The Terminator

What has Rick Perry and his record-setting time in office taught me? Texas needs term limits to curb the power of the governor’s office.

December 2009By Comments

In mid-September, Governor Rick Perry traveled to Washington for a fundraiser and a meeting with reporters. It was a routine trip that did not figure to be newsworthy. During a press conference, however, a journalist asked about an execution that had taken place on Perry’s watch in 2004. This was the now familiar story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been convicted of the murder of his three young daughters in a house fire that investigators had found to be arson—a conclusion that experts have since said was based on dubious scientific evidence.

Perry responded with characteristic vehemence. “I’m familiar with the latter-day supposed experts on the arson side of it,” he said. He accompanied his unflattering description of the “experts” by making quote marks in the air with his fingers. When the governor returned to Texas, an obscure state board, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, was preparing to hear damning testimony about the case from a highly regarded fire expert. With the press corps in full feeding-frenzy mode, Perry moved swiftly to get control of the situation. Two days before the commission was scheduled to meet, he replaced three of its members, including the chairman (see “Separated at Death”).

But Perry’s power play at the Forensic Science Commission raises questions that are entirely separate from the Willingham case. How should Texas be governed? Is the state constitution of 1876, which established the governorship as a weak office with few powers, outdated? Does Texas need a strong governor’s office capable of running a state of nearly 25 million people, allowing the chief executive full control over state agencies? Or has the governorship become so strong in the Perry years that the constitution should be changed in a way that prevents the governor from amassing too much power, which is what the framers intended?

Everything that state government does—educating kids, protecting the environment, building highways, regulating insurance companies, operating prisons, even overseeing state-licensed barbers and beauticians—is ultimately the responsibility of boards like the Forensic Science Commission. The governor’s main power comes from the opportunity to appoint citizens to serve on these boards, typically for six-year terms. He has more than four thousand slots to fill, on panels that range from high-profile regulatory agencies to little-
noticed corners of state government. Some appointments, such as those on the Texas Transportation Commission and the boards of regents of major universities, are highly coveted and usually reserved for a governor’s most loyal and generous supporters. Many are rewards for friends and party faithful who attend meetings and engage in discussions but rarely find themselves in the spotlight or called upon to make crucial decisions.

This is the way that state government is supposed to work. It is consistent with the constitution’s dilution of executive power. The governor is the chief executive of the state, but executive power is parceled out to other officials: lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner, and railroad commissioners. They do not work for the governor. They are not required to follow his orders. Neither are the citizens on boards and commissions. They are supposed to be independent of the governor’s office. The idea is for the governor to make wise appointments and for citizens, not politicians, to make the decisions.

But this is not the way state government works under Rick Perry. His long tenure in office, now nearing the end of a record-setting nine years, has enabled him to establish what amounts to a cabinet style of government, in which he has the ability to direct state agencies. He has appointed every member of every state board and commission and makes it clear that he expects them to follow his lead. He has used executive orders to instruct high-ranking officials to do his bidding, as when he ordered the Health and Human Services commissioner to institute a program to vaccinate girls against the virus that causes cervical cancer before they entered the sixth grade. Another Perry order directed environmental officials to fast-track the permitting of coal-fired power plants. Normally the establishment of state policy is the province of the Legislature, but Perry does not observe the traditional boundaries.

Perry has long been derided as Governor Good Hair by his critics, but they shouldn’t underestimate him. His governorship has broken new ground in enhancing executive power. He expects his appointees to carry out his will. And if they don’t? After Mark Griffin, a former Lubbock school board president whom Perry appointed to the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents in 2005, spoke favorably of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s gubernatorial rival, earlier this year, he heard from Brian Newby, a former chief of staff for Perry. According to an account in the Austin American-Statesman, Newby told Griffin that the governor “expects loyalty out of his appointees and if you can’t be loyal, it’s probably not best to be on the team.” Loyalty is one thing; fealty is another. The regents, not the governor, have the lawful responsibility of running their universities, but Griffin chose to resign, telling the Statesman ominously, “I was concerned that my staying on would be a distraction and could possibly place the institution at political risk.”

Perry’s frequent involvement in university governance issues is particularly worrisome. His allies in the administration and among the regents at Texas A&M endorsed the hiring of President Elsa Murano and, seventeen months later, her ouster. Seldom does he fail to get his way; one such instance was his choice of former Texas Tech system chancellor John Montford for the position of chancellor for the University of Texas System. Perry was thwarted when regents opted for the more academically oriented Francisco Cigarroa instead. (Several members who supported Cigarroa have since left the board.)

The most powerful Texas governors—John Connally and George W. Bush, for instance—exercised influence through the bully pulpit of their office. Perry has done so through direct involvement with the executive branch. Not until the dismantling of the Forensic Science Commission, though, did his degree of control become apparent. For a century after the 1876 constitution took effect, governors ran for two-year terms, and most served just two terms. Gubernatorial power was not an issue. The terms of gubernatorial appointees, however, ran for six years, so incoming governors typically inherited boards and commissions that included several members who had been appointed by their predecessors. But after the 1972 election, Texas switched to four-year terms for governor. A governor who serves two consecutive terms, making appointments every two years, will have had the chance to appoint every member of every board and commission in state government.

This is the situation we are in now, as Perry is running for reelection for a third full term. If victorious, he could serve as many as fourteen years, which is an eternity in politics: fourteen years during which one person’s ideas and one person’s political allies block everything else. Look at what has happened to Texas highways since Perry has been governor. Almost a decade has passed, and state policy makers are still convulsed over toll roads, funding for free roads, and the privatization of highways, at a great cost to mobility. Not until late this year did the Texas Department of Transportation proceed with widening the bottleneck that is Interstate 35 on either side of Waco, something that is nine years overdue.

There is a remedy for this situation: term limits for Texas governors. I offer it reluctantly. Term limits have not worked well at the local level in Texas, because the time that a public official is allowed to serve is often too short. Mayors and council members hardly have time to figure out what is going on before they become lame ducks. But governor is different. Eight years is a long time. No one complains that United States presidents are limited to eight years in office.

My advocacy of term limits is not personal. If implemented, they should not apply to Perry but should take effect after he has chosen to conclude his remarkable career. Perry himself is not the issue. It’s the centralization of power that he has achieved. The ability for a governor to have complete control of every state agency—and what he might do with that power (the opportunity to build a political machine, the temptation to enrich one’s friends, among more-benign possibilities)—ought to be a cause for concern. Perry has consolidated his influence by sending current and former staff members to occupy key positions, most notably when A&M regents named his former chief of staff, Mike Mc-Kinney, the chancellor of the Texas A&M University System. The fallout from that move has yet to dissipate.

The case of the Forensic Science Commission is the canary in the coal mine for gubernatorial power. The removal and replacement of board members to achieve a political end is happening throughout state government. One of the most troubling examples occurred this October at the $88 billion Teacher Retirement System of Texas. Perry ousted chairman Linus Wright, a former Dallas Independent School District superintendent, and replaced him with a board member who has served on his campaign finance committee. Earlier, the governor’s allies on the board appointed a Perry staffer to be the agency’s deputy director. These things don’t happen unless there is a purpose, and the likely purpose in this case is to achieve a board majority in favor of investing the trust funds of retired teachers in new toll roads, a high-risk policy that Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst have advocated.

The most vexing problem in politics is how to control power. The Texas constitution did it by limiting and diluting the powers of the governor. Perry has been able to circumvent the framers’ intent through his length of time in office, and future governors will be tempted to follow his lead. The remedy is to eliminate longevity. The time has come to limit Texas governors to two full terms.

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