More Power to Him

The office of governor is constitutionally weak, but don’t tell that to George. W. Bush.

Just as a vociferous Republican revolution is under way in Washington, a quiet one is taking place in Texas. Even before he took office on January 17, George W. Bush made it clear that he intended to redefine the role of governor. The Texas constitution of 1876, written in the twilight of Reconstruction, established a weak chief executive and a strong legislature, and that imbalance of power has prevailed for more than a century. But if Bush had his way, he will be more involved in the major issues of the state—especially the budget, traditionally the near-exclusive province of the Legislature—than any governor since the reviled scalawag E.J. Davis fled from office in 1874.

Bush’s opportunity to expand the power of his office comes from a unique combination of three sources: party, promises, and personnel. The Republican Party, while still a minority in the Legislature, has established new high-water marks in both the House (61 out of 150 members) and the Senate (14 of 31). Moreover, Republicans are far more united than their Democratic counterparts. The promises Bush made in his issue-oriented campaign, and his surprising 350,000 vote margin, give him the clout to make changes in the four areas he stressed: education, welfare, crime, and tort litigation.

As for personnel, Bush—unlike most of his predecessors—will be able to take control of key state agencies near the beginning of his term. In the past, governors have had to wait until their third year in office before they could appoint a majority to the boards that oversee the agencies. But the Legislature passed new laws to allow Ann Richards to wrest control of the bureaucracy from appointees of departing GOP governor Bill Clements, and Bush has been able to use those same laws to oust Richards’ appointees.

The climate is right for Bush to succeed. There is no competing agenda. For the first time in more than a decade, the state has enough money in the treasury that the Legislature won’t have to resort to new taxes or other desperate measures. Education reform, Bush’s top priority, is already on the table because the 1993 Legislature decided to phase out most school laws after this year. Here is what Bush wants to do—and what is likely to happen.

EDUCATION

Bush has compared education in state government to defense in the national government: the number one responsibility. Unfortunately, the schools aren’t doing as well as the military in carrying out their mission. Bush’s solution is deregulation. He wants to liberate local school districts from state requirements and let them choose their own curricula, teaching methods, textbooks, classroom size, emphasis on athletics, you name it. “The regulatory burden is crushing you financially and strangling creativity with a one-size-fits-all approach to education,” Bush told educators in a campaign speech. Bush’s deregulated system would feature “home rule school districts,” which would remain free of state control as long as they met achievement standards. The theory is that each district will be innovative and design its own plan.

Maybe so. But it’s just as likely that many districts will be taken over by factions: the religious right, athletic boosters, teachers’ rights activists, tax protestors, or patronage-hungry politicos. The ideal of citizens coming together to achieve academic excellence may work in small private schools, but in public education, the majority of citizens eligible to vote in a school board election have no children in the schools. They are more often concerned with the realities of politics—emotional issues, selfish interests, or control over public money—than educational ideals.

Such concerns are the main reason why legislators are unlikely to approve wholesale deregulation of school districts. Bush hasn’t even been able to persuade a key fellow Republican, Senate Education Committee chairman Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant, to sign on to his program. Ratliff does not favor getting rid of the limit of 22 students per teacher in the elementary grades; the no-pass, no-play rule; and other state requirements he regards as beneficial.

Deregulation of education will be Bush’s toughest fight. The likely outcome: He will get partial deregulation—not as much as he wants, but enough to proclaim a victory.

WELFARE

Bush’s reform plan is similar to the welfare reform proposals in the congressional Republicans’ “Contract With America”: require able-bodied recipients to get a job or attend school; cut off benefits after two years on the dole; and limit benefits to two children per mother. Because welfare is a federal program, Bus will have to ask the Clinton administration for a waiver to institute his policies. His main legislative initiative is the Dead-beat Dads bill. It tackles a small part of the welfare problem—fathers who won’t take responsibility for their children. The idea is to cancel all state licenses for parents who are behind on their child-support payments: no driver’s license, no license to practice a profession, no permit to hunt or fish or carry a handgun. The bill is expected to win approval.

CRIME

The traditional get-tough approach of Texas politicians has been to build more prisons and impose longer sentences. The trouble is, the longer sentences keep the prisons overcrowded (resulting in the release of violent criminals to make room for new inmates), and the new prisons cost a fortune to operate (resulting in frenzied competition among legislators to have new prisons—and jobs—located in their districts). To his credit, Bus recognized that the building program has been driven as much by pork barrel as by necessity. Now he’s looking for ways to cut it back. He wants to reopen the Ruiz prison-reform case to let some inmates be housed in tents when prisons are overcrowded and to contract with counties to house excess state prisoners.

Bush won the crime issue during the campaign by capitalizing on public fear of youth gangs. The centerpiece of his juvenile-crime program is to lower the age at which a young criminal can be charged as an adult from sixteen to fourteen. Those found guilty would be incarcerated in juvenile facilities—which, if Bush had his

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