift” for the Governor. Under Texas law, the Governor sets the agenda for a special session and only needs a simple majority in the state senate to get it passed. Under regular rules, he needed a two-thirds vote in the state senate, where Democrats hold 12 of the 31 seats. The House already has a Republican super-majority.
It also gives Perry another opportunity to play coy on his plans for the presidential race, while burnishing his credentials. So far, Perry has put school finance and a health care bill on the agenda, plus congressional redistricting. Austin’s staunch Democrat Congressman Lloyd Doggett is in the crosshairs — the plan would chop his Austin base into five parts.
Democrats are hoping to seize the opportunity as well, encouraging Texas parents and teachers to storm the capitol to protest some $4 billion in school cuts that are in the education bill. But grassroots anger was in short supply during the regular session, and while the end of the school year means teachers may have more time for Austin rallies, a political maelstrom is unlikely.
One possible bellwether of Perry’s ambitions will be what he does on immigration. Some lawmakers are pressing to revive a failed sanctuary cities bill, urging Perry to add it to the special session’s agenda. The bill would prohibit police departments from adopting a formal don’t ask policy when it comes to a subject’s immigration status. Some Texas cities informally discourage their police officers from asking about immigration status, saying it inhibits crime reporting and cooperation in immigrant communities. But so far, Perry has not agreed. He’s had success wooing Hispanic voters in Texas and appears hesitant to touch hot button immigration issues.
The next 30 days likely will involve a little legislative cat-herding, maybe even on the right, but Perry plans to make a few out-of-state appearances. He’ll be traveling to New York City on June 14 for the annual Republican Lincoln Day Dinner where he is filling in for Donald Trump, who dropped out of the event when his presidential flirtations ended. As in Texas, Perry will be center stage.