A Brief History Of Texas' Most Powerful Political Office: Lieutenant Governor

Jan 19, 2018

The Bullock Texas State History Museum, named for Bob Bullock, who helped build the office of lieutenant governor into a political powerhouse.
Credit Teresa Vieira for KUT News

When I moved to Austin in 2002, one of the first things I did to acclimate myself to Texas was visit the Bullock Texas State History Museum

I remember standing on the second floor, staring at the statue of the man whose name was chiseled onto the side of the building. Then I started to read his history on the plaque at the base of the statue to see just how long he'd been governor or U.S. senator.

That's when I discovered Bob Bullock had only been lieutenant governor.

"Lieutenant governor is basically the vice president of the United States," UT Law Professor Hugh Brady says.

"They only thing he has to do is preside over the Texas Senate. And I guess he doesn't even have to do that if he doesn't want to," he says. "But all the lieutenant governors have."

Brady correctly notes that Bob Bullock was no ordinary lieutenant governor. Bullock could move mountains out of that office. But his ability to do so didn't come from any constitutional powers.

"Not at all, it's derived from powers that basically either the senators themselves or the Legislature has given the lieutenant governor," he says.

So, the office can have as much power as a lieutenant governor can squeeze out of the state Senate. But before we get into exactly what those powers can be, let’s take a quick trip back in time to find out how the office came to be known as the most powerful position in Texas politics.

The cultivating of lieutenant governor power actually began back in 1973, when Bill Hobby won the office and stayed nearly 20 years. Hobby came into the office already knowing how to move and manipulate the different levers of government.

He built up a lot of power over two decades. And he left the office strong, giving Bob Bullock all the momentum he needed to make it even stronger. He used his trademark style of demanding – and shall we say, enticing – people to do what he wanted.

"Bullock had been involved in state government for 30 years," Brady says. "And as far as I know, kept a file on everybody he ever shook hands with. So, he certainly knew where the bodies were buried."

Brady says that nearly 30-year run left the office with all the power it needed to be the lead office at the Texas Capitol.

So, what are those powers and why are they considered so important?

First up, the lieutenant governor gets to be governor if the governor dies, or even if the governor just leaves the state for a few days.

The Texas Constitution says you can't be the governor when you're not physically in the state. So, when Gov. Rick Perry was on the road running for president, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (2011-12) was acting governor.

So, that's nice, but LBJ School of Public Affairs professor Sherri Greenberg says that's not where the power of the office lies.

"The lieutenant governor appoints all the committee chairs of the committees in the Senate, determines where the bills are going to be sent and to what committees and the timing. And so this is extremely powerful," she says.

That may not appear so powerful at first glance – but remember every bill has to come through a Senate committee before reaching the floor for a vote. Getting passed by the Senate is tough enough, but it's impossible if your bill never gets out of committee – which makes the lieutenant governor's power to pick where to send a bill very important.

"He can always send it over here – you know, to State Affairs where he's stacked it with his friends – instead of over to say, Health and Human Services, where maybe he doesn't have as many friends," Brady says.

The lieutenant governor still has power over a bill once it makes it out of committee. He or she is the only person who decides when a bill comes up for a vote and when to recognize a senator for any floor action. That's a lot of power. But it's power that, since it's not dictated by the Texas Constitution or even state law, can be taken away easily.

Almost all the lieutenant governor's powers derive from the rules passed by the Senate at the beginning of each legislative session. So, each session starts with a decision by senators: How strong do we want our leader to be?

And if they play their cards right? There's always a chance you might get a museum named after you, too.