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.

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 Is the state constitution of 1876, which established the governorship as a weak office with few powers, outdated?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.

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