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Analysis: Breaking Up is Hard With Appointee

Texas lawmakers are deciding whether to impeach a University of Texas regent — something they've never done before. Are they opening a Pandora's Box?

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A Texas House committee is considering whether Wallace Hall, the University of Texas System regent appointed by the governor, should be impeached. Whatever legislators do with his case, they will be looking at a larger question: Is this a one-time adventure or something they will use whenever they disagree with appointees and the governors who appoint them?

Most lawmakers can always find a public appointee they would like to expel. The possibilities seem endless — outright crooks, partisan appointees, incompetents and, perhaps most often, well-meaning people who have been put in jobs that do not suit them.

Employees who exhibit those traits are easy enough to fire, but political appointees operate under different rules. If all else fails, their terms end. Every so often, however, a governor or a Legislature will decide not to wait for the end of a term.

In the case of appointees, simply asking for a resignation is often enough. Asking publicly instead of privately raises the stakes. But it generally works, too. If those efforts fail, other ways can be used to purge unwanted appointees.

A Texas governor can ask the State Senate to remove an appointee by a simple vote. Often that is threat enough to persuade someone to leave.

When Gov. Rick Perry wanted to clear the board of regents at Texas Southern University in 2007, most left at his request. The board chairwoman, Belinda Griffin, initially refused, but she changed her mind and quit after Perry threatened to ask the Senate to vote her out.

That was messy, but relatively uncomplicated.

The Legislature can get rid of an appointee without the governor’s consent. In Texas, that never happens — or it never used to.

Hall, who was appointed by Perry, might be the appointee who changes the rules. A House committee hired a lawyer, Rusty Hardin, to investigate and report on the propriety of his investigations into operations at the University of Texas at Austin and whether Hall illegally mishandled student records.

Hall has said he was fulfilling his duties by digging into potential misconduct at the university.

Legislators referred some of the information in Hardin’s report to the Travis County district attorney, who would be responsible for pursuing any possible criminal charges.

The House committee is also considering whether everything else in the report would justify a recommendation of impeachment to the full House. The House could impeach Hall and send it along to the Senate, which would hold a trial to decide Hall’s fate as a regent.

This is a big deal. Texas legislators have been powerfully annoyed by appointees throughout the state’s history. Timing is important. Last year, state senators lost confidence in Eleanor Kitzman, the state’s commissioner of insurance, before they voted on her appointment. Perry had appointed Kitzman in 2011, while lawmakers were recessed, and she served almost two years. But the Senate’s refusal to approve her appointment when it returned in 2013 cost her the job. She now works for an insurance company.

That one, too, happened in public, but it was relatively straightforward.

Both Griffin and Kitzman quit.

Hall may yet quit. But the governor has stuck by him. Hall has supporters outside the government and the vast network of UT alumni.

The UT faction was still working to get Hall to resign last week as the House committee met to talk about the situation. For instance, Paul Begala, the Democratic political strategist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, joined several other former student body presidents in signing a letter asking Hall to step down. “The Legislature has far bigger fish to fry, I suspect, than grinding through the long process of impeachment,” Begala said.

We are about to find out. If Hall hangs in there, the next move will come from the House, or the prosecutors. And when this one is over, there will be another appointee annoying the people in office. There is always at least one.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Rusty Hardin was a major donor to the Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Higher education State government Texas Legislature