Skip to main content

Analysis: Greg Abbott and the $200 million bully pulpit

Talking — the bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt called it — is one of the biggest powers available to a Texas governor. Greg Abbott is trying to trim the state budget with a speech.

Gov. Greg Abbott prepares to deliver his State of the State address, flanked by (l.-r.) Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, state Sens. Donna Campbell, R-San Antonio, and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and House Speaker Joe Straus.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

The governor of Texas doesn't really have the authority to freeze hiring, except in his or her own office, but he’s got the bully pulpit.

And Greg Abbott used it to full effect in his State of the State speech last week, telling state agencies to pull down the hiring signs until the end of August, when the state’s fiscal year ends. He is making exceptions for public safety and other issues on a case-by-case basis.

The bully pulpit is a powerful soapbox, of course, and there is always the threat that a governor might get really, really mad at anyone who disobeyed his wishes. But the law doesn’t actually give him the power of hiring and firing in state agencies that aren’t part of the governor’s office. Texas governors can't fire the heads of other state agencies, university regents, or even the members of the commissions and boards that they themselves appoint.

Texas is not a strong governor state, whether any particular governor is a strong personality or not.

Texas governors can veto bills. They can appoint people to selected offices. And they can talk.

Vetoes are subject to overrides, if the Legislature is sufficiently stirred up. Appointments only stick if the Senate confirms the governor’s choices. And talk only works if someone says “How high?” when a governor says “Jump!”

Abbott's recently announced hiring freeze is an exercise of that third power: Talk.

Don’t dismiss it outright. Agencies are jumping. Yes, the budget is written by the Legislature and the governor signs it and has a line-item veto power. But he can’t add to it. He doesn’t control the state’s checkbook — that’s the comptroller’s job. He doesn’t handle payroll (comptroller again). And his powers are limited if someone tells him to stick it up his nose.

But the power of suggestion is, after all, a power. If you want to prosper in the executive branch of the Texas government, you’d best believe that the chief executive can find a way to bring praise or opprobrium to your office door. He might not be able to fire you, but he can probably make you want to quit.

Texas governors can veto bills. They can appoint people to selected offices. And they can talk.

There are some words in state law that support the governor’s assertion of budgetary clout. This line was added to the Texas Government Code in 1993: “The governor is the chief budget officer of the state.”

And that’s where Abbott begins his argument for how he can order a hiring freeze.

“As the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Budget Officer of the state who appoints the governing boards of Texas’ universities and state agencies, Gov. Abbott must be mindful of the state’s overall budgetary and fiscal health,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for the governor’s office. “In that capacity, he has issued a hiring freeze aimed at ensuring the state lives within its means and fully expects all state agencies to comply with his directive.”

Assume the agencies will get in line, that some will ask for and get waivers, and maybe they’ll save some money.

What Abbott can’t do is make the agencies give back the money they save. Only legislators can do that, and they can only do it through the budget. If an imaginary Department of Redundancy Department leaves a $100,000-per-year job unfilled for a year, the $100,000 stays in that agency’s budget until and unless the state takes it back.

Abbott can’t take it back, leaving it to legislators to shovel up any savings from his hiring freeze by sweeping the agencies’ balances.

Keep your eye on the supplemental budget — an appropriations bill that picks up the loose ends of the current budget, making sure there’s enough money to finish the year in areas that turned out to be more expensive than lawmakers estimated two years ago. That supplemental bill is one place where — if they want to — lawmakers can grab any savings from a hiring freeze and put it back into the state treasury.

That’s the only way we’ll ever know whether this hiring freeze was a rhetorical flourish in a governor’s speech, or actually saved any money — and the only way we’ll know how much it saved.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Legislature is having a hard time with the "bathroom bill." The Senate is trying to pull together the votes, and the House is trying to find some motivation. Both are waiting to see what the governor thinks.
  • reinterpretation of the state's school finance law will leave $100 million in the accounts of some of the state's property wealthy districts — and will leave a hole of that size in an already tight state budget.
  • Most states have dropped straight-ticket voting, but not Texas. There's another attempt coming in the current legislative session, and it's got some high-level supporters.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

State government Budget Governor's Office Greg Abbott