Most people just assume that the Texas Governor is a very powerful position, but
compared to other governors around the nation, it is a fairly weak office. This weakness
can be traced back to the Reconstruction era, the period immediately following the Civil
War. In 1869, Radical Republicans and Union Army officers wrote a Constitution for the
state of Texas, and this document created an extremely powerful governor. Edmund
Davis, a union army officer, was the first governor under the 1869 Constitution, and he
was more than willing to use his dominant position to enforce reconstruction laws.
Needless to say, former Confederates and many Texans hated Davis and the power of his
office. After Reconstruction ended and the union army went home, old Texans scrapped
the 1869 Constitution and wrote the 1876 Constitution, and this document stripped the
governor of much of his power. Today, our current governors still live in the shadow of
Reconstruction, hampered by a document written over 130 years ago under very different
The 1876 Constitution created a plural executive structure. In a plural executive,
the governor is but one of several elected officials (Lt. Governor, Comptroller, Attorney
General, Agriculture Commissioner, Land Commissioner, Railroad Commissioner) who
share power in the executive branch. Power is highly decentralized and spread out to
several different officials, which prevents the governor from having too much power, but
it also prevents the governor from effectively doing his job. The writers of the 1876
version knew this, but they were so suspicious of the potential power of government that
they made a choice; it is better to have a weak and ineffective governor than a powerful
and effective governor. The governor that governs least governs best. Talk about
Compare a plural executive to a single executive structure. The President of the
United States operates under a single executive, where power is centralized around one
person, and all power and authority flows from this one person. The president selects
high-ranking officials in the US government (such as the US Attorney General), and he
can remove many of them from office. In Texas, the voters select high-ranking
government officials independently oft the Governor, and the Governor cannot remove
them from office. If you can’t hire or fire your subordinates, you don’t have much power
TEXAS EXECUTIVE BRANCH
The Lt. Governor is one of the most powerful positions in state government, and
many Texas political insiders and pundits believe that the Lt. Governor’s power is equal
to or greater than the Governor. Since the Lt. Governor is elected separately from the
Governor, he has his own base of power and authority. Contrast that with the President
and Vice President of the United States. They are elected on the same ticket; and the
President generally hand picks the Vice Presidential candidate before they even run for
election. The Vice President has no independent base of authority; he owes everything to
the President, whereas the Lt. Governor owes nothing to the Governor.
The Lt. Governor presides over the Texas Senate, and the Texas Senate rules
grant a great deal of legislative and procedural power to the Lt. Governor. Here are some
of the more important powers:
1) Sets the schedule for debating bills
2) Appoints committee chairs and conference committees
3) Appoints committee members
4) Co-Chair of the Legislative Budget Board
5) Refer bills to committee
These powers are discussed in detail in Chapter 20, but it is worth a brief summary.
Basically, every member of the Senate owes something to the Lt. Governor (committee
position, committee chairmanship), and they can be removed from these positions if they
defy him. The Lt. Governor also controls the flow of legislation by controlling the
calendar or agenda. It is very easy to put a bill at the top or the bottom of the agenda,
insuring that it will pass or making sure it gets killed. Finally, the Legislative Budget
Board has a big impact on state spending.
The Texas Attorney General (AG) is mostly a civil office, even though candidates
for AG want the voters to believe that it is the state’s top crime fighting position. In
truth, each county’s district attorney is responsible for fighting crime and throwing the
bad guys in jail. The AG is mostly content to engage in consumer protection and
tracking down people who do not pay their child support. The AG also issues opinions
and interpretations of laws passed by the Texas legislature, and these interpretations are
binding unless overturned by the Texas Supreme Court.
Even though it is not a crime fighting office, the AG is nevertheless elected
independently and separately from the Governor, giving the AG great freedom. In 1997,
Attorney General Dan Morales filed suit against the tobacco companies and won a large
settlement. Morales pursued this case even though then Governor George Bush opposed
the action. Only in a plural executive structure could that happen.
The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts is the state’s chief tax collector. She
is responsible for auditing and making sure all business and local governments collect
and pay their taxes on time and in an accurate manner. As the top tax cop, the
comptroller also creates the revenue forecast for the Texas Legislature. Basically, she
tells the legislature how much money they can spend over the next two-year budget cycle
(the 2007-2008 budget was $150 billion). Of course, the legislature can spend that
money as they see fit, but they cannot exceed or go over the cap. Texas requires a
balanced budget, and the legislature cannot borrow money or go into debt, so the
comptroller can have a significant impact on state spending. Like the AG, the
comptroller is also elected separately.
The Texas Commissioner of the General Land Office (a.k.a. Land Commissioner)
is in charge of oversight of all state-owned lands. That sounds trivial to some, but there
is a large amount of oil and natural gas pumped from state-owned lands. Whenever a
private oil or gas company extracts energy from the ground, they must pay a fee or
royalty to the state of Texas. The Land Commissioner makes sure that millions of dollars
in fees and royalties go into several education funds. Texas’ public schools are funded by
the Permanent School Fund (PSF); Texas A&M and the University of Texas receive
funds from the Permanent University Fund (PUF), and other colleges and state
universities get benefits from the Higher Education Assistance Fund (HEAF). Strangely
enough, the Land Commissioner can do a lot for education.
The Texas Agriculture Commissioner is responsible for the promotion and
regulation of the farming and agribusiness sectors in Texas. You might see the Ag
Commissioner in a foreign country arranging deals to buy Texas beef or rice. Oddly
enough, the Ag Commissioner regulates all weights and measuring devices in the state,
including the gas pump at your local gas station. You should see an inspection seal with
the Ag Commissioner’s name stamped on it, which helps build name recognition when
they are running for re-election.
Texas also has two elected state boards, the Railroad Commission and the Board
of Education. The RR Commission has 3 members elected statewide for 6 year terms,
but most of their work is devoted to regulating the oil and natural gas industry, while very
little of their work actually goes to oversight of railroads. Most railroad regulation has
been taken over by the federal government, but we still keep the RR commission around.
The Texas Board of Education is a 15-member board with each member elected by
districts. They oversee teacher certification and the selection of textbooks for the public
schools. Recent controversies on the board include the selection of science textbooks
(evolution versus intelligent design) and the selection of health textbooks (abstinence
only versus birth control).
In each of these various offices, you will probably notice that the officials try to
use their office to establish name recognition for an eventual run for higher office. For
example, Governor Rick Perry started in the state legislature, was then elected Ag
Commissioner, and then Lt. Governor. The current Lt. Governor, David Dewhurst, was
previously Land Commissioner. Our state Comptroller is Susan Combs, who previously
served as Ag Commissioner. Clearly, these lower offices are seen as stepping-stones to
higher offices like Governor or US Senator.
POWERS OF THE GOVERNOR
The Governor’s budgetary powers are limited, especially when compare to the
President or governors of other states. The President, and most governors, submits a
budget proposal to Congress or the state legislature, and the proposal serves as a
bargaining chip when spending decisions are worked out. In Texas, state executive
agencies submit their budget requests directly to the Legislative Budget Board, which is
run by the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Of
course, the Governor can veto the budget after it is written, but the Governor is often an
afterthought when the budget is formed in the first place.
However, the Governor’s veto power can be significant. Just like the President,
the Governor has 10 days to either sign or veto a bill when the legislature is in session. If
he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetoes it, then the legislature can try to override it, but
that requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature, a tough number to crack.
This forces the legislature to bargain and deal with the Governor to make sure their bills
are not killed. So, the threat of a veto gives the Governor significant leverage. If the
Governor fails to sign or veto a bill within 10 days, it becomes law anyway.
When the legislature is out of session, the Governor has 20 days to act. The
legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, and they tend to pass most of their
bills in the last week of the session, so the state Constitution gives the Governor some
extra time to mull over the piles of bills that reach his desk. Again, he can sign the bill,
veto the bill, or do nothing. If he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetoes it, it is basically
dead, as the legislature is not in session to override the veto. (I doubt the Governor
would call the legislature back into a special session just to override his vetoes). Finally,
if he does nothing, the bill becomes law. Unlike the President, the Governor does not
have a pocket veto. Any failure to act on a bill allows to bill to become law.
The most significant veto power that belongs to the Governor is the line-item
veto. This allows the Gov to veto parts/lines of the state budget while signing the rest of
the budget into law. The Governor can pick the parts of the bill he does not like and kill
them, while allowing his other preferences to become law. Since the legislature is not in
session when the Governor signs the budget, they are unable to override the vetoes. It
should also be noted that the President does not have a line item veto. He must sign or
veto an entire bill, which makes it easier for Congress to load up the federal budget with
unnecessary spending and silly projects. The state legislature does not have that luxury.
The Gov also exercises power over the state bureaucracy. Just as the federal
bureaucracy has 1.8 million employees, the Texas bureaucracy has roughly 140,000 state
employees, and various state boards and commissions oversee these agencies. The
Governor makes roughly 2200 appointments to these various boards and commissions,
and most positions are filled by the Governor’s political supporters. Here are a few
1) Board of Pardons and Paroles
2) Higher Education Coordinating Board
3) Public Safety and Criminal Justice
4) Health and Human Services
5) Professional License Boards (Barbers, Doctors, Lawyers, etc.)
Of course, not all executive agencies fall directly under the Governor’s authority.
Many executive functions fall under the Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, Land
Commissioner, Comptroller, and Railroad Commission. It is very difficult to run
agencies that do not fall under your direct supervision, and this further weakens the
There are even more limitations on the power to make appointments. All board
and commission replacements must be approved by a 2/3 vote in the Texas Senate, but if
the Governor wants to fire or remove a board member, it also must be approved by a 2/3
vote in the Texas Senate. If you can’t fire people, it is difficult to control and direct
them. Furthermore, board members serve staggered 6-year terms, so a new Governor
will only be able to appoint 1/3 of any given board in their first year in office. A
Governor would have to get reelected to second term before he could appoint every
member of a board. This further limits the executive power of the Governor.
Many Texans misunderstand the pardon power of the Governor. Many students
assume that the Gov can issue pardons (forgiveness) for state crimes just as the President
can issue pardons for federal crimes, but there is a key difference. All pardons must first
be approved by the Texas State Pardons Board before the Governor can act. The Gov
can only issue a pardon if it is first recommended to him by the board. If the board fails
to act, then the Governor cannot even consider a pardon. The origins of the Pardons
Board can be traced to the 1920s, when then Governor Pa Ferguson was accused selling
pardons to bootleggers during Prohibition in exchange for bribes and cash donations.
The Pardons Board was created to stop this from happening again, but it also represented
another limitation on the executive powers of the Governor.
However, the Governor can grant all death row inmates one 30-day reprieve or
delay in their execution. The Governor can then ask the state pardons board to reconsider
their decision, but the board is under no obligation to act. If they fail to act, the execution
will then go forward after 30 days. The reprieve is only a delay, and only one reprieve per
inmate can be issued.
Up to this point, it is pretty clear that the Governor has fairly limited executive
authority, with the exception of the line item veto. On the other hand, the Governor is not
limited in the number of terms he/she can serve. Unlike the President and many other
state governors, there are no term limits in Texas. Governor Perry assumed the office of
Governor in 2000, was reelected in 2002, and reelected again in 2006. Nothing in the
state Constitution prevents him from seeking another term in 2010. He probably will not
but the ability to seek office continually forces the legislature to deal with him. If Perry
were required to leave office in 2010, the legislature would ignore him and his lame duck
status. Compare Perry to President Bush. Presidents tend to be very weak in their 7th and
8th year, as they cannot seek reelection.
The office of Texas Governor needs to be strengthened. It probably made sense
in 1876 to have a weak office, but the realities of the 21st century require a strong
Governor. When the voters elect a person to this office, they need to know that this
person has the tools necessary to do the job. One possible reform is the creation of a
single executive where all state agencies report directly to the Governor. Rather than
electing the AG, Land Commissioner, Ag Commissioner, Railroad Commissioner and
Comptroller separately, they should be appointed by the Governor. The Gov should also
have to power to remove their appointees. The Presidency works very well in a single
executive, cabinet style system; there is no reason to think this model would not work in
The voters need to know who is in charge, and they need to hold someone
accountable for the successes and failures of government. If there are six separate elected
officials and 2 statewide elected boards, it is very difficult for the public to know who is
responsible for the actions of state government. Elected officials make the problem
worse by publicly blaming other elected officials when things go wrong. In a single
executive, there is no one to blame but the Governor and the state legislature. The
writers of the 1876 Texas Constitution felt that a plural executive would keep the
Governor in line, but that is outdated thinking. The legislature can easily provide the
necessary checks and balances on the Governor.
*This material is the intellectual property of Steven Showalter, government professor at Lee College. It is
only available for the use of my American Government students.