Whoever Wins in November, Texas Gets a Weaker Governor. Here's Why.

Mar 3, 2014

1876. It was a time of rebirth in Texas. Or maybe more precisely – time to get rid of those Reconstruction-era carpetbaggers.

"When the North sent folks down to Texas to govern as governors, Texans felt like these king-like people came down from the North and ran roughshod," says Sherri Greenberg with the LBJ School of Public Affairs. "So Texans wrote the Texas Constitution, this very populist document with as much power as possible vested in the people and at the lowest, most local, level of government."

UT Law Professor Hugh Brady notes decentralizing government power was a broader trend across the country in the 1800’s. "Now the constitution says the governor is the chief executive officer of the state of Texas, but what does that mean?" Brady asks. "And for over 100 years it meant very little."

But even with those constraints, there's plenty a governor can do. Former state budget writer Talmadge Heflin offers a rundown:

  • Calling the Texas Legislature into special session: "When there's a need for a special session," Heflin says, "the governor has the responsibility of calling that and of setting the agenda."
  • Writing a budget: "The strength of the governor … when it comes to the budget is that there's line item veto power," Heflin says. That veto threat means lawmakers can't get a budget past the governor that he or she doesn't support, "because the governor can veto large chunks of the budget, and then call a special session to have them write it all over."
  • Appointment power: "Many of the powers of the governor … come from the responsibility of appointing many, many positions within state government, within [state] agencies," Heflin says.

And that appointment power is how current Gov. Rick Perry transformed the office from weak to strong.

Even after a 1972 constitutional amendment lengthened the governor's term four years, that still meant any governor would have to serve at least two terms just to appoint enough people to start gaining controlling percentages of various state boards. But stay in office 13 years like Gov. Perry has, and eventually, you’ve made every single appointment to every single board.

That means when Perry leaves office, he takes that power with him. No matter who replaces him – Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis – they won't have the same strength.