Perry Takes Heat for Spending Record as Campaign Surges

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As Texas Gov. Rick Perry surges to the front of the polls on a message of fiscal discipline, some conservatives are coming out of the woodwork to claim the governor's track record on spending is nothing to get behind.

The criticism is an example of the heightened scrutiny Perry can expect as he goes from water-tester to front-runner in the Republican presidential race. In statements and web videos, groups have sharply questioned Perry's record on fiscal discipline, pointing among other things to a massive road construction project as well as his residence in a rental mansion estimated to cost taxpayers $10,000 per month.

Responding to the pushback, campaign spokesman Mark Miner said Perry is a "strong conservative who has a record of balancing budgets without raising (taxes), streamlining government, creating jobs and making the Texas economy one of the strongest economies in the country."

The Texas chapter of the Republican Liberty Caucus this month said it was putting together a "dossier" of Perry low-lights from his tenure as Texas governor.

For starters, the group criticized his state's Texas Enterprise Fund -- a project that has offered millions of dollars to businesses to lure them to the state or help them grow. It is cited as one of the drivers of job creation in Texas, but the Liberty Caucus described it as a "slush" fund.

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The group also criticized Perry for his role in backing the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed 4,000-mile network of toll roads and rail meant to accommodate Texas' growing population and expanded trade with Mexico. The project has since been shelved, but not before the governor and other supporters were slammed for contracting with a Spanish company and for backing a plan that would have likely required the state to use eminent domain to seize local property.

"Perry has never met a toll road project he wasn't willing to seize huge amounts of private land for and then give the exclusive management contracts to foreign corporations," the RLC said in a statement, urging the public not to be fooled "by campaign hype."

The RLC is a national group formed mainly by libertarians and libertarian-leaning Republicans two decades ago. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who is also running for the nomination, is one of many board members for the group.

Another budding group, America Cannot Afford Rick Perry, has a similar message. Michael DeMatteo, director of the group, described Perry as "the flavor of the moment."

The organization, which is trying to form a PAC, is looking to launch a series of web videos and potentially go on air in local markets. DeMatteo, a senior at George Mason University in Virginia, started his group with other students this year, though it has since expanded.

Its first video questioned Perry's record on fiscal discipline, pointing to the Trans-Texas Corridor as well as his residence in a rental mansion estimated to cost taxpayers $10,000 per month.

DeMatteo said his concern is that Perry may be too flawed to win.

"We cannot afford to have basically another four years of a Bush clone or somebody who can't win in a general election," he said. "We don't want to see somebody who has a good stump speech but is unable to govern -- we've seen that with Obama."

The mansion controversy may pop up frequently. Another group, Texans Against Perry, which is tied to Democratic groups, has also tried to draw attention to the home's price tag. Records obtained last year by The Associated Press showed the rental mansion was costing more than $10,000 month -- with rent, utilities and upkeep included.

The first family moved into the home in 2007 while the state capital's more than 150-year-old governor's mansion was undergoing repairs. But in 2008, the official mansion was severely damaged in an arson attack, prolonging the amount of time it would take to restore the building.

Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner claimed there was nothing out of the ordinary with the governor's living arrangements.

"Unfortunately, the historic Texas governor's (residence) was fire-bombed by an arsonist several years ago and is currently being rebuilt," he said in an email to "The Governor and First Lady have lived with the same accommodations as Texas first families before them, a decision that has long been entrusted to the legislature to determine, and he will continue to leave such decisions up to them."

Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said the criticism of Perry's fiscal record is bogus. He said Perry was able to generate revenue by growing the base while keeping tax rates low -- just like a fiscal conservative should. Policies like tort reform and the enterprise fund and slim regulation helped bring jobs to the state, he said.

"The end result of that is we have a vibrant economy that yields enough revenue that you're able to then fund some projects that may be outside of your normal services -- so long as you save money at the same time, who can argue with that?" he said.

Munisteri said the Republican Liberty Caucus may have a "little bit of an agenda," considering its ties to Paul. As for other groups emerging, he dismissed them as "two guys in a garage" putting up a video on the Internet.

Perry's popularity suggests he may be more than the "flavor of the moment." Polls out of South Carolina, a key early-primary state, have Perry leading by double digits. Likewise, a national poll released Monday showed Perry leading the Republican field by 13 points.

He also just secured an endorsement from conservative Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe.

Shortly after he announced, Perry had a bit of a clash with ex-members of the George W. Bush administration. Bush adviser Karl Rove, as well as ex-spokesman Tony Fratto, criticized Perry for making some tough comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. As Perry tried to distance himself from Bush, who preceded him as Texas governor, Rove accused him of being ungrateful.

But while some fret about Perry's aptitude on the national stage, he's become a favorite of Tea Party-aligned voters. A Gallup poll last week showed 35 percent of Tea Partiers support Perry, more than any other candidate. A new Rasmussen poll showed 73 percent of Tea Party activists shared the governor's enthusiasm for smaller federal government.

That popularity could translate into serious campaign cash. A new report Tuesday estimated he's already signed up hundreds of campaign bundlers tasked with raising as much as $500,000 apiece.