Why is the Lieutenant Governor the Most Powerful Office in Texas? And Who Wants That Power?

Oct 16, 2014

Early voting starts Monday for the November 4th election. And to help you head to the polls with as much information as possible, KUT's Nathan Bernier and political reporter Ben Philpott have been giving you a rundown of some of the state's key races, along with telling you just what the offices in question actually do.

Today, they talk about the office that some people say is the most powerful one in the state of Texas: the lieutenant governor.

Ben: So here's what a lieutenant governor can do, and why those powers are considered so important. First up, the lieutenant governor gets to be governor if the governor dies and even if the governor just leaves the state for a few days.

The Texas Constitution says you can't be the governor of Texas when you're not physically in the state. So when Governor Rick Perry was on the road hitting several national news programs last week, current Lt. Governor David Dewhurst was acting governor. So that's nice, but according to the LBJ School's Sherri Greenberg, it'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," Greenberg said.

So that doesn't really appear so powerful at first glance, but remember every bill has to come through a Senate Committee before it gets a final vote. Getting passed by the Senate is tough enough. But it's impossible if your bill never gets out of committee. Which makes the Lt. Governor's power to pick where to send a bill very important.

"Well, he can always send it over here you know to [the] State Affairs [committee] where he's stacked it with his friends, instead of over to say, [the] Health and Human Services [committee], where maybe he doesn't have as many friends," says former UT School of Law Legislative Lawyering Clinic director Hugh Brady said.

The lieutenant governor still has power over a bill even if it makes it out of committee. They decide when a bill comes up for a vote, and when to recognize a senator for any floor action.

So, lots of power. But, power that isn't dictated by the Texas Constitution or even state law. And can be taken away easily by state senators.

"If the members were to choose to make them less powerful, they could do so," the LBJ School's Greenberg says.

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?

Nathan: And I guess that question won't really be answered until voters decide who's going to be in that chair in the Senate. Ben, tell us a little about the candidates.

Ben: Well, the top two are Republican State Senator Dan Patrick and Democratic State Senator Leticia van de Putte.

Let's start with the Republican. Patrick defeated current Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and others in a crowded GOP primary field. His top priority, according to most of his campaign ads: securing the Texas border with Mexico.

Nathan: Tough talk from Patrick, but hasn't his border rhetoric gotten some negative publicity, too?

Ben: Yes, during the GOP primary a few prominent Hispanic Republicans and business leaders came out either against Patrick, or at the least, concerned that his campaign could be a step back for the state Republican party's goal of trying to bring more Hispanics to the party.

More recently, in a Dallas Morning News endorsement of Senator Van de Putte, the editorial board said Patrick's primary governing tools are "fear and division." But, it's also a message that the Tea Party likes. And right now, that's the main block of voters driving the Republican party.

Nathan: Now, you said he was criticized during the GOP primary, has he modified his message in the general election?

Ben: Yes, he has, really until that ad about ISIS coming across the border, he has focused much more on his proposals for cutting taxes and limiting state spending.

He's been really pushing the idea of cutting property taxes, and making up some of that lost revenue with increased sales taxes, although he hasn't offered a detailed plan yet on just how he'd do that, since the state isn't collecting the property taxes in the first place. That's done by local governments and school districts.

Nathan: So what about his opponent, Senator Van de Putte?

Ben: Van de Putte has tried to capitalize on any concerns more moderate and traditional business Republicans have with Patrick. She's pushed her work with veterans in the Texas Senate and highlighted her goals to invest in state infrastructure like water, transportation and education. Something chambers of commerce like to hear…and spending she says Senator Patrick has not supported in the past.

Nathan: Ok, Ben, so who's ahead going into early voting.

Ben: Well, I feel like I'm sounding like a broken record this week…but, as with the Attorney General and Comptroller races, this is a red state. And polls show Patrick with a lead.