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

Components of Texas’s Criminal Justice System

Criminal justice systems consist of three major components: law enforcement agencies, courts, and correctional facilities.

Law Enforcement Agencies

Texas has over 1,900 state, county, city, ISD, university, and transit district law enforcement agencies.

State law enforcement agencies include, but are not limited to, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Texas Attorney General, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, and Criminal Investigations Division – Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

For the purposes of our discussion, we are going to focus on only one of these state law enforcement agencies: the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).  TDCJ is overseen by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which is a nine-member board appointed by the governor.

TDCJ has four goals: (1) to provide public safety; (2) to promote positive change in offender behavior; (3) to reintegrate offenders into society; and (4) to assist victims of crimes.

TDCJ consists of seven divisions, four of which are focused on overseeing the supervision of offenders in various TDCJ-operated and privately-operated state correctional facilities.

TDCJ Divisions that Oversee the Supervision of Offenders

  • Community Justice Assistance Division
  • Correctional Institutions Division
  • Private Facility Contract Monitoring/Oversight Division
  • Parole Division

Other TDCJ Divisions

  • Rehabilitation Programs Division
  • Reentry and Integration Division
  • Victim Services Division


Texas has nearly 3,000 state, county, and local courts, many of which have jurisdiction over certain criminal offenses.

Correctional Facilities

Texas has a variety of agencies that detain and supervise offenders, including state facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, privately operated facilities, and parole confinement facilities.

TDCJ state facilities include prisons, state jails, transfer facilities, medical facilities, pre-release facilities, substance abuse felony punishment facilities, psychiatric facilities, geriatric facilities, and the mentally challenged offender program.

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

Texas Governor: Office & Staff

Much like the U.S. president, who has an executive office consisting of various bureaucratic agencies and professional staff who assist the president in furthering his administration’s agenda, the Texas governor has an executive office of approximately 140 professional staff who assist the governor in carrying out the duties of the office and supporting the governor’s policy goals.  The Office of the Texas Governor is currently divided into 16 divisions, each of which has a specific focus:

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

Bureaucracy: Administrator, Rule Maker, and Judge

Bureaucracy as Administrator

Bureaucratic agencies have constitutionally or statutorily delegated authority to carry out laws that have been made elsewhere in government.  Each bureaucratic agency is charged with implementing specific program(s) and/or enforcing specific law(s).

Bureaucracy as Rule Maker

The Texas legislature does not spell out all the details when writing a law or creating a new program; instead, the legislature delegates some lawmaking authority to the bureaucracy, allowing agencies to determine whether and, if so, what specific rules should be adopted to “fill in the blanks.”

Traditionally, once an agency drafts a proposed rule, it is published in the Texas Register so the public may review it and provide comments that raise important points the agency failed to consider and/or provide recommendations for revision.  After the time for public comments ends, the agency will review those comments, make revisions to the draft rule based on the public comments (if necessary), and adopt the final rule, at which point it is again published in the Texas Register.  Once adopted, a rule or regulation carries the full weight of the law, just like a law that was passed by the Texas legislature and signed by the governor.

Gov. Abbott asserted the governor’s office into the rule-making process by issuing a letter directing state agencies to “provide certain information to the governor – including the draft rule, as well as its expected impact on local employment and the economy – before posting the proposed rule in the Texas Register”  (Platoff, 2018).  This arrangement, which more closely resembles what we find with the president and federal bureaucracy, allows the governor more control over the bureaucracy by allowing the governor “to coordinate policy among agencies, eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies, and provide a dispassionate ‘second opinion’ on the costs and benefits of proposed agency actions” (Platoff, 2018).  While Texas Administrative Code doesn’t require state bureaucratic agencies to consult the governor during rule-making, it doesn’t explicitly prohibit it, either.

Bureaucracy as Judge

Bureaucratic agencies that are charged with ensuring compliance with rules and regulations operate in a quasi-judicial capacity in the sense that they can determine whether an individual or entity has violated a rule or regulation and, if so, they have the authority to enact punishment (within the framework proscribed by applicable laws, rules, and regulations).  These punishments can take the form of:

  • fines (for example, for exceeding the speed limit, or for fishing without the appropriate license)
  • revoking or suspending a license (for example, if the TABC discovers a server in a restaurant who has a TABC certification to sell alcoholic beverages is selling alcohol to persons under 21 years of age, the server’s Texas driver’s license will be suspended for 180 days upon conviction in addition to potential fines and/or imprisonment)
  • arrest and imprisonment (for example, if an officer has probable cause to suspect a person committed a felony offense)

Max Weber’s Ideal Bureaucracy

Max Weber was a German sociologist, jurist, and political economist who lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (late 1800s-early 1900s).  He made numerous contributions to social theory and research.  One of his most notable contributions is his bureaucratic model.

Weber’s model of bureaucracy arose in response to industrialization, which resulted in the rise of large-scale workplace organizations.  When looking at these large-scale organizations, Weber expressed concerns about traditional authority (using relationships, kinships, or customs to lead and make decisions), which he viewed as leading to several problems, including particularism (favoritism): employees were hired or fired for a variety of non-organization reasons, such as religion, race, sex, and relational or family connections.  Weber argued that traditional authority and particularism reduced organizational effectiveness.

Weber favored a more rational approach to organizational leadership and decision-making.  According to Weber, the ideal bureaucracy has five characteristics:

  1. Division of labor and task specialization
  2. Hierarchy of organization
  3. Written rules and regulations (i.e., standard operating procedures)
  4. Impersonality and the rigid separation of personal life and work life
  5. Merit (i.e., employment decisions based on technical qualifications)

The video below discusses these characteristics in more depth and identifies positive and negative aspects associated with each characteristic.

Texas Bureaucracy: The Basics

The Texas bureaucracy consists of elected and appointed officials (including, but not limited to, the offices previously discussed) in conjunction with a wide range of around 300 constitutionally or statutorily created boards and agencies.  Some of these agencies include:

  • Department of State Health Services (DSHS)
  • Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC)
  • State Board of Education (SBOE)
  • Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC)
  • Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)
  • Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)
  • Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC)

Organization of the Texas Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic agencies are assigned responsibility for certain important functions.  These agencies are generally overseen by either an elected board consisting of members chosen through statewide election or an appointed regulatory commission consisting of members who were appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.  Agencies are often divided into subdivisions based specialization(s); each of these subdivisions tends to adopt a hierarchical structure that allows for a clear chain of command that flows from the top to the bottom.

Bureaucratic Staffing

Bureaucratic staffing consists of a mixture of popular elections, the patronage system, and the merit system.

Popular Elections

There are several key executive offices that are filled through statewide elections – including roles created by the Texas Constitution of 1876 (ex: land commissioner) and those created by the Texas legislature (ex: Agricultural Commissioner).  In addition to these key offices we have already discussed, Texans directly elect several other members of bureaucratic agencies, including SBOE members and RRC commissioners.  In theory, this allows citizens to hold these officeholders directly accountable; in this way, popular elections as a mechanism of bureaucratic staffing reinforce popular sovereignty.  However, this can open the door to potential conflicts of interest, particularly when it involves regulatory agencies.  As Price (2018) pointed out,

“The three elected members of the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency charged with regulating oil and gas operations, have long gotten campaign money from the businesses they regulate . . . When an industry pays 56 percent to 65 percent of its regulators’ prodigious political bills, who’s regulating whom?”

Patronage System

Patronage politics refers to the use of state resources to reward individuals for political support.  The patronage system, then, involves selecting individuals to fill government offices on the basis of factors such as political philosophy or political loyalty.  The patronage system is used to fill key executive offices that oversee one or more large bureaucratic agencies.  Remember, most gubernatorial appointments are made on the basis of these criteria.  There are also members of the bureaucracy who are appointed by members of other boards and commissions; these boards and commissions often use similar criteria in deciding who to appoint.

The patronage system has several advantages, some of which we have alluded to in previous discussions.  Notably, the patronage system enforces party loyalty (which can, in turn, have positive impacts on civic engagement, including more robust voter turnout).  The patronage system can also reinforce the governor’s effectiveness at controlling the state bureaucracy – and, to the extent that the governor is truly operating under a popular mandate, it reinforces government responsiveness to the electorate.  The system is not without its disadvantages, however; in particular, it does not always promote the most efficient, effective operations because those who hold office are not necessarily the most skilled in a specific area, and opportunities for corruption can be commonplace.

Merit System

The merit system involves selecting individuals to fill government offices based on their professional qualifications and performance.  Merit systems are rooted in the principle of neutral competence, or the belief that while bureaucracy should understand and appreciate public opinion, it should ultimately operate in a professional and depoliticized manner as opposed to being the political arm of the governor or state legislature.  The majority of the jobs within our state bureaucracy – from directors of subdivisions within departments to administrative assistants to facilities management positions – are filled using the merit system.  These jobs have clearly defined duties and minimum qualifications documented in job descriptions, alongside clearly defined salary grades (maintained by the State Auditor’s Office, which is — you guessed it! — a bureaucratic agency).  These positions are advertised online for a specified number of days, as required by state law (the required number of days depends on whether the job is considered non-exempt from the Federal Labor Standards Act/eligible for overtime or exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act/ineligible for overtime).  Only those applicants who apply are considered for the job.  Each candidate’s qualifications are reviewed; competitive interviews with top candidates occur before a job offer is made.

“Since the heads of many agencies are elected, appointed by the governor, or selected by boards and commissions appointed by the governor, this guarantees ‘who you know’ is often more important than ‘what you know’” (Herzog, 2017).

Secretary of State: The Basics

The secretary of state is the only office within the plural executive as originally established by the Texas Constitution of 1876 that is not chosen via statewide election — the secretary of state is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.  Once appointed, the secretary of state serves four-year terms with no term limits unless removed prior to the end of an appointed term.  There are no specific qualifications required to serve as secretary of state.  In 2016, the secretary of state was compensated $132,924/year.

The secretary of state performs a variety of administrative functions on behalf of the state.  The secretary of state issues corporate charters and “provides a repository for official business and commercial records required to be filed with the Office” (Texas Secretary of State, n.d.).  The secretary of state publishes rules and regulations created by state bureaucratic agencies, certifies notaries public, attests to the governor’s signature on official documents, and keeps the state seal.

The secretary of state serves as the chief election officer for the state; as such, this office is responsible for administering state elections, which includes:

  • assisting counties in ensuring consistent application and interpretation of election laws
  • conducting voter registration drives
  • certifying election results
  • maintaining a list of lobbyists and campaign contributions

The secretary of state also serves as the state’s chief international protocol officer and acts as a senior advisor and liaison to the Governor for the Texas Border and Mexican Affairs Division.  These foreign affairs duties were originally granted to the Secretary of the Republic by the Texas Constitution of 1836 (which, if you think about it, makes sense — the U.S. the secretary of state plays a similar role in foreign affairs); this role remained with this office when it was modified following Texas’s annexation.