Texas Comptroller, the State Bureaucrat Who Can Grind Budgets to a Halt

Mar 3, 2014

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 it?

"No that's the argument right, is do you pronounce it controller or comptroller," UT Law School professor Hugh Brady says.

OK. Pronunciation aside, what does the office do?

Despite heated primary campaigning to the contrary, the office has nothing to do with abortion legislation or gun rights. 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."

And 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 controller 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. And thereby is seals the fate of legislation going through," former state lawmaker Arlene Wohlgemuth says.

And 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 it was almost $186 million dollars short. She changed her mind a couple of days later, after several cuts were made. But it was a stunning example of how one office could grind the entire legislative process to a halt.