Why Texas' Next Governor Will Be Weaker Than the Current One

Oct 20, 2014

Early voting for the November election starts today. And to arm you with information before you head to the polls, KUT's Nathan Bernier and political reporter Ben Philpott have been highlighting the candidates in a few key state-wide races, and letting you know just what the offices they're running for can and can't do.

Nathan: So, I guess we've saved the best for last: let's talk about the governor's race and have a quick rundown of the governor's powers, as well.

Ben: The Texas governor is traditionally considered to be a weak office. And there's a reason for that. When Texans were writing up their constitution after the civil war, the LBJ school's Sherri Greenberg says they were eager to limit any and all powers of any so-called carpetbaggers from reconstruction.

"So when 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," Greenberg said.

Of course, it wasn't just Texas. Decentralizing government power was a broader trend across the country in the 1800’s. And that action in Texas left us with what's considered a weak governor.

Nathan: So what can the Texas governor do?

Ben: Well, lots of things -- although they might seem small. The governor is the only person who can call lawmakers into a special session. We've seen Governor Perry use that power fairly often in his 13-year tenure. The governor is required to produce a budget for the legislative session. Although that budget is traditionally ignored by lawmakers.

Nathan: But the governor does have line item veto power over the finished budget, correct?

Ben: Yes, and that's a strong power. The governor can use veto threats to get the budget and other bills written to his or her liking. And then there's the most important power a governor has: "Appointing many, many positions within state government, within agencies," former state lawmaker and budget writer Talmadge Heflin says.

And there's how current Governor Rick Perry transformed the office from "weak" to "strong". The state constitution sets the term for appointed state agency board members to 6 years. Governors only have a 4-year term. But stay in office 13 years, like Governor Perry has, and eventually, you’ve made every single appointment to every single board. Which means when he leaves office, he takes that power with him. No matter who replaces him.

Nathan: So who is trying to replace him?

Ben: Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis are the top two candidates. Davis gained national fame from an 11-hour filibuster of a new law regulating abortion facilities in 2013. That bill was then re-filed during a special session and passed.

But the event brought thousands of people to the Texas Capitol and kick started her campaign for Governor. She's running on infrastructure investment, like increased spending on roads, schools and water.

But as she's been running from behind throughout the race, she's also had to be on the attack against Abbott. She's tried to paint the Attorney General as someone who has taken large donations from special interests and then ruled or defended in those groups favor on court cases. Then last week she released an attack ad that specifically talked about the accident that paralyzed Abbott.

Davis has been criticized for the ad, but hasn't backed down from it.

Nathan: So what about Attorney General Abbott? What's his campaign focused on?

Ben: Well, first of all, he's pointed to his disability to show his strength of character and ability to overcome adversity. During a speech when he launched his campaign, he said he would not waver when things got tough, because he actually has a steel spine.

In terms of policies, he's pushing for changes in the state’s education system, limited state spending, border security, and a continued opposition of all things connected with President Obama. In fact, while most of his campaign ads have been positive, his latest one does go on the attack as it connects Davis with the President.

Nathan: Getting tied to the President isn’t a good thing here in Texas?

Ben:  Nope, although just being called a Democrat has been enough to keep you from winning in Texas over the last couple of decades.

Nathan: Well, that leads into my next question. Any chance Davis is going to reverse that trend this year?

Ben: People do the voting, so I'll leave that up to them. Groups like Battleground Texas, which wants to make the state competitive for Democrats, says it's made contact with 5 million voters leading up to this election. If half of those people voted for Davis, that would make this a very very close election. But, until we actually have a close election, this is a red state…and Abbott is considered the front runner.