As the Texas Legislature barrels toward its Memorial Day finish, Gov. Rick Perry gets more powerful by the hour.
That power is tied to Perry's veto pen and his demonstrated willingness to wield it like a sledge hammer over his 12 years as governor -- whether warning lawmakers not to pass certain bills or simply crossing the legislation off after they leave town.
Lawmakers, who are in a scramble to pass their bills in the session's final days, almost universally say Perry is aggressive in using one of his strongest constitutional powers to shape legislation and state policy in what could be his final full session as governor. He has not yet declared if he will run for a fourth full term in 2014.
"It's his legacy (at stake)," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat and a veteran of 26 years in the Legislature who has had her share of bills wiped out by the stroke of a pen. "What he does now could be tied to him forever."
Perry kept a low profile during the first months of this session but has emerged as a force in the last few weeks, most notably in 11th-hour budget negotiations in which he has pushed for nearly $2 billion in tax cuts and made veiled threats of a budget veto if lawmakers tried to raise fees to pay for transportation.
Perry's actions through the years have taught legislators and lobbyists to listen when the v-word gets mentioned. Perry has vetoed more than 260 bills since taking office and used his line-item veto power over the state budget to slash billions in spending.
He made an early impression in June 2001, vetoing more than 80 bills in what became known at the Capitol as the "Father's Day Massacre." Through the years he has vetoed such measures as a $35 billion public education budget and a ban on executing mentally disabled inmates.
Perry's 2001 "massacre" laid down a marker that he would use his constitutional authority as he saw fit, said Tom Banning, a registered lobbyist and chief executive of the Teas Academy of Family Physicians.
"He's not bashful about using it," Banning said. "When he says he's going to veto something, he follows through. ... You can't overwhelm him with force and you can't overwhelm him with reason."
Lawmakers say Perry exercises his veto power not just by killing bills but by warning lawmakers they need his approval before passing them. And his threat of a veto can stop a bill in its tracks without even a vote. In 2011, Perry vetoed a bill to prohibit texting while driving. A similar bill passed the House this year, but Zaffirini said the threat of another veto has all but killed it in the Senate this year.
"He can lock down just like the rest of us," said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
One bill seen as a likely veto target this year requires some politically active nonprofits to disclose their major donors. The bill authored by Geren and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, cleared the Legislature on Tuesday despite repeated attempts by conservatives to defeat it.
Geren and Seliger said they haven't been told by the governor's office if Perry will veto it. Perry rarely publicly threatens a veto and the standard line from his press office is that the governor will review all legislation when it gets to his desk.
"We welcome his perspective," Seliger said.
Lawmakers are responsible for much of Perry's veto authority. The Legislature could override a veto if lawmakers were still in the Capitol when Perry moved to strike down a bill. But they generally abdicate that authority by passing most of their bills in the session's final days. Because Perry doesn't have to act on most bills until 20 days after it ends, lawmakers are typically long gone.
A rare showdown between Perry and lawmakers came in 2007 when the Legislature passed a bill overturning his executive order that school-age girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer. Perry could have vetoed the bill but stood down when facing the likelihood that lawmakers would override his decision.
Lawmakers are cautious in the final days of the session about criticizing the governor's use of vetoes with their bills still in the balance.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he has a good working relationship with Perry dating back to the 1980s when both were House members. But even he acknowledged that the threat of a veto hangs over every element of the session's waning days, from bills to Senate confirmation of Perry's political appointments.
"I'm cautious in some of the things I do. Every member has to be," Lucio said. "I would hope we would be given the courtesy as legislators to pass bills we think are necessary. On the other hand, it never hurts to have his support."
Perry has thwarted plenty of Zaffirini's efforts, including a bill in 2009 that would have expanded full-day prekindergarten. But she said lawmakers should not be cowed by Perry's power.
"That's his job, that's his authority. Ours is to pass legislation," Zaffirini said. "I've never backed off a bill because he'll veto it."