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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Perry's Taxpayer-Funded Home Could Pose Political Hazard

 "When Texas has a governor who is more interested in his own house -- his own future -- than our schoolhouses, which are our future, then you know he's been governor too long,"

By Scott Conroy 

One of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's most valuable assets as a potential Republican presidential candidate figures to be his early and emphatic association with the tea party movement, whose cost-cutting principles have dominated the discourse in early primary and caucus states.

But if Perry does enter the race, he is likely to face some uncomfortable questions about his own taxpayer-funded spending habits.

For almost four years, Perry has resided in a lavish rental home tucked into the hills overlooking the capital city of Austin, a house that has been publicly financed to the tune of over $700,000 thus far. At a time when the language of belt-tightening drives grass-roots GOP politics like little else, Perry would likely face scrutiny over whether his personal lifestyle choices befit a candidate who has made vast spending cuts a cornerstone of his platform.

As Texas faced a projected budget shortfall last year, the Associated Press reported that state taxpayers had been billed for almost $600,000 to pay rent, utilities and upkeep on the five-bedroom mansion outside the state capital, which Perry had moved into in the fall of 2007 while renovations were being done on the governor's mansion.

In 2008, a fire that investigators deemed arson partially destroyed the mansion, and Perry has continued to live in the rental home, which is currently valued just north of $1 million, while his official residence continues to be restored.

The AP's 2010 report laid out some of Perry's state-funded expenses on the temporary residence, including $8,400 for maintenance on a heated pool, $1,001 for Neiman Marcus window coverings, and $1,000 for repairs on a filtered ice machine. And in a detail that might be of negligible concern to Texas taxpayers but could make for a convenient talking point for Perry's future GOP opponents, the governor charged the state $70 for a subscription to Food & Wine Magazine at his home.

"We're paying $10,000 a month for it at a time when Texans are facing a massive budget shortfall, and it's irresponsible for Texans to have to pay for his extravagant lifestyle," Texas Democratic Party communications director Kirsten Gray said. "No governor who spends $1,000 in taxpayer money for Neiman Marcus window coverings can call himself a conservative."

The controversy surrounding Perry's pricey rental home could take on added resonance after the governor recently signed a budget that several news reports characterized as having been balanced largely through accounting gimmicks.

Perry spokesperson Mike Miner told RCP that, in fact, "there is no structural deficit" in the state's budget and said that lawmakers were provided an opportunity to scrutinize the appropriateness of Perry's well-appointed rental home during the budget process.

"We just came out of a legislative session where the governor's residence was thoroughly vetted," Miner said. "People throughout Texas are more concerned about balancing the budget without raising taxes, leaving more than $6.5 billion in a rainy day fund, and Texas living within its means. There are not many states that can point to that success, and at the same time, Texas continues to create jobs and continues to be one of the strongest economies in the country."

During his 2010 general election campaign, Perry's Democratic challenger, Bill White, attempted to use the housing issue against the incumbent in a TV ad that juxtaposed the $10,000 a month taxpayers are spending on the home with Texas schools' weak national standing in graduation and test scores.

"When Texas has a governor who is more interested in his own house -- his own future -- than our schoolhouses, which are our future, then you know he's been governor too long," White said in the ad.

But Perry and White never squared off in a debate, and the Democrat was unable to get much traction on the issue. After withstanding a brief period of tightening polls, Perry went on to defeat White by a comfortable 13-point margin.

"That was one of the several negative campaign messages that the White campaign threw out there, and it didn't seem to take, but they also didn't seem to sustain it either," Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, told RCP. "For it to even have a chance of taking, you have to connect it to a narrative and a more substantial frame."

In the context of a national Republican campaign in which ideological purity -- in candidates' public and private lives -- could be placed at a premium leading up to the Iowa caucuses and beyond, Perry may have a more difficult narrative to contend with than the one that White presented.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who figures to be a principal GOP rival to Perry (should he enter the race), learned the perils of intense national scrutiny into her personal finances recently when it was revealed that she had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds in farm subsidies and payments to her husband's mental health clinic.

And when Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was recently weighing a presidential run that he ultimately decided against, he was scrutinized for his use of state-owned airplanes for political trips.

On the other end of the personal frugality spectrum, Mike Huckabee won praise among fiscal conservatives during his 2008 presidential run for his decision to live in a mobile home for 16 months in 2000 while the Arkansas governor's mansion was being renovated.

During a late 2007 fundraising appearance in Austin, Huckabee suggested that Perry, who had just recently moved into the rental home where he still resides, should instead follow his own lead and find a nice trailer to call home. Perry, who at the time was a prominent supporter of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- one of Huckabee's rivals for the GOP nomination -- wasn't having any of it. "Texas ain't Arkansas," Perry said.

Quips like these might have worked well for the Rick Perry of 2007 -- a proud Texan who purported not to have any national ambitions. But in the context of a Republican primary fight conducted amid a fiscal crisis, he may have to come up with a justification beyond his home state's ingrained sense of preeminence.

"A lot of the stuff that he got away with in Texas, you could only get away with as governor of Texas," a national Republican political operative with experience in Texas politics told RCP. "The arrogance argument is going to hurt him. He plays a good ol' boy, but he has a fancy-ass house in a fancy neighborhood."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.
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