The truth behind the Perry mess: In Texas, nobody’s really in charge

08/23/2014 4:13 PM

08/23/2014 4:14 PM

What you might not understand about Texas government is that nobody is really in charge.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. Texans wrote it that way after the Civil War, and years under the heavy federal rule of Reconstruction.

State officials can’t boss county officials. County officials can’t even boss one another.

And the governor can’t boss anybody at all.

So if you’re wondering why somebody doesn’t just get rid of a certain district attorney, or a county commissioner under indictment, the answer is that the Texas Constitution leaves that almost totally up to voters.

In a month when Dallas and Travis county officials have been in the headlines, this seems to be the time to explain how Texas works:

Once you get elected, you are responsible to the voters and the Texas Constitution.

The governor or county judge can’t fire another elected official or judge. At the county level, dozens of sovereign officials are substantially equal under the Constitution.

This all gets confusing, particularly if you come from a state with an actual organized government.

To use a recent example, if a Texas governor told a police chief to back off a disturbance and let a few highway patrol troopers take over, the answer might be, “Says who?”

To use another recent example, if a Texas governor told the Travis County district attorney she had to quit even after he vetoed that county’s state appropriation for corruption investigations, the answer might be, “See you in court.”

“County government is the least understood level of government,” 32-year TCU political science professor Jim Riddlesperger wrote by email.

A popular 1917 political science textbook described American counties as a “lost continent” of government, obscure and ignored.

Nearly 100 years later, Texas county officers remain mostly obscure and ignored, at least compared with the higher-profile city, state and national elective offices.

“The Commissioners Court sets the tax rate and approves the budget, but there are just a few of us among the many officials,” Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes of Southlake said.

“The only leverage we have is we approve the budget for all departments” — and the county hospital — “and some commissioners use that as their power.”

Gov. Rick Perry has the same budget leverage at the state level, but not over county budgets. Since 1866, governors can line-item veto as they choose.

But vetoing an appropriation to Travis County for felony corruption investigations under District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — by law the chief crime-fighter for the entire county, including the Capitol — may be different from trying afterward to muscle her into quitting.

See, until Perry, Texas governors were considered the weak link in state government.

The House speaker controls the budget. The lieutenant governor is actually the most powerful official elected statewide.

But as governor since last century, Perry has simply stayed around long enough to appoint every agency head, board member and college trustee.

He has wielded power through allegiances and loyalty, and wanted loyalty inside the courthouse.

A special prosecutor and grand jury seeking probable cause to indict Perry might well view his strong-arming differently from a felony trial jury seeking absolute proof of guilt.

Texas county officials and prosecutors “exercise a huge amount of authority,” Riddlesperger wrote.

Explaining that any prosecutor’s discretion under Texas law is “really quite wide,” he wrote that any two people might look at this evidence and “reach very different conclusions.”

If it seems completely haywire, that was the plan.

About Bud Kennedy

Bud Kennedy

@budkennedy

Bud Kennedy is a homegrown Fort Worth guy who started out covering high school football here when he was 16. He went away to the Fort Worth Press and newspapers in Austin and Dallas, then came home in 1981.

Since 1987, he's written more than 1,000 weekly dining columns and more than 3,000 news and politics columns. If you don't like what he says about politics, read him on barbecue.

Email Bud at

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