Texas Comptroller, The State Bureaucrat Who Can Grind Budgets To A Halt

Jan 22, 2018

The Texas Legislature writes the state budget. The governor signs it into law. But with a single action, the Texas comptroller can kill the entire appropriations process.

But before we get to that, let's start with the real burning issue: How do you pronounce comptroller? Do you pronounce it controller or comptroller?

The name, job description and spelling originally come from England. The full title there is Comptroller General of the Receipt and Issue of Her Majesty's Exchequer and Auditor General of Public Accounts.

Anyway, Texas started using it and pronounces it with the P.

"It's really what side of the Red River you're on is how you pronounce it," says UT Law School Professor Hugh Brady.

OK, pronunciation aside, what does the office do?

The simple answer: The office deals with the state's money.

Former state representative and budget writer Talmadge Heflin knows a thing or two about the comptroller’s office. He’s calls the comptroller the chief financial officer of the state.

Obviously, watching the state's bank account is a big part of it. That includes the same kind of accounts receivables/accounts payables operations you'd find at a large corporation.

"Tax collector is one of the major duties of the comptroller's office," Heflin says. "And then also policing that collection. If people are not paying their taxes, they actually have police power."

Then there's the role the office plays in spending that money. The comptroller doesn't write bills, or usually lobby for or against legislation. Rather, by just talking about what a bill costs, the comptroller can have a dramatic effect on what gets passed – and what doesn’t.

"If the comptroller likes a piece of legislation they can show that it saves the state money. And if they don't like a piece of legislation, often they can show that it costs government money," former state lawmaker Arlene Wohlgemuth says, and thereby seal "the fate of legislation going through,"

Then there's the comptroller's role in the biggest, most important bill of the legislative session: the state budget. In 2003, then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn refused to sign off on the budget because, according to her, the state was short almost $186 million to pay for it. After lawmakers made several cuts, she gave it her stamp of approval. But it was a stunning example of how one office could grind the entire legislative process to a halt.