My mother died in a nursing home. It was not what she would have wanted, nor I, but sometimes circumstances leave no other option. On the day after I moved her into the quarters that she would occupy for the final two months of her life, I drove back to Austin. No sooner had I pulled into the driveway than my wife came running out of the house. “Don’t even get out of the car,” she said. “They mishandled your mother and she fell and broke her hip. You have to go back.”
This sad episode was the first thing I thought of when I saw that Governor Rick Perry had vetoed House Bill 1001. The bill was simple enough: It directed the state agency that oversees nursing homes to study the reimbursement rate paid by the state for Medicaid patients, which is so low that some homes are going under and many more are on the verge of closing. Nursing homes need more money not only to stay in business but also to attract better workers, who will care enough about their patients that they won’t mishandle them, as they did my mother. The bill had the support of nursing home owners and patient advocates. It could do no harm, and it might do some good; studies and hearings during the nineteen-month gap between legislative sessions are a long-established way of addressing difficult problems. Perry knows this; he has been a legislator and lieutenant governor. So why did he veto the bill? The issues “are well known and do not need to be studied yet again,” his veto proclamation read. They require “action, not study.” That’s good sound bite material—but when the Legislature tried to take action this past spring in the form of a fee on nursing home beds that would be matched at the rate of 150 percent by federal funds, guess who scotched the plan after first agreeing to support it? Rick Perry.
This is one little-noticed bill among 82 that Perry vetoed, but it raises the question that just about everyone in the Texas political world was asking, Why? The governor’s nay-saying completely overshadowed a pedestrian legislative session; nothing that occurred during the 140 days that the Legislature met was half as memorable or meaningful as what Perry did after it went home. Coming from someone who ascended to office by filling a vacancy, who had a minuscule legislative program of his own, who seldom got involved in the legislative process, and whose name and views were not well known to many Texans, the vetoes were Perry’s first indication of the kind of governor he intends to be. And the news is not good: one whose notion of leadership is negative rather than positive, “you can’t” rather than “we can.” It’s no wonder that Republicans like state representative Tony Goolsby of Dallas were as critical of Perry as were Democrats. Responding in a House staff report to the veto of one of his bills, Goolsby said, “I am especially troubled that neither the governor nor his staff ever contacted me during the process to express any concern.”
The governor, of course, is empowered by the Texas Constitution to veto bills. But the veto power, if not exercised wisely and sparingly, can be a dangerous one. It can make lasting enemies of those who expected to benefit from a bill’s passage. It negates the sponsoring legislator’s hard work. Most of all, a veto is often a tacit admission of the governor’s own failure, because the legislative process offers ample opportunity for intervention and compromise. A veto becomes necessary only if the governor’s intervention was nonpersuasive—or nonexistent. Think of a veto as the parliamentary equivalent of a spanking. It is a last resort that should be used only when really necessary. Like a spanking, a veto will get the attention of the recipient. It may also inspire fear. But it cannot purchase respect. Or love.
The vetoes were stunning in three ways. One was their number. The 82 vetoes were only 9 fewer than George W. Bush’s cumulative total for three sessions. They exceeded by 22 Ann Richards’ tally for two sessions. Another problem was the lack of care given to the wording of the veto messages, as if they were written by someone who had no clue about state government. Do you believe that in Texas “we do not execute mentally retarded murderers today”? Rick Perry does. Is it possible that a $25 professional registration fee for a group of consulting engineers would “exacerbate the current shortage of engineers in Texas”? Rick Perry thinks so. Most startling was the contrast between Perry’s attitude toward legislation before the May 28 adjournment and after. Overnight, he and his staff underwent a transformation from distant observers to obsessive nitpickers. This mutation will define Rick Perry for his cohorts in Texas politics long after the details of the bills he vetoed have been forgotten. He chose to be an outsider, chose to play gotcha with the Legislature rather than to work with it, chose to snipe from ambush rather than engage in the open.
Most of the adverse reaction to the Perry vetoes concerned process rather than substance. But the rejection of three bills—all of which had bipartisan sponsorship and support—reverberated far beyond the Capitol. These were the ban on the execution of the mentally retarded, a major Medicaid bill that brought in umpteen millions of dollars in federal funds, and the doctor-backed “prompt-pay” legislation that required health care insurance plans to pay doctors and hospitals on time. The most important veto for Texas was the ban on executions. You can make good arguments for and against executing the mentally retarded (not that Perry did so; his veto rested on a point of criminal procedure), but much more than philosophy was at stake. Perry’s veto was featured on the front page of the New York Times, on ABC’s Nightline, and in global press coverage—all of which were 100 percent predictable in the