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Analysis: As Lineup at Top Changes, So Will Balance of Power

A new batch of statewide officeholders is preparing to take over Texas government, throwing the "who you know" politics of the Capitol into turmoil. But the biggest change is the Legislature's chance to reassert its traditional power.

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After 14 years of one governor, 12 years each with the same lieutenant governor and attorney general and little turnover in other elected statewide offices, it seems downright strange to change officeholders and top aides in the state’s biggest agencies.

The longevity of the departing crowd of Republicans has thrown off the natural rhythm of change in Austin, both inside and outside the Capitol — among the government people and those who want things from them.

Gov. Rick Perry is leaving, and Greg Abbott is coming in. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will soon be handing his keys to Dan Patrick, who beat him in a Republican primary runoff this year. Abbott’s desk on the top floor of the state office building from which he ran the attorney general’s office now goes to Ken Paxton.

But it goes deeper than that. Incoming officeholders are poring over résumés, doing interviews, sending termination letters and bringing in people to help them run their agencies. Some, like their bosses, just move. Daniel Hodge, the first assistant attorney general to Abbott, is following his boss to the governor’s office. Patrick is expected to put his chief of staff, Logan Spence, in a similar position in the lieutenant governor’s office. Paxton is bringing in Chip Roy, who works in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s political office and has also worked for Perry — Roy was the ghost writer of Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington — and for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Lobbyists and other supplicants who have grown accustomed to one set of functionaries must now meet new ones. The “who you know” politics of the Capitol are in turmoil — a normal circumstance that has not occurred at the top levels of Texas politics in a long time.

The changes are happening inside as well.

Texas was designed, constitutionally, as a weak governor state — a place where the executive’s powers were diluted by a handful of other elected officials within the executive branch, and by a Legislature with a strong hold on the state’s budget.

A governor has moments of real power: Without a governor pointing to a particular issue as an emergency, it cannot be considered during the first 60 days of a legislative session. A governor has the power of veto, which peaks in the waning days of a legislative session and the weeks thereafter when lawmakers are no longer in Austin to override a veto they do not like.

The other big one — a power that Perry used to turn Texas into a strong governor state, if only for a while — is the ability to appoint the commissioners and board members who run state agencies that are not overseen by other elected officials like the attorney general, the comptroller, and commissioners of agriculture, railroads and the General Land Office.

It takes six years to cycle through all of those appointed positions; the terms are staggered as a hedge against the shocks of instant turnover and to slow the transfer of control from one governor to the next.

In 14 years, Perry put his people in each of those spots twice and then some. It will take Abbott all of his first term to replace just two-thirds of Perry’s appointees. But that is not all: Many of the top officials in the agencies run by those appointees — the executive directors and general counsels and chiefs of staff and spokespeople — owe their starts to Perry. His influence is marbled throughout the state’s executive branch and — through his appointments to open jobs on the bench — throughout the state’s judicial branch.

He has done from the governor’s office what the late Bob Bullock did over his 16 years as comptroller and eight as lieutenant governor: Wherever you turn in Texas government, you will find Perry’s fingerprints.

Now that a new crew is moving in, the balance of power could revert. While Abbott slowly works his way through that list of appointments and tries to tame an executive branch assembled by someone else, Patrick and Speaker Joe Straus, who is seeking a fourth term, could take back the power that Perry gradually filched.

The new faces might be the second-biggest change in state government.

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