Back to Basics, the political committee that's poured money into ads critical of GOP Gov. Rick Perry, reminds Texans of Hurricane Ike in a TV spot linking hurricane aid to the reconstruction of the Governor's Mansion, which was heavily damaged in a 2008 arson fire.
Perry, the narrator says, "doesn't want to explain why he took money away from hurricane victims."
Say what? "Here's what he did," the narrator says in the ad that debuted online Oct. 13. "After begging for federal hurricane aid, Perry is taking millions of it to remodel the Governor's Mansion so he can move in faster. Diverting disaster funds for himself."
In an online post, Back to Basics says the claim that Perry's taking millions in hurricane aid is based in part on a May 2009 news article in The Houston Chronicle and an Oct. 2, 2010, column by humorist John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman.
The Chronicle article said state lawmakers at that time were poised to spend $11 million in federal stimulus funds on mansion repairs.
But stimulus money did not get allocated to the mansion project after all. Rather, as Kelso's recent column says, about "half of the money for the mansion project originated as money that the feds provided to Texas to reimburse the state for its upfront emergency expenses for Hurricane Ike. Follow the money: $11 million from the feds was shuffled from the Department of Public Safety to the State Preservation Board to help pay for the $22 million mansion remodel."
The spending directive, House Bill 4586, was unanimously approved by the 2009 Legislature and signed into law by Perry. It authorizes up to $11 million in "reimbursements received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency" to be spent on "costs associated with the restoration of the Governor's Mansion."
Separately, a Sept. 24 American-Statesman news article -- which Back to Basics refers to at the start of its ad -- quotes John Sneed, executive director of the State Preservation Board, saying that because the $11 million earmarked for mansion repair was federal aid, the mansion repair project wasn't hit by the 5 percent budget reduction state leaders (including Perry) have sought from agencies. (Sneed told us in an interview that he never termed the money federal aid; rather, he said, he said it was reimbursement money.)
Takeaway: Legislators and Perry agreed to spend $11 million in federal reimbursements for hurricane assistance on mansion repairs.
But is that Perry taking aid away from hurricane victims to hurry the mansion work?
To gauge that, we followed the money.
For starters, we learned, the Texas Department of Public Safety spent state dollars responding to Hurricane Ike, which lashed Texas in September 2008. It appears that its spending was later covered by a transfer of $145 million from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. In a February 2009 letter, leaders including Perry authorized the transfer of HHSC funds to the DPS "for the purpose of reimbursing emergency preparedness and response expenses incurred as a result of Hurricane Ike." The letter says the funds were available because the federal government failed to approve the state's waiver request for an effort to help low-income working Texans obtain private health coverage.
DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange told us via e-mail that the DPS has spent nearly $106 million reimbursing vendors, cities and counties for Hurricane Ike expenses, while also returning $25 million to the HHSC. Mange said about $112 million has been set aside by FEMA to cover expenses the federal agency decides are eligible for reimbursement.
Big picture: State spends more than $100 million in state money on hurricane. Federal government covers eligible expenditures--and state lawmakers earmark some of that reimbursement money for the mansion work.
As we explored this history, we realized the ticklish issue for the Republican-led Legislature and Perry may have been the spectre of spending federal aid appropriated by the Democratic-controlled Congress with the support of the Democratic president, Barack Obama, on the mansion occupied by the Republican governor. Hence, Texas legislators dropped the idea of spending stimulus aid on the mansion project.
State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, recently acknowledged as much. In an Oct. 5 interview with the American-Statesman editorial board, Ogden said: "We didn't want to basically hard-wire (the mansion funding) in such a way that critics could say you used federal funds to rebuild the mansion. So we moved the money around."
Allen Spelce, spokesman for the Texas state comptroller's office, told us the $11 million is considered state revenue because it made up for state-originated expenditures. Spelce pointed out too that the 2010-11 state budget shows no federal money going to the preservation board; its budget has two entries referring to the $11 million for the mansion work as general revenue, meaning state money.
"It's different," Spelce told us, "than if this was some kind of federal grant, which is typically what you think of when you talk about federal funds."
Katherine Cesinger, Perry's deputy press secretary, echoed Spelce, saying: "It's not being utilized for disasters, it's a reimbursement. You're splitting hairs here."
We ran these interpretations past Back to Basics, whose executive director, Cliff Walker, insisted that the federal aid being used on the mansion was "originally intended to go toward reimbursement of those local communities and the public-assistance first responders" who helped victims of the hurricane. He also sent an e-mail stressing Sneed's September reference to the $11 million as federal aid.
"As federal hurricane public assistance funds, then why have these dollars been used for the mansion? FEMA makes it clear that public assistance dollars are to be used to rebuild communities," Walker said. He referred us to a FEMA web page on the agency's Public Assistance Grant Program, which it says "provides supplemental federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities and the facilities of certain Private Non-Profit (PNP) organizations."
Our attempts to explore this with FEMA didn't yield an immediate interview.
Our take: Whether the FEMA reimbursements to Texas amount to federal aid or not, the statement that Perry is "taking money away from hurricane victims" and diverting it to the mansion project is wrong on two fronts. First, FEMA set aside the money to cover agency costs already incurred in response to the hurricane; no victims are bereft as a result, far as we can tell. Secondly, the assignment of the funds to the mansion work was made by state lawmakers; Perry didn't earmark any money alone.
We rate the statement False.