Pity Tom Pauken. The Dallas lawyer tapped to head a task force on property tax reform turned in his report in January, with plenty of time for lawmakers to work on it. The governor listed property tax reform as a priority in all of his pre-session interviews with reporters. The Guv mentioned it again in his state of the state speech.Full Story
Rick Perry and George W. Bush are the only recent governors to stay in office long enough to name every member of every board and commission — every appointed official. It takes six straight years in office to go all the way through the batting order, and when a governor is done, it all belongs, for better or for worse, to that governor.
Perry, with longer experience in state government, has a better grip on the strings in the executive branch than Bush — or just about anyone since John Connally was the chief executive. State agencies that aren't headed by elected officials don't do much without making a call to the governor's office, either to ask permission or give a heads-up to this Perry aide or that one. The inward flow of information and outward flow of instruction is stronger with this executive than it's been in a generation.
Rewind 15 or 20 years. The most feared callers at state agencies were legislators, either the budgeteers or the subject matter committee for a particular agency. Agency folk can still get hauled in by a ranking lawmaker, but chances are, they'll call the governor's office on the way in.
What's interesting about the current environment is that the Legislature is reasserting itself. It could be a short-term or a long-term thing — ask us in five years — but much of the noise you're hearing lately is about the powers and scope of the executive branch. Lookit:
• Perry's call for a mandated vaccine against HPV resulted in a public uproar and open legislative challenges. Lawmakers have asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether Perry has the power to direct policy — particularly one with a price tag. And they've reacted to the substance of it by moving legislation that would make an HPV vaccine mandate illegal.
• The closest thing to a cabinet position in Texas government — the Commissioner of Health and Human Services — is held by one of the most experienced people in state government, Albert Hawkins. But between the HPV mess and the state's rough record on everything from the Children's Health Insurance Program to welfare call centers, Hawkins' appointment has been held up in the Senate. You can say that's about Hawkins, but you'd only be half-right. He's a hostage in the struggle between the governor and the Legislature.
• The unfolding Texas Youth Commission scandal is another example. Perry wants to change some board members and some managers in the agency. The House and Senate aren't on the same page with Perry or each other yet, but the Senate already voted to put the agency in conservatorship, and House leaders are talking about aggressive legislative oversight of TYC.
• And the growing legislative challenges to Perry's biggest endeavor — a road system you'd be able to see with a good telescope if you made camp on Mars. Lawmakers gave the governor and his Texas Department of Transportation carte blanche to build new highways, and the agency has run with it. They ran with it so effectively and expansively, in fact, that lawmakers are trying to rein them in. Thus the comments from the Senate's lead money man, Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. He told Texas Monthly and the Austin American-Statesman he'd like to put two agencies – TYC and Texas Southern University — into receivership. And he said TxDOT is out of control and should be leashed.
So here's the question for the day, or for five years from now. Will lawmakers leave this much power in the middle office, or will they reassert themselves? If it's the latter, Perry and his successors could be cornered into the three main powers of chief executives in Texas: Vetoes, appointments, and what's known as "the bully pulpit" — a surpassing ability to command and use the attention of reporters with and without video cameras. If it's the former, future governors could turn their increasing influence into something more like a cabinet form of government.