Government Spending in Texas: The Basics

In Texas, most state spending is in the areas of education, health and human services, and public safety and criminal justice.

Appropriations for the 2018-19 biennium, and change in all funds appropriations 1996-97 vs 2018-19 biennia, by article

From Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Spending By Article (Nov. 2018)

A Closer Look: Health & Human Services

As the figure above illustrates, spending on health and human services was the second-highest category of spending in the 2018-19 biennium — and spending on this category compared to other state spending increased from 31% in the 1996-97 biennium to 36.4% in the 2018-19 biennium (during this same period, state expenditures increased overall, with 2018-19 expenditures totaling 167.2% compared to those from 1996-97).  Much of the state’s health and human services funding is related to Medicaid, which is a federal social welfare program that is jointly funded by the federal government and state governments.  Medicaid is one of the largest state budget expenditures and accounts for around one-fourth of most state budgets.  As medical costs skyrocket, policymakers worry about the ability of states to continue to fund Medicaid benefits at current levels.

Shortfalls in Revenue

Sometimes, revenue projections exceed actual revenue.  Recall that Texas fiscal policy follows a pay-as-you-go system, which means that the state cannot spend more than it receives in revenue.  As a result, when revenue shortfalls occur, the state must either find a way to continue funding current spending levels by tapping into the Rainy Day Fund, borrowing money, or reducing spending.

Reducing Spending

Between legislative sessions, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) or governor may recommend prohibiting a state agency from spending money appropriated to it by the Texas Legislature (i.e., an involuntary budget reduction), transferring money from one state agency to another, or changing the purpose for which an appropriation was made.  Recommendations made by the LBB require approval from the governor, and recommendations made by the governor require approval from the LBB.

Another method that has been used to reduce spending is a hiring freeze.  For example, in January 2017, Governor Abbott, with the approval of the LBB, implemented a statewide hiring freeze; this prevented many state agencies, from filling vacant positions that were funded by state appropriations through the end of the fiscal year (August 31, 2017).  Some agencies and/or positions were exempted from this hiring freeze.

Texas’s Budgeting Process

Budgeting Process

The video below discusses the steps involved in Texas’s budgeting process.

Key players in the budgeting process in Texas include the:

  • Legislative Budget Board (LBB), which is chaired by the Speaker of the Texas House and Lieutenant Governor and coordinates the budgeting process, analyzes budget requests, and drafts a budget proposal
  • Governor’s Office of Budget, Planning, and Policy (GOBPP), which analyzes budget requests and drafts a budget proposal
  • Texas legislature, which has the power of appropriations and, as such, is responsible for passing the budget
    • The biennial state budget originates in the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Appropriations
  • Comptroller of Public Accounts, who certifies projected revenue for the upcoming biennium
  • Governor, who can suggest budget items, signs the budget passed by the Texas legislature, and can use the power of the line-item veto to strike specific appropriations from the budget passed by the Texas legislature

Texas’s Balanced Budget Requirement

“Except in the case of emergency and imperative public necessity and with a four-fifths vote of the total membership of each House, no appropriation in excess of the cash and anticipated revenue of the funds from which such appropriation is to be made shall be valid.” – Texas Constitution of 1876, Article III, Section 49b

Texas has a pay-as-you-go system, which is a fiscal discipline that requires a balanced budget and only permits borrowing under very few circumstances.  This means that, generally speaking, the state must generate more revenue to increase spending — and when revenue shortfalls occur, state spending must be reduced accordingly.

Texas’s balanced budget requirement shapes politics and policy in the state.  In the video below, former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Ben Barnes discusses how the balanced budget requirement shaped the context leading up to the 2003 regular legislative session.

Sources & Hierarchy of Law in Texas

There are various sources of law in Texas.

Federal Law

  1. Constitutional law
    • U.S. Constitution, including amendments
    • Federal court interpretations of constitutional provisions
  2. Statutory law
    • Laws passed by the U.S. Congress
  3. Administrative law
    • Federal bureaucratic agency rules and regulations

State Law

  1. Constitutional law
    • Texas Constitution, including amendments
    • State court interpretations of constitutional provisions
  2. Statutory law
    • Laws passed by the Texas legislature
  3. Administrative law
    • State bureaucratic agency rules and regulations
  4. Local codes and ordinances
    • Laws passed by cities and counties

The U.S. Constitution states that federal laws are higher than state laws within the legal hierarchy (Supremacy Clause, U.S. Constitution).  Similarly, the Texas Constitution states that state laws (constitutional law, statutory law, and administrative law) are higher than local codes and ordinances within the legal hierarchy.Figure depicting legal hierarchy of federal, state, and local laws

Within both the federal and state legal systems, constitutional law is considered the foundation of government and, as such, is viewed as higher than statutory laws created by the legislature under their constitutional authority.  Statutory law is viewed as higher than administrative law, because legislatures create and delegate authority to bureaucratic agencies.

Figure depicting legal hierarchy of constitutional, statutory, and administrative laws

Bureaucratic Accountability

There are several mechanisms through which bureaucratic accountability is promoted by various actors, such as through the appointment and removal process, the direct election of various executive officials, the governor’s recent attempt to play a more active role in agency rule-making, citizen participation in rule-making, etc.  Four such mechanisms are examined more closely below: rules (also known as “red tape”); the budgeting process; sunset laws; and sunshine laws.

Rules / “Red Tape”

Clearly defined and well-publicized rules serve as a mechanism to ensure bureaucratic accountability.  Indeed, if someone is uncertain as to why their application for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was rejected, they can examine the eligibility requirements (which are clearly defined and well-publicized rules) to see which criteria they did not meet.  Rules promote fairness and accountability.  There is a trade-off, however: rules are not necessarily efficient, which is why they are often referred to as “red tape.”

“Once established, rules, regulations, and norms of behavior are regarded as ends in themselves, with faint attention paid to their broader purposes. Goals of an organization are often displaced by procedures which are merely presumed to facilitate the goals. The broad goals of an organization can be subsumed by the instrumental procedural goals of members to play safe and follow the rules unquestioningly.” (Curry, 1990, p. 59)


The Texas legislature exercises can promote bureaucratic accountability through the budgeting process.  State agencies are required to submit budget proposals and performance evaluations to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) for review.  The LBB will hold hearings with each agency; during these hearings, they will use the budgeting process as an opportunity to ask detailed questions about an agency’s activities.  If the LBB believes an agency is mismanaging funds, operating inefficiently, etc., they can exert influence through appropriations (i.e., spending) by making changes to that agency’s budget for the upcoming biennium.

Sunset Laws

In 1977, the Texas Sunset Act became law; this law provides for the automatic termination of state bureaucratic agencies unless the legislature expressly renews them.  To administer the Texas Sunset Act, the Texas legislature created the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission (SAC).  When the SAC is conducting a sunset review for an agency, it evaluates several factors, including “the perceived need for the agency, its efficiency, and whether it adheres to basic standards such as those involving conflict of interests or open meetings . . . Sunset review requires an agency to receive positive validation of its mission rather than merely requiring an agency to defeat attempts to revise its mission” (Curry, 1990, pp. 59, 62).  Based on the SAC’s recommendation, the legislature will decide whether to introduce a bill to reauthorize the agency, revise the agency’s purpose or functions, or reorganize the agency, or allow the agency to terminate following a one-year winding down period.  The majority of the time, the legislature will follow the SAC’s recommendation.

While sunset laws have resulted in the termination of several agencies, the reorganization of several other agencies, and other revisions designed to promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies reviewed, there is no guarantee that the recommendations will bring about the desired result.  For example, the PUC went through a sunset review following the blackouts during the hard winter freeze in 2011; the SAC provided several recommendations that were incorporated into a bill in the Texas House of Representatives, including “provisions to strengthen PUC’s oversight of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)” (Sunset Advisory Commission, 2013).  Unfortunately, it appears what changes were enacted ultimately were not as comprehensive as they needed to be, as the state experienced rolling blackouts again during the hard winter freeze in 2021.

Sunshine Laws

Sunshine laws are designed to open the process of bureaucratic policymaking to the public, based on the assumption that “sunshine [transparency] is the best form of disinfectant.”  Two important Texas sunshine laws that allow citizens an opportunity to promote bureaucratic accountability are:

  • the Public Information Act, which grants the public access to information held by the state government as long as that information does not fall under an exempted category; this law is essentially our state’s version of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires governmental bodies to hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for an executive session (which is closed to the public); this law requires governmental bodies to give public notice of the time, date, place, and subject of the upcoming meeting at least 72 hours before the meeting is scheduled to begin

Lieutenant Governor: The Basics

The lieutenant governor is chosen via statewide election (independently from the governor, unlike the president and vice president, who run on the same ticket) and serves four-year terms with no term limits.  Because the lieutenant governor is first in the line of succession for the governorship, the constitutional qualifications for the lieutenant governor are identical to those for the governor: 30 years of age, U.S. citizen, resident of Texas for 5 years.

The lieutenant governor is unique: while it is technically part of the plural executive, this office’s powers are primarily legislative in nature.  The lieutenant governor presides over the Texas Senate; co-chairs the Legislative Budget Board and appoints senators to the board; and serves on the Legislative Redistricting Board, when applicable.  The lieutenant governor’s compensation is even benchmarked to legislators’ compensation: “while he acts as president of the senate, [the lieutenant governor shall] receive for his services the same compensation and mileage which shall be allowed to the members of the senate, and no more” (Texas Constitution of 1876, Article IV, Section 17).

The lieutenant governor has traditionally been regarded as the most powerful office in Texas state government, in large part because of its role in the legislature.  As Barry McBee mentioned in the video above, however, those dynamics appear to be changing.

Texas Legislature: Consequences of Low Pay, Part-Time Nature, & Other Characteristics

States with part-time legislatures that have low pay and few legislative staff, like Texas, spend less than those with full-time, well-paid, professional legislatures supported by large staff sizes and professional or hybrid legislatures, which meet more frequently than part-time legislatures, has better pay (but still not enough to be a legislator’s only source of income).  However, low levels of state spending in Texas have contributed to increases in spending and debt amongst local governments.

The Texas Legislature manages to pass a lot of bills during its short regular session:

In 2015, it sent 1,322 bills to Governor Abbott’s desk. California, by comparison, passed 807 bills all year. In Roll Call’s state-by-state comparison of bills and resolutions passed during the 2013–14 Congress, Texas was far and away the numerical leader. (Cassidy, 2016)

However, many of these laws are trivial, in large part due to the balanced budget requirement and other constitutional limitations placed on the Texas Legislature.  On the one hand, this limits government failure and is largely responsible for Texas’s economic success.  On the other hand, this may negatively affect the Texas Legislature’s ability to address increasingly complex problems, such as rising pension debts.

Low pay and the part-time nature of the Texas Legislature may also lead to electing officials who may not necessarily understand the needs of the majority of their constituents.  “Serving in the Texas legislature isn’t a realistic job option for most working professionals . . . it’s too time-consuming to be a side job” (Cassidy, 2016).  The lack of sociodemographic similarity between state legislators and the people they represent can be an area of concern to the extent that descriptive representation influences lawmaking in Texas.  For certain policy issues, legislators may not know what constituent needs, interests, and preferences are — there may not be a clear consensus among constituents, or we may not have a good way to measure these needs, interests, and preferences.

Given that several thousand bills must be introduced and considered within 140 days, state legislators often rely on external, readily available information — and, in most cases, that information comes from lobbyists and special interests, not the public (who have low levels of civic engagement and are unlikely to contact their elected representatives).  The close relationship between the Texas Legislature and lobbyists is reflected in various characteristics, including the robust revolving door phenomenon in Texas, in which legislators leave public service and become full-time lobbyists, and the pervasiveness of cronyism.

Turnover in the Texas Legislature is high; around 20 percent of state legislators do not seek reelection during the following term.  For many, the Texas Legislature is a stepping stone on the way to the Texas plural executive or the U.S. Congress.  This results in a legislative body with less specialized knowledge and expertise, which in turn reinforces the need to rely on outside sources for important information.

Majority-Minority Districts: A Closer Look

Today, government (federal, state, and local) are more diverse than in the past, but not as diverse as the populations represented.  This increase in descriptive representation is largely due to the creation of majority-minority legislative districts.

“In most majority-minority districts [in Texas], i.e., majority black and/or Latino, blacks and Latinos were able to achieve descriptive representation” in the Texas legislature (Lavariega Monforti, Orey, and Conroy 2009).

Some have raised concerns about whether the increase in descriptive representation due to majority-minority districts has translated into substantive representation — in other words, whether more diverse legislature (when said diversity is attained through creating homogenous voting districts) produces substantive changes in legislative outcomes (i.e., types of laws passed).   When we look at the U.S. Congress, we find that Congress as a whole has become less enthusiastic about minority issues, due in part to the paradox of majority-minority districts:

“. . . by creating districts with high percentages of minority constituents, strategists have made the other districts less diverse. The representatives in those districts are under very little pressure to consider the interests of minority groups. As a result, they typically do not.”  (Openstax: American Government)

Lavariega Monforti et al. (2009) examined this whether descriptive representation translated to substantive representation within the Texas Legislature by looking at bill sponsorship (bills introduced) during the 77th Legislature (2001-2002).  They found that:

  • black female Democrats, black male Democrats, Latino male Democrats, white female Democrats, and white male Democrats were more likely to introduce progressive bills than white female Republicans, white male Republicans, Latina female Republicans, and Latina female Democrats
  • legislators’ race, gender, and party played a role in what kinds of progressive bills they sponsored (i.e., education, health, welfare, children, women’s issues, racial issues)

Additional Reading

Lavariega Monforti, J. L., Orey, B. D, & Conroy, A. J. (2009, May). The Politics of Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and Representation in the Texas Legislature. Journal of Race & Policy, 5(35).


Representation refers to an elected leader’s looking out for his or her constituents while carrying out the duties of the office.  Four different models seek to explain how elected officials should represent their constituents or why elected officials make the decisions that they do:

  • trustee model, which posits that representatives feel at liberty to act in the way they believe is best for their constituents (i.e., they make decisions based on their own best judgment)
  • delegate model, which posits that representatives feel compelled to act on the specifically stated wishes of their constituents (i.e., they make decisions based on constituent preferences)
  • politico model, which posits that representatives act as either trustee or delegate, based on rational political calculations about who is best served, the constituency or the nation; and
  • partisan model, which posits that representatives make decisions following the preferences of the political parties, which are often in a unique position to exert influence over elected officials due in part to the provision of campaign resources (including money, volunteers, and party identification on the ballot)

Direct Link: Representatives as delegates, trustees, and politicos

How Do We Promote Good Representation?

According to substantive representation, representatives are accountable to constituents through elections.  Elections are viewed as a mechanism of correspondence between representatives’ opinions and those of their constituents through which good representation and governance are promoted.  For substantive representation to be effective, various factors need to be present:

  • reasonably sized constituencies
  • high voter turnout
  • effective mechanisms for identifying constituent beliefs and preferences
  • electoral districts that are drawn fairly

According to descriptive representation, the extent to which representatives share the racial, ethnic, religious, and educational backgrounds of their constituents affects how well they represent those constituents.  In other words, sociological similarity matters.  The concept of descriptive representation did not emerge until the 1900s, in large part because only a small portion of the U.S. population was granted suffrage, or the right to vote.

There are several reasons that descriptive representation has improved in national government:

  • Suffrage has been expanded through the passage of constitutional amendments and the removal of barriers that prevented eligible voters from being able to exercise their right to vote (we’ll learn more about these when we discuss civil rights later this semester)
  • Various groups seeking to promote the descriptive representation of specific minority groups in government have emerged
  • Many states have created majority-minority districts, or gerrymandered electoral districts organized around the goal of enhancing the votes of minority groups

Texas House: Ghost Voting

Members of the Texas House of Representatives vote electronically, which has led to a phenomenon referred to as ghost voting, where members of the Texas House cast votes “on behalf of” other Texas House members who are not in attendance on the day of the floor vote.  Technically, ghost voting violates chamber rules; in reality, however, it continues to occur.