Texas Politics

Texas statewide elective offices: Why so many?



A s voting Texans voters can attest, the ballot in non-presidential election years is often rather long. Texas has an outsized number of statewide offices to vote on.

Blame it on the Texas Constitution of 1876. We’ll discuss why in a moment.

While in most elections at least some of those offices may not be seriously contested because incumbents are seeking re-election, that’s not the case this election cycle.

The reason is that Gov. Rick Perry finally deciding to move on, after serving almost twice as many consecutive years as any predecessor.

(If you were in kindergarten when he became governor in late 2000, you could be halfway through college when he leaves early next year.)

The governor’s decision to leave triggered a stampede of ambitious officeholders, seeking to move up the political ladder.

The only statewide officeholder who sought reelection was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and he was beaten in the May 27 Republican primary runoff by state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Every other office but comptroller opened up, because the incumbents finally had a chance to move up to a bigger job without facing an incumbent. Comptroller Susan Combs had wanted to run for lieutenant governor, but chose to retire rather than oppose her friend Dewhurst .

Some folks in other states, like New York or Florida, where gubernatorial candidates do choose their running mates, assume that it’s the same in Texas. But it’s not.

In fact, Bill Hobby, a Democrat, served eight of his 18 years as lieutenant governor under Republican Gov. Bill Clements, and Democrat Bob Bullock served four of his eight years under Republican Gov. George W. Bush.

The other statewide non-judicial officeholders – attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, and three members of the Texas Railroad Commission — also run independently of each other, though sometimes their general election campaigns share resources.

Texans also elect their justices on the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals – each of which has nine members, who, like the Railroad Commission members, run for staggered sixyear terms.

But why do we elect so many statewide officials? It’s because following the Civil War, Texans became so angered at the authoritarian, top-down government imposed by the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction that when they got a chance to write a new constitution in 1876, they spread out the governing power, rather than concentrate it.

Several other former states of the Confederacy also followed the path of electing several statewide officials, rather than have a governor appoint a cabinet of such officials, as many states do.

(Not included in that original constitution were the Texas Railroad Commission, created in 1891, to regulate railroads, which it no longer does; and agriculture commissioner, a position created in 1907.)

Those Texas constitution writers also devised a governing system made up of many boards and commissions, whose members are appointed by the governor with the “advice and consent” of the Texas Senate, again for staggered six-year terms.

The presumption was that governors would stick around only for a couple two-year terms, and so each board and commission would have some holdover appointees still in office when a new governor arrived, and thus would avoid a concentration of too much power in the governor’s office.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that any governor served longer than two two-year terms, and the 1950s that a governor served more than three. Texas switched to four-year terms for statewide officials, except for the Railroad Commission and judges, in 1974.

But Perry has served so long that he not only has appointed every member of every board and commission, but re-appointed some of them – and stacked former employees on the agency governing bodies, and their staffs.

That constitution was so specific in some regards that hundreds of amendments have had to be passed to tinker with various parts of the document.

According to the Legislative Reference Library, the Texas constitution “is one of the longest in the nation, and is still growing.” As of 2013, a total of 666 amendments had been proposed, of which 483 have been adopted.

Texas also used to elect a state treasurer – a political stepping stone used by Democrat Ann Richards and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison – but the constitution was amended in 1995 to abolish the job, and transfer its duties to the comptroller’s office.

A serious effort to streamline the constitution led to a 1974 constitutional convention made up of the House and Senate.

But the demand by business to add an antiunion right-to-work law to the document caused organized labor to call in all its chits, and block the two-thirds vote needed to send it to voters.

Even had it passed, it didn’t cut the number of elective offices.

DAVE MCNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@ gmail or (512)458 2963.

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