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Analysis: Abbott and the Challenge of Twisting State Agency Arms

One of a Texas governor's powers is a soft one — the power of persuasion. It's all Greg Abbott really has when he wants to rein in an agency like the Texas Lottery Commission.

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Here are the legal powers of a Texas governor: Veto, appointment and persuasion.

The first and second are pretty clear. The governor can veto legislation he or she doesn’t like, and the Legislature can override that veto with a supermajority. Governors appoint the members of boards and commissions that oversee the state’s executive branch agencies, with the Senate riding shotgun to approve or disapprove of those appointees.

Like any other agency head, the governor attends to his own office work, like ladling out economic development funds, deciding who oversees the divisions of the governor’s office and so on. Almost everything else is persuasion.

Gov. Greg Abbott is testing his salesmanship skills this week with a letter asking the Texas Lottery Commission to stop exploring new forms of gambling.

But unlike governors in other states, Texas governors don’t have cabinet-style powers: They don’t have the ability to enforce their orders in the executive branch.

The governor can demand that an agency do this or that but can’t enforce that demand by controlling agency budgets, regulatory powers or even who remains on the payrolls.

Persuasion is the whole bag. A governor can’t even fire an appointee without the consent of the Senate.

That’s why you hear the political science and government nerds referring to Texas as a “weak-governor” state: The executive branch of government is powerful, but its titular head is not.

The power of the purse is in the state Legislature, which not only writes the state budget but also has control over large mid-course adjustments. Governors can veto all or part of a state budget, but senators and representatives ultimately have more influence on state spending.

Rick Perry made a lot of people inside and outside of government forget all of this. Over his 14 years in the governor’s office, his boards and commissions hired executive directors and other agency managers from the Perry fold — to such an extent that he exercised unprecedented control over the executive branch.

He temporarily changed what might be termed the “first-call rule” of Texas government: If you’re running a state agency and hit a snag, who is your first call? If you want to make sure that the person in power gets word before anyone else, who is that? Historically, it’s the legislator in charge of your budget or the one in charge of your agency’s area of expertise, whether that’s health, energy, environment or fish and game licensing. More recently, that first call went to Perry’s office, mostly because of the close connections between the callers at those agencies and the governor.

Now, the new governor is testing the controls. Abbott wrote to the state’s lottery commissioners this week to urge them not to even think about expanded gaming in the state. His letter followed stories in The Dallas Morning News about lottery officials’ visits to other states to talk about betting on real and fantasy sports and on other kinds of games.

“State laws on gaming are to be viewed strictly as prohibitive to any expansion of gambling,” he wrote. “This statutory framework is properly intentioned to protect our citizens, and I support it wholeheartedly. Please ensure this intent and direction is strictly enforced among the staff of the Texas Lottery Commission.”

He didn’t give them any orders, exactly — he can’t, really — but made it clear he wants them to nix their research project.

That said, don’t discount persuasion as a tool. Abbott has a bigger megaphone than anyone else in state government and with it, the ability to frame debates and set agendas.

He’s effectively asking the voting public — that small but important fraction of the state’s population — to take sides on gambling. He’s showing gambling opponents that he’s on their side. For what it’s worth, he’s also diverting attention from the ongoing fight at the Texas Racing Commission over historical racing and whether it would allow more gambling at the state’s horse and dog tracks.

As a technical matter, he can’t force the Texas Lottery Commission to do anything — or to stop doing anything. But telling everyone loudly what he thinks does force the agency’s execs to think things through.

They might prevail in an argument with a governor, but do they really want to start one?

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