No! No! No!

Rick Perry's veto binge was the first sign of the kind of Governor he wants to be.

August 2001By Comments

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 wake of the criticism of the state’s criminal justice system during the 2000 presidential campaign. To his credit, Perry signed several death penalty reform bills into law. But this veto undid everything he and the Legislature had accomplished to burnish Texas’ image. He invited opprobrium and ridicule upon his state and defaulted on his duty to represent Texas before the world. If anyone out there thinks that this is some bleeding-heart liberal notion, here is what the gold-standard conservative Dallas Morning News had to say in a lead editorial headlined perry’s mistake: “It is deeply disappointing that Gov. Perry vetoed a bill that would have provided justice for families of the victims while allowing Texans to show they are civilized.”

The Medicaid veto was another stunner. The mammoth bill, one of the most important of the session, called for money-saving consolidations of the system that provides health care to the poor. It established demonstration projects to bring in trainloads of federal funds that could help pay for expensive changes in the Medicaid system contained in another bill that Perry signed. Why did he veto it? The proclamation is wholly unrevealing, asserting that the consolidations could be done without the law and suggesting that the demonstration projects would distract the agency in charge of Medicaid from its appointed tasks. The veto represents a high-stakes gamble—$416.8 million over five years—by the governor that the bill and its federal funds are unnecessary. Once again the Morning News weighed in: “He was wrong to veto a Medicaid bill that would have saved the state $98 million over the next two years . . .”

The prompt-pay bill was designed to keep HMO’s and PPO’s from delaying the processing and payment of bills submitted by doctors and other health care providers. Perry objected to a single provision of the bill that would have prevented health insurers from forcing doctors into binding arbitration; a tort-reformer, he supports arbitration instead of litigation. You could argue this point forever, but the inescapable problem for Perry is that if his office had just been involved in the legislative process on this politically explosive bill, he could have asked for the anti-arbitration provision to be removed, leaving both doctors and tort reformers happy.

Two questions remain to be answered. The first is why the veto debacle happened; the second is where Perry goes from here. The nature of politicians (and journalists, I suppose) is to look for villains, but no staffer, lobbyist, political ally, or longtime friend suggested to Perry that a veto binge was smart politics. It just happened. The staff churned out its objections to bills, and there was nobody with the experience or wisdom to see the big picture—including Perry himself. Throw in some justifiable resentment over the way the governor was snubbed at times (legislators had kowtowed to George W. Bush for three sessions and weren’t about to do the same for Perry, especially when he was usually AWOL) and you have a situation where nitpicking and payback could get out of hand. And did.

The big picture can only come from one person: the governor. Mark White called on Ross Perot to reform Texas education. Ann Richards foresaw a “New Texas” and brought its representatives into the government. George W. Bush tackled Texas’ two biggest problems: the quality of education and an outmoded tax structure. What is Rick Perry’s idea of the big picture? For his sake and for ours, it is time for him to get one.

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