Thursday, July 30, 2009

Perry Living Large by HG Ratcliffe

AUSTIN — On the dollars of taxpayers and wealthy donors, Gov. Rick Perry — reared amid the cotton fields of West Texas — gets to live the life of the rich and famous, traveling the world meeting captains of industry, sports stars and royalty.

The taxpayers shell out $108,000 a year to rent him an estate west of Austin, and they spend another $168,000 on chefs, stewards and housekeepers for the Perrys' creature comforts.

Piano maestro Van Cliburn once played at the Governor's Mansion for first lady Anita Perry's birthday. Dallas aerobics guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper once gave the governor free medical tests. Expensive gifts to Perry have included 16 pairs of custom-made boots, a pair of spurs, hunting trips, sports tickets and a football helmet signed by former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith.

The perks of being governor are not unusual across the nation, and in many states, governors such as Perry are also the de facto heads of state business recruitment.

Wealthy donors and corporate-funded foundations, for example, have flown Perry to the Bahamas for scuba diving; to Paris, Rome and Dubai for business promotion; and to San Diego, Calif., for the one-time Texas A&M yell leader to attend an Aggie Muster for A&M graduates.

There was a trip to Istanbul for the Bilderberg conference, hosted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. A trip to the Middle East had on its schedule meetings with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jordan's King Abdullah and a “breathtaking sunset cruise on the Red Sea.”

Perry, who took office in 2000, said in a recent interview with the San Antonio Express-News that his only motivation as governor is to affect public policy: “This is not about me. It's not about whatever the people would perceive as the perks of being governor. ... I get to go do a job every day that makes a difference in people's lives. I find that very satisfying.”

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said the governor's amenities are like those of previous governors and other governors across the country.

“Texas is the 10th-largest economy in the world. We're the No. 1 exporting state. We have an economy that is an economic powerhouse,” Castle said. “Carrying that message to other countries, other leaders, business leaders, state leaders is an important mission.”

The Governor's Mansion was a combination museum and full-time residence until the Perrys moved to a 4,602-square-foot house rented by the state for $9,000 a month while the official mansion underwent renovations. The mansion subsequently was hit by an unsolved arson last year.

Dinner for donors

Perry's campaign account pays the state between $3,000 and $17,000 a month to cover expenses for events ranging from hosting a holiday reception for the Capitol press corps to luncheons with civic groups such as Ballet Austin.

Dinner at the mansion also has been a reward for Century Club members, people who have donated at least $25,000 to Perry's political account and agreed to raise $100,000. Nearly 95 people attended the 2007 dinner, the last for which a state record exists.

“The governor is living very high on the hog for a farm boy from Paint Creek at taxpayer's expense,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen.

But Perry is far from being the only governor to live in state-provided housing. Most states have an official residence, though some governors such as California's Arnold Schwarzenegger do not live there.

The New York Governor's Mansion is a part-time residence in Albany. Gov. David Paterson got into hot water with his constituents for spending $21,000 on two Turkish rugs for the mansion last year. He also was criticized for spending $19,000 in taxpayer money to attend President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Castle noted that Perry's travel is not paid by taxpayers.

Texas One, a corporate-finance foundation, pays for much of Perry's business development travel. Other travel is paid for by his political committee or campaign donors. And some is financed as in-kind contributions from specific wealthy donors or interest groups.

Scuba diving was on the agenda in a 2004 trip when San Antonio investor James Leininger and beer distributor John Nau and investor Charles Tate, both of Houston, paid $40,400 to fly Rick and Anita Perry and others on private jets to the Bahamas for a trip that included discussions of public education policy.

Houston's Gulf States Toyota owner Thomas Friedkin gave $9,000 in travel to Perry's campaign last year so the governor, his wife and their daughter could spend two days in Key West, Fla., for a fundraiser.

Perry and his wife leave this week for San Diego to raise money for his re-election. They visited that city this time last year, a trip that included a visit to the San Diego Chargers training camp.
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