Oh, ye liberals, Democrats and college professors, weep. There is no doubt now that the man you love to hate – Governor Rick Perry – will be the biggest winner of the 82nd Legislature.
Perry has gotten his way on almost every item on is legislative agenda and squeezed the state budget turnip until it bled. Perry is the flavor of the week nationally for the politicos and pundits looking for a candidate of principled policy and pizzazz to join the Republican presidential contest. And Perry’s biggest public relations flop of the session – meddling with higher education – hasn’t fazed him in the least. If you believe the higher education community and alumni and newspaper backlash to Perry’s support of Jeff Sandefer and his proposed “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for university reform have prompted Perry to back off, think again.
Sources close to the governor tell me that in either late June or July, Perry will unveil his own proposal for higher education reform. While the details are still being worked out, it is sure to contain his call for $10,000 undergraduate degrees, greater efficiencies in the teaching of undergraduates, teacher accountability and a potential rebalancing of instructional and research budgets with a goal of lowering the cost of a bachelor’s degree. Perry, in his Austin American-Statesman op-ed, said academia wants him to “butt out.” He’s not going to: “Our knowledge-dependent economy and you — the taxpayer footing the bills — deserve better.”
With the knowledge that the battle with Perry is never over, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus appointed a “Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.” A shorter name would be The Committee to Rein in Perry’s Regents.” One source told me the point of the committee is to make sure whatever reforms occur are done with a scalpel rather than a meat cleaver. Conservative columnist William Lutz noted the most transparent thing to the right about the committee is its purpose.
There is some room for legitimate debate about the current role of the Ivory Towers. A bachelor’s degree today essentially has become what a high school diploma was four decades ago – a requirement for a good paying job. However, tuition deregulation in 2003 dramatically increased the cost of a college education, and it is not being helped in the currently proposed budget by cutting Texas Grants financial aid funding for 41,000 students.
One of Sandefer’s proposals for making a college degree more affordable is to bring in experienced professionals to augment academics. Here’s a real-life story that gives validity to that argument. Lobbyist Jim Arnold told me that in the 1980s, he was was an adjunct professor of government at Austin Community College. He also worked at the Legislative Budget Board and in the governor’s office. Then he concentrated on working on Texas political campaigns, followed by stints with the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Arnold managed Perry’s successful 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor before becoming a lobbyist. When Arnold decided he wanted to return to part-time teaching several years ago, he was told the accrediting Southern Association of Colleges and Schools would not allow him to teach government because his Master’s Degree was from the U.T. LBJ School of Public Affairs rather than the government department. To teach, Arnold had to return to college and obtain nine additional hours in political science study. “You’ve got twenty to twenty-five years of working in government and politics and you’re still not qualified to teach an introduction to Texas government,” Arnold told me as we spoke in the lobby outside the state House chamber.
However, it is unlikely this is all about just improving higher education. Remember, it was the college campuses in 2008 that give President Obama the edge over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and then provided him with a volunteer army in the general election. If students and academics are having to defend their turf over the next year, they are less likely to fight other battles, such as re-electing Obama. The Young Conservatives of Texas put out reports in 2008 on how the lion’s share of political donations made by employees of Texas A&M University and of the University of Texas are given to “leftists.” Dick Armey, whose FreedomWorks helped fan the flames of the national Tea Party movement in the last election cycle, is backing Perry in his higher education battle. This is not just about Texas. It’s also about the 2012 presidential campaign.
Which brings me around to this week’s hot rumors of Perry entering the GOP presidential contest. It’s fueled by the fact there are no candidates that excite the party regulars. They’re either yesterday’s news or unexciting. Perry has the ability to fire up a room. Evangelical activists are talking about a draft Perry movement. Perry told Fox News host Greta van Susteren he would be “tempted” to run for president. “I can’t say I’m not tempted, but the fact is this (being governor) is something I want to do…Until I get my legislative session over with, I’m not going to get distracted from the work at hand.” He just can’t say No, sort of like Scarlett O’Hara promising all the boys a dance at the barbecue: “I just couldn’t risk being a wallflower.”
There are absolutely no signs that Perry actually plans to run. His top political aides are working for Newt Gingrich, and his schedule through the summer has some Republican Governor’s Association travel to North Carolina, New Orleans, St. Louis and Alabama, but nothing for Iowa or New Hampshire. Conventional wisdom at the moment is that the GOP nominee will be a sacrifice to Obama’s re-election. The better play for Perry is to wait. As the head of the RGA, he can help bring four swing states into the GOP column next year. Combine those states with ones already in Republican hands, and Perry could have a political base of 321 Electoral College votes in 2016, more than the 270 needed to win the presidency. Of course, he might have some other governors to fight with for the nomination in an open-election year. But the ever-youthful Perry would only be 67. Even if he did not seek re-election as governor, he would leave office in January 2015, giving him a free year to run.
So look at where our governor stands now. The Legislature on Thursday/yesterdayMay26 hammered down a current-revenue budget for the next two years as demanded by Perry. Even if a breakdown on school finance causes a special session, the question is over how to spend the money, not how much. On items Perry set as emergencies, the Legislature passed or is on the verge of passing eminent domain restrictions; requirements for a sonogram before an abortion; photographic proof of identification before voting; loser pays lawsuit restrictions; and a resolution calling for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Perry’s only apparent loss will on the so-called “sanctuary cities” crackdown on illegal immigration.
Sure, I know you liberals and moderates hate him. The polls tell me so. But Perry is not a man seeking to be loved by all. Perry is a Plus-One politician for whom winning is enough, because winning begets the power to implement policy. Perry has told me before that he believes what is good for attracting new business to Texas is good for everyone in the state – new businesses mean additional tax revenue to pay for education and services for the poor. And with this budget, Perry has enforced that philosophy.
So all ye liberals, Democrats and college professors, shed your tears of frustration. Rick Perry has won again.
By R.G. RATCLIFFE