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With veto power, Rick Perry influenced, targeted and vexed

Seven years before a grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry for threatening to veto funding for an investigative unit unless its director resigned — and before the governor’s mug shot went viral, before he considered a second presidential run at the same time he prepared for a trial, before the media whirlwind — there was the veto of the Texas blind salamander.

Known for its long tail and red gills, the blind salamander, riding a wave of bipartisan support in both the Texas House and Senate, was poised to be designated the state’s official amphibian. But the creature’s potential legacy evaporated when Perry vetoed the resolution — along with 56 other pieces of legislation in 2007.

From the seemingly trivial to the consequential, Perry has wielded his veto authority to display power and steer a political outcome. In fact, experts and lawmakers agree, that’s the point of veto authority.

Perry has most often nixed legislation pertaining to education, government regulation, criminal justice and health care, according to an American-Statesman analysis of 301 vetoed bills, which includes eight budget bills marked with 148 line-item vetoes. Including both bills and line-item vetoes, the governor has swiped the veto pen 62 times against issues related to education, more than any other subject. Issues broadly related to government regulation came in second, with 58 vetoes.

In 14 years as governor, Perry has used his veto power to effectively eliminate at least six agencies, at least twice without any warning. Perry notably has vetoed hundreds of millions in state money for universities, often without warning. In 2009, Perry gave no hint before he vetoed a popular bill to require drivers to give more space when passing bicyclists. Two years later, Perry became the first governor in the nation to veto a ban on texting while driving.

The volume of Perry’s vetoes is no surprise, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

“For the most part, he’s really not that far off his predecessors,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like they weren’t using the veto power.”

Perry’s vetoes far outnumber any preceding governor, but so do his record 14 years in office. Next to every Texas governor, though, the Statesman found Perry ranks seventh in his average use of vetoes — 43 per regular legislative session. The first? Gov. Edmund J. Davis, elected in 1870, vetoed 181 bills in two sessions, for an average of 90.5.

In the larger context of the nearly 38,000 bills Perry passed into law, his veto rate is around 0.8 percent, an analysis of state figures found.

But the veto’s real influence is tough to quantify. As Jones notes, much of the veto’s force lay in the “ability to shape behavior.”

Veto specter is power

From the president on down, executives routinely use the threat of a veto to influence lawmakers. Perry’s threats have been effective. In 2007, for instance, legislators feared Perry would delete entire university budgets just to pinch a certain expense he didn’t like. So budget writers itemized tens of millions in costs that would typically be hidden under a larger umbrella budget, just so the governor could strike out so-called special items, which he did.

Those fears weren’t unwarranted. On a Sunday in June 2003, Perry vetoed the entire $6.6 million budget for the Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service, which curtailed pests and animal diseases. The agency’s 195 employees learned of the veto the next day.

In his veto statement, the governor referenced his ignored request that agency budgets be itemized.

“I could have eliminated only those line items for activities that could be outsourced or coordinated by other state agencies,” he said.

Again in 2007, when legislators ignored Perry’s proposed changes to higher education financing, he vetoed nearly $36 million in higher education earmarks and $154 million in funding for community colleges. Lawmakers pushed to restore the funding for community colleges, though, and Perry ultimately relented.

Other times, legislators say the Republican governor’s vetoes have felt more capricious than punishing. Perry has vetoed bills, lawmakers have said, with little or no warning, even though the bills had been drafted with help from Perry’s staff, according to reports by the House Research Organization.

Those reports cited at least 11 instances when lawmakers raised concerns that Perry didn’t understand the bills he vetoed.

Jeff Wentworth, a former Republican state senator, recalls an instance when Perry vetoed “a perfectly good bill.”

“In his veto message, it was clear that whoever read the bill for him didn’t understand the bill at all,” Wentworth said.

Wentworth, who had 12 bills vetoed by the governor from 2001 to 2011, said he couldn’t remember the exact bill.

Wentworth says he later confronted the governor.

“I said, ‘Governor, I had this bill and my suspicion is that someone on your staff read it, and they recommended that you veto, and you followed their advice without ever looking at the bill,’” Wentworth said. “He said, ‘You’re probably right. Just pass it again, and I’ll sign it next time.’”

“It seemed to me at times that there was a lack of respect for the process,” Wentworth added.

Lucy Nashed, the governor’s press secretary said, “The governor exercises his constitutional veto authority after thoroughly reviewing each bill in its final form, and as required by the state Constitution, states his objections to each bill in a veto statement.”

Because vetoes come down after the Legislature disperses, and because only the governor can reconvene the Legislature, vetoes are rarely challenged. The last veto override by the Legislature was in 1979.

In 2009, Wentworth sponsored a resolution that would have made it easier to override Perry’s vetoes. It passed committees in the Senate and the House, but the resolution languished because it wasn’t placed on the floor calendar.

‘Perplexing’ vetoes

Perry has spread the sting of his vetoes, with only a slight preference toward killing Democrats’ bills.

Bills in which the lead author or sponsor were Democratic represent nearly 58 percent of Perry’s vetoes, while the rest were bills authored and sponsored by Republicans. Those percentages exclude vetoes of bills introduced by members of both parties, of which there were 88.

That disparity is notable considering Perry has enjoyed Republican majorities in the Legislature for six out seven legislative sessions. But Republicans also have expressed shock and indignation in the wake of Perry’s vetoes.

Defying the constitutionally weak powers enumerated to his office, Perry’s ax hit hardest in his first term, when he vetoed 82 bills as part of what would be known as the “Father’s Day Massacre,” a 2001 veto barrage that martyred bills both controversial and mundane and left lawmakers in both parties grieving.

“What’s always shocking is when there’s absolutely no controversy, no objection, no conversation, and then here comes a veto,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has been in office for all of Perry’s tenure. “It’s very perplexing.”

Zaffirini lost six bills to vetoes in 2001. A total of 19 of Zaffirini’s bills have been killed by veto, the Statesman found, making her the second-most-vetoed legislator under Perry’s tenure. With 20 bills killed during the same period, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has seen the most vetoes.

In 2011, Zaffirini says she and others were blindsided by Perry’s veto of House Bill 130, which would have funded pre-kindergarten programs in schools. The bill had bipartisan support, and Zaffirini, as the Senate sponsor, spent several months working with the governor’s staff to ensure its passage.

“That was a shock,” she said. “We had done everything they wanted us to. Everything.”

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told a similar story. Last year, Seliger authored the so-called dark money bill, which would have required some tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits to disclose large donors. That bill, though opposed by some, was passed and sent to the governor. He vetoed it.

Seliger publicly criticized the governor for that, and, in turn, the senator says, Perry vetoed House Bill 3509, an obscure bill that would have expanded an endangered species task force.

“I think that was petty and personal. I heard that it was retaliatory,” Seliger said, though he didn’t disclose whom he heard it from. “I heard it from somebody familiar with the process.”

Yet no Perry veto has become so well known as his decision last year to kill a two-year, $7.5 million appropriation to the Public Integrity Unit, overseen by Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County district attorney whom Perry pressured to resign after her embarrassing drunken driving arrest and conviction. Perry has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of abuse of power and coercion of a public servant over the veto threat. He has said the indictment was politically motivated and an attack on his constitutional right as governor to veto.

The same right, that is, invoked when Perry rejected the Texas blind salamander and hundreds of other issues.

But Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury, says the charges are tied to the veto threat, not the veto itself — carried out when Lehmberg refused to step down.

After that veto, Perry said that “I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”

Though the public’s confidence in the blind salamander hasn’t been questioned, in the same customary veto statement, Perry said because the creature dwells only in Hays County it was unworthy of the moniker “State Amphibian of Texas.”

“The official designation of items and objects as much-loved objects of Texas should represent the entire state and not just one region or locality,” the governor said.

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