Skip to main content

Analysis: With New Officeholders, a Possible Legislative Power Shift

The lieutenant governor used to be the most powerful official in state government, but with a record-setting term in the governor's office, Rick Perry moved that post into the top spot. With new people in the top jobs, will the power shift back?

Sen. Dan Patrick R-Houston, listens to Attorney General Greg Abbott during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Feb. 5, 2013. What will the balance of power look like between the incoming lieutenant governor and governor?

It sounds a little crazy, but the governor is not usually the real power player in state government in Texas. Or wasn't, before Rick Perry.

The lieutenant governor usually gets that “most powerful” tag.

Texas is a weak-governor state, without a cabinet that gives the governor control over the executive branch. In fact, most of the people who would be in a cabinet are elected on their own. The governor and lieutenant governor do not run as a single ticket. Several of the big statewide offices — the attorney general, the comptroller and the land, agriculture and railroad commissioners — are filled by the voters and not the state’s chief executive.

Other big executive agencies are run by boards and commissions appointed by the governor, but it takes six years to run through a full cycle of appointments, and a governor’s term is only four years.

This setup is designed to drain the power of the occupant of the Governor’s Mansion, which in turn empowers the leaders of the Legislature. If they wish to do so, a speaker of the House and a lieutenant governor can run rings around a governor.

The people who deal with state government used to take this as one of the laws of their peculiar universe, embodied by lieutenant governors like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock and, for a couple of years, Perry and Bill Ratliff.

It has eroded considerably, mainly because Perry has now been governor for so long, and because he understood better than most how to consolidate the ordinarily anemic powers given to him.

Perry has vetoed 301 bills. Aside from pushing that legislative work into the trash bin, his vetoes had the effect of letting everyone know that he was willing to kill things he did not like. His first session as governor was, in this sense, the bloodiest: He ended that one with 83 vetoes.

Lawmakers squawked, but they responded. For Perry, a power that once flared momentarily at the end of each legislative session now colors the whole process, as lawmakers check in with the governor to make sure he does not threaten their darlings.

Perry has been through more than two cycles of appointments. His 14-year tenure was probably beyond the imaginations of the authors of the state Constitution. The odds were against any one governor filling all of the appointed positions even once. Governors still cannot fire appointees they do not like (they can ask the Senate to recall them, but that is a rare event), but Perry got the chance to replace every one of them at least once.

That increased his influence over the executive branch, as did the appointees’ steady hiring of people beholden to the governor who appointed them. It will be years before that dye comes out of the fabric of state government.

It helped Perry that the Senate was on board. The governor’s appointees have to be approved there, and most of Perry’s have been. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has gone along with the governor on policy for the most part.

With a whole new slate of state officials in 2015, however, the system is being reset. Maybe nothing will change. Perhaps the stronger chief executive has become a habit. Legislative efforts to create a cabinet government over the past few decades have always fallen short; giving power away does not come naturally to elected officials.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has some advantages over his predecessor, but legislative experience is not one of them. Perry knows, from his time in the House and as lieutenant governor, how lawmakers think — and what he could get away with as governor.

Abbott has spent the past few days traveling the state and sharing wish lists with lawmakers. He will be sworn in next month, a week after they take office. At the beginning of February, the six-year cycle of expiring appointees’ terms will begin, and Abbott will begin the slow process of taking over the executive branch.

The Senate will get a new leader, too, and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick seems to be a much more political animal than Dewhurst.

Perry slowly leached away the potency of the most powerful office in Texas government. With him moving on, Patrick might leach it back.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Yes, I'll donate today

Explore related story topics

Politics State government Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Texas Legislature Texas Senate