Politics & Policy

Perry’s Patronage Problem

Perry donors have reaped benefits, but there’s a lot of transparency in Texas.

 

Since his announcement for the presidency, there have been a slew of articles, left, right, and center, decrying Rick Perry’s cronyism — his supposed habit of rewarding his biggest donors with patronage positions or valuable state contracts. So is the criticism fair?

Perry is a legendary fundraiser, and his preferred method is sticking with the big game. He has raised $37 million over the last decade from just 150 people, per the Los Angeles Times. Expand the list to the top 200 or so donors and you get $51 million, per The Nation. That’s already more than the total amount raised by George W. Bush in two campaigns as Texas governor, and just over half of Perry’s total haul of $101 million since his first campaign.

Accumulating all this cash has certainly left the governor with favors to return, and return them he has, say critics. The case most often cited is that of billionaire Harold Simmons, who donated a total of $1.12 million to Perry and in turn secured permission to build a radioactive disposal site in west Texas. Not only did Simmons successfully lobby to have state law changed so that a private company such as his could obtain the requisite license, he also made sure the law would allow the granting of only one such license. Moreover, the license itself was approved by the Perry-appointed commissioners of the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, and the review process was overseen by the executive director they hired: one Glenn Shankle, who within six months of signing off on the waste facility left TCEQ and secured a lobbying contract worth up to $150,000 in Simmons’s outfit.

As Glenn Davis — a TCEQ staffer who resigned in protest over what he claimed were irregularities in the approval process — put it in an interview with The Texas Observer, “Even the Mafia was more cirucmspect than this.”

And there’s more where Simmons came from. Take B. J. “Red” McCombs, who gave Perry $400,000, and received $25 million in subsidies to build a Formula One racetrack near Austin. Or James Dannenbaum, who gave more than $320,000 to Perry, and in turn received multiple transportation contracts from the state. Or the more than half of Perry-appointed university regents who have donated money to his campaign. Or the Texas Enterprise Fund, which awarded millions in grants to corporate donors (to little avail, according to critics). And on it goes.

But even as the headlines can and should remain a significant factor as conservative opinion-makers and the primary electorate vet Perry for his presidential run, a look at the institutional and political context of Perry’s governorship reveals that there may be less to the Perry-as-crony-capitalist story than meets the eye. Here are five reasons why:

1. The Texas governor is constitutionally weak, sharing authority with a number of other statewide elected officials, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, and various commissioners. Perry’s personality, his bully pulpit, and his long tenure in office (Texas has no term limits) have helped turn him into “the strongest weak governor” in America, and so too have the appointments Perry makes to the approximately 200 boards, commissions, and agencies he oversees within the state — appointments that have come to be used as strategic leverage for advancing the governor’s policy agenda.

“It’s a legitimate use of power,” says Joshua Trevino, a vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a free-market 501(c)(3) think tank based in Austin. “There’s nothing [Perry] is vested with in terms of patronage power or appointment power that would be out of place in the federal government itself.” Or indeed in many other states. And as with governors in many other states . . . 

2. Perry’s decisions are constrained. Cash grants from controversial programs like the Texas Enterprise Fund require approval of the independently elected lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, not just the governor. Most executive appointments require approval of two-thirds of the state’s senate, and informally many require “senatorial courtesy” — the approval of the senator from the appointee’s home district. As such, the vast majority of Perry’s appointments require a buy-in from Democrats. Furthermore, commissioners and other appointees serve staggered terms, and Texas governors are proscribed from replacing their predecessors’ picks. Then again . . . 

3. Perry has been around so long that virtually every appointed official in the state was appointed by him. Even commissioners who serve six-year terms, even commissioners who were originally appointed by George W. Bush or Ann Richards, have been re-appointed by Perry. This both ups the sample size of appointments for critics to scrutinize and amplifies the chance that Perry’s friends and benefactors will be appointed.

“You typically don’t appoint to positions of trust your opponents. That usually doesn’t happen,” chuckles Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the Empower Texans Foundation and a major figure in conservative circles. “[Governors] usually appoint successful citizens who they are friends with, and that often translates to people who contributed to their campaigns.” Which leads us to the fact that . . . 

4. Perry operates in the light of day. True, there are no limits on individual contributions to candidates in Texas, but the state has long banned corporate donations, and records for individual donors are easily obtained (which is surely part of the reason that so many stories have been written on Perry’s donors). The state maintains an exhaustive electronic database of finance and lobbying activities, and it even had a delinquent-filers list. All of which is to say that . . . 

5. Perry is not (yet) Rod Blagojevich. Conspicuously missing from the Perry stories is any suggestion that Perry himself has done anything unlawful. “If this were a real charge,” as Sullivan puts it, “Mr. Democratic Strategist Who Hates Rick Perry would take his case to the FBI and not the Washington Post.” All the commissioners Perry appointed and all the commissions that have awarded money to Perry donors have conducted their business in accordance with the state’s open-records laws.

Nor is there a sense among free-market Texans that Perry let quid pro quo dominate his economic policies to the detriment of the state.

Part of the focus on Perry’s alleged cronyism may be due to the increased focus among the conservative electorate on the distinction between free-market policies and corporatist policies. But speaking for TPPF, Trevino says, “We have found the governor to be an ally on [free-market] issues, and nothing I have seen in the last week has changed my opinion on that.”

Even Sullivan, who affirms his group’s long-held opposition to “corporate giveaways” like the Texas Enterprise Fund, says that even though he “can’t stand” them, “we seem to be running those stupid things better than other states.”

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

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