Rick Perry's Texas Fantasyland

Rick Perry's Texas is a job-makin', low-taxin' oasis of economic growth. It's also a fantasy.

The shifting of public responsibility from state to local government also shows up in the study's rankings for total public debt per capita. If you look only at state government, Texas looks great—the next-to-lowest debt per resident in the country. But when you add local debt to that state debt, Texas falls into 15th place, among the most debt-loaded states in the union.

Taken together, the numbers fail to conform to Perry's portrayal. In job creation and economic hardiness, as a tax haven, even as a place where government is supposed to be scarce, Texas fails to fit the soundbites. Which raises another obvious question: Perry himself. If Texas is not the small-government, low-tax, bottom-up-governed oasis its governor describes, is he even that kind of leader?

The Tea Party has been lighting torches of discontent in recent weeks over Perry's support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants (too compassionate) and his backing of mandatory HPV vaccinations for teenage girls (too progressive). But another chapter, one too nuanced for the 24-hour news cycle, better demonstrates Perry's true style of governance: his failed attempt to create a high-tech transportation corridor across the entire state.

Zuma Press
Weinstein: Perry has been “a good steward of Texas values.”
Zuma Press
Weinstein: Perry has been “a good steward of Texas values.”

Announced in January 2002, the "Trans-Texas Corridor," or TTC, was to be a gigantic 1,200-foot-wide swath 4,000 miles long carrying high-speed rail, pipelines, and high-tech super toll roads from Mexico to Oklahoma. Like the higher-education "seven-points" plan, the TTC was the brainchild of a millionaire pal of Perry's, the late Ric Williamson, whom Perry had appointed chairman of the state's Transportation Commission.

The problem, according to people involved in Texas transportation and trade issues at the time, was that Perry and Williamson dropped the plan on legislators as a fait accompli without any political preparation. Then they made things worse by trying stubbornly to force it by fiat down the throats of an increasingly recalcitrant citizenry.

The TTC idea is dead now, shot many times over in the head by the legislature. After Perry unveiled the TTC in 2002, farmers, small towns, and two major cities rose up against it in horror, fueled by its threatened use of eminent domain and a backroom deal to turn the road over to a Spanish toll-road company—without a bidding process. Even worse, the preordained route would have bypassed, and probably killed, major new shipping centers in both Dallas and Fort Worth.

State senator Florence Shapiro, a Republican powerhouse, still thinks the basic concept might have had merit. She calls Williamson, who died of a heart attack four years ago, "a very, very bright man." But, she says, "the manner in which it was presented was the problem. They didn't even try to work it out. They just said, 'Here's the plan.'"

The TTC is hardly the only example of Perry's ham-fisted style of governance. After the savage bloodletting of the most recent legislative session, he poured salt in the wounds of local school districts by seeming to blame all of the unpleasantness on them: "The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren't going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell," he told reporters at a news conference. "That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts."

Well, yes, because Perry and the legislature cut off their money.

Perry also vowed publicly that he was not forcing his "seven-points" anti-research plan on any of his many appointees to Texas university boards of regents. He said he had presented the plan to them merely to foster discussion.

"I appoint people to the board of regents," Perry said in May 2008. "They are in charge of setting policy. . . . That's their call. It's not the governor's call. It's never been the governor's call, and I don't get confused about what my role is."

But in April 2008, the Houston Chronicle published e-mails sent to regents and university chancellors by Perry aide Marisha Negovetich in which she repeatedly hectored them to get going on the governor's seven-points plan. "The Governor is anxious to put together a cohesive plan of action . . . and also learn from you what progress you have made to move these reforms forward," she wrote.

In the September 12 GOP presidential debate, Perry said he was "offended" by criticism from Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann that he "could be bought for $5,000" from Merck, maker of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that Perry mandated by executive order in 2007 for all Texas teenage girls. Two days later, the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau laid bare a pattern of six-figure contributions by Merck to a middleman fund that has given millions to Perry.

Stanford, the campaign consultant Perry beat in 2006, agrees Perry botched the Gardasil moment, but he says it also illustrates why he might get himself elected president. The same traits that make him tone-deaf in office, Stanford says, can make him pitch-perfect on the campaign trail.

Before Perry unleashed his Gardasil order, Stanford says, "he hadn't done that hard government work that you have to do in building coalitions. He hadn't reached out to the people who already agreed with him and gotten them on board."

Stanford ticks off a roster of state and national women's organizations concerned over the link between HPV infection and cervical cancer that had been calling for universal HPV vaccination for years. "He could have, in a government way, reached out and said: 'Here is a bipartisan coalition for this idea. Let's all talk about this idea.' But, no. One day, boom, he announces it. No coalition."

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