General Land Commissioner: The Basics

The land commissioner is chosen via statewide election and serves four-year terms with no term limits.  There are no specific constitutional or statutory qualifications to serve as land office commissioner.  In 2016, the land commissioner was compensated $210,695/year.

The land commissioner oversees the General Land Office, which is the oldest state agency (originally established by the Texas Constitution of 1836).  “Because the federal government would not take Texas’ land as debt payments, Texas entered the Union owning its public land” (Texas General Land Office, n.d.).  Texas also retained ownership of the state’s submerged lands (i.e., tidelands) three marine leagues (about 10.3 miles) into the Gulf of Mexico.  As a result, the need to continue to maintain a General Land Office continued, and the office – and the role of the land commissioner – was incorporated into future state constitutions, including the Texas Constitution of 1876.

The land commission was originally responsible for a variety of functions, including administering state-owned lands (approximately 13 million acres, or nearly 12% of Texas), providing maps, surveying land, and controlling the permanent school fund (PSF), which is a fund set aside to finance K-12 public education in Texas and is Texas’s largest source of investment income.  Over time, additional responsibilities have been assigned to the land commissioner, including controlling leases for the development of mineral resources and other resources on public lands and making low-interest loans available to veterans.

Map of public lands managed by Texas General Land Office (GLO)

Agricultural Commissioner: The Basics

The agriculture commissioner is chosen via statewide election and serves four-year terms with no term limits.  The qualifications to serve as agriculture commissioner are outlined in the Texas Agricultural Code and include prior agricultural experience.  In 2016, the agriculture commissioner was compensated $137,500/year.

As the title of the office suggests, the agriculture commissioner is responsible for implementing agricultural law.   This includes:

  • overseeing the regulation of pesticide usage
  • ensuring the quality of agricultural products through consumer protection inspections
  • inspecting the accuracy of market scales
  • promoting agriculture throughout the state

The agricultural commissioner administers several programs, including Farm Fresh Fridays and other farm-to-school initiatives designed to promote healthy lifestyles and decrease childhood obesity, the Texas Community Development Block Grant program (which awards federal funds to local communities for infrastructure improvements and repairs), and the GO TEXAN program, which is a marketing effort to showcase Texas products and companies.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, see if you can spot any items with the GO TEXAN logo!

Comptroller of Public Accounts: The Basics

The comptroller of public accounts is chosen via statewide election and serves four-year terms with no term limits.  There are no specific constitutional qualifications to serve as the comptroller of public accounts.  In 2016, the comptroller of public accounts was compensated $153,750/year.

As the state’s chief financial officer, the comptroller of public accounts is responsible for various functions, including:

  • collecting a variety of state taxes and fees
  • producing annual financial reports
  • estimating the amount of revenue the state will generate each year (which impacts the budgeting process)
  • overseeing state payments for goods and services
  • co-chairing the state’s Treasury Safekeeping Trust, which invests, manages, and oversees more than $50 billion in assets

As the state’s purchasing manager, the comptroller of public accounts is also responsible for awarding and managing hundreds of statewide contracts.

The Comptroller’s office also administers a variety of programs, including the State Energy Conservation Office and the Texas college savings plans.

What about the Treasurer?

Initially, financial duties were divided between the Treasurer and the Comptroller of Public Accounts.  Texas’s last state Treasurer, Martha Whitehead (who was elected in 1994), ran on the campaign promise to abolish the office.  The Treasurer’s Office was abolished through a constitutional amendment in 1996, with its remaining functions absorbed by the Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Attorney General: The Basics

The attorney general is chosen via statewide election and serves four-year terms with no term limits.  The constitutional qualifications to serve as attorney general are low: 18 years of age, U.S. citizen, resident of Texas for 12 months.  In 2016, the Attorney General was compensated $153,750/year.

As the state’s chief legal advisor, the attorney general is responsible for various functions, including:

  • representing the state in courts
  • filing lawsuits on behalf of the state (usually questioning the constitutionality of federal actions under the principle of federalism)
  • issuing advisory opinions on legal matters to the governor, legislature, and state agencies within the bureaucracy
  • enforcing state anti-trust and consumer protection laws
  • investigating and prosecuting criminal activities, including crimes of human trafficking, internet crimes against children, and election fraud
  • assisting local law enforcement in prosecutions and appeals
  • enforcing open government (i.e., sunset) laws
  • collecting unpaid child support
  • collecting delinquent state taxes

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 Governor: Informal Powers

The Texas governor’s informal powers are not explicitly stated in our state’s constitutional or statutory law but nonetheless exist in practice.  Informal powers are often considered necessary for government to carry out its formal powers and can help a governor influence the creation and administration of laws.  As such, “informal powers often determine whether a state will have a strong or weak governor” (Smith and Greenblatt, 2015).  In the context of Texas’s governor, many informal powers relate directly to the governor’s role as chief executive officer, which carries with it broad responsibility without granting the governor’s office the corresponding formal powers to direct state action.

General Persuasion Tools

Governors – particularly those who win with the seat by what could be perceived as a significant margin – often claim a popular mandate (in other words, that they have Texan voters have granted them the authority to act as their representative).  This strategy is used to signal broad-based support of the governor’s agenda with the intention of influencing actors elsewhere in government to take actions necessary to put into effect the policies that the governor advocated for during the campaign.

The governor can also exert political influence by appealing to the public on an issue, expecting that public pressure will influence political actors; this strategy is known as going public or the “bully pulpit.”  Due to Texas’s size (particularly in terms of its population and economy), governors can also utilize the office to focus national attention on an issue, which can bring pressure on political actors within both state and federal government.

Governors with prior political experience in state government can also tap into the network of contacts (including current government officials, previous government officials, and lobbyists) they have developed over the years to solicit support for their agenda.

Legislative Persuasion Tools

When it comes to informal powers, the governor can influence the Texas legislature by:

  • threatening to veto bills (vetoing bills may be a constitutional power, but threatening to veto bills is not — and it can be effective given the difficulty in overriding vetoes)
  • negotiating with legislators to reach compromises prior to the start of a legislative session (precision bargaining) or during a legislative session (bargaining)
  • creating blue-ribbon commissions and appointing influential citizens, politicians, and members of interest groups to study a particular issue, measure public opinion in response to policy proposals, and inform and increase public and interest group attention and support

Executive Persuasion Tools

The governor can issue executive orders to direct state agencies or local government.  Some governors issue more executive orders than others; ultimately, it depends on how governors view their role in the executive branch.  Rick Perry issued 80 executive orders from 2001 through 2014.  Prior to COVID-19, Greg Abbott was described as “remarkably stingy with executive orders, perhaps [because of] an attorney’s view of that particular tool’s value” (Ramsey, 2020): Abbott issued 36 executive orders between 2015 and 2021, 28 of which were related to COVID-19.  Overall, the executive order in Texas is a much weaker tool than the presidential executive order largely because of our plural executive and the constitutionally limited powers of the governorship (such as limited appointment and removal powers).

Texas Governor: Constitutional and Statutory Powers

Institutionally Weak

The Texas governor’s formal powers include constitutional powers (powers granted to the governor by the Texas Constitution of 1876) and statutory powers (powers granted to the governor through laws passed by the Texas Legislature).  These powers can be divided into three categories: executive powers, legislative powers, and judicial powers.

Executive Legislative Judicial
Appointment & removal powers State of the state address Clemency power
Military powers Power to convene and adjourn special sessions of the Texas Legislature  
Declaring special elections to fill vacancies in certain elected offices Signing and vetoing bills, including the line-item veto on appropriations  
Temporarily fill vacancies in certain elected offices until an election can be held Limited budgetary powers  
Emergency powers Emergency legislation  

Thad Beyle developed a 5-point scale used to rank the power of state governors, focusing predominantly on formal powers (0 = extremely weak; 5 = extremely strong).  Beyle ranked Texas’s governor as a 2.8 / 5.0.  This low score reflects the limitations placed on our governor’s formal powers by the Texas Constitution of 1876.

Appointment & Removal

A governor’s appointment power, or the power to select who will occupy key positions within the bureaucracy (usually subject to confirmation from one or both chambers of the legislature), is central to a governor’s effectiveness in working with the state bureaucracy to administer laws.

The Texas Constitution’s creation of an independently elected plural executive significantly limited the governor’s appointment powers.  As the Texas legislature has created new boards, commissions, and agencies within the executive branch, they have slowly expanded the governor’s appointment powers.  “During a four-year term, the Governor will make about 1,500 appointments”, including appointing the Secretary of State and executive officials that oversee various state agencies and departments (Office of the Texas Governor, n.d.).  Most of these appointments are made on the basis of political philosophy, loyalty, and patronage.

Gubernatorial appointments must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Texas Senate; however, because our legislature does not meet full-time, situations may arise between regular legislative sessions that require the governor to make a recess appointment.  Recess appointees assume responsibility for the executive office until the next regular legislative session convenes; once the regular session begins, the Texas Senate has ten days to vote on whether to approve the recess appointment.

The governor’s appointment power is limited by the fact that most of the appointed offices have staggered six-year terms, meaning the governor can appoint 1/3 of these executive officers every two years (or 2/3 in one four-year term).  However, as Rick Perry demonstrated, governors can work around this limitation and use their appointment power to grow the office’s political influence by being reelected to more than one consecutive term:

After six years of Perry being in the governor’s office, virtually every appointee had him to thank for their post. And over his first decade in office, the governor seeded the executive branch with his former aides and their like-minded peers . . . turning what was designed as a weak office into a strong one. (Ramsey, 2013)

There is also an informal limit on the governor’s appointment power known as senatorial courtesy, which is the informal requirement that a gubernatorial appointee has the approval of his or her own state senator in order to obtain support within the Texas Senate.

A governor’s removal power limits an appointee’s ability to exercise autonomy and helps to promote accountability to the governor’s policy agenda.  In Texas, the governor’s removal powers are limited – the governor may only remove his or her appointees, and doing so requires the consent of two-thirds of the Texas Senate.  As Ramsey (2013) put it, appointees generally “can’t be fired — they can be made pretty uncomfortable, but that takes a lot of work — and they often behave as if they have their own brain sand their own goals and ways of doing things.”

Military Powers

Under the office’s military powers, the governor:

  • appoints the Adjutant General, which is the commander and chief executive officer of the Texas Military Department
  • serves as commander-in-chief of the National Guard, which includes the power to order mobilization of the National Guard in response to disasters/emergencies or for peacekeeping purposes
  • may declare martial law
  • may direct the Texas Rangers to take action

Emergency Powers

Our governor serves as the state’s crisis manager, with the responsibility to act as policymaker, coordinator of resources, and point person in the wake of natural or manmade disasters.  The Texas legislature has granted the governor “expansive and far-reaching power to deal with emergencies” (Lindell, 2020) through the Texas Disaster Act, which defines a disaster as:

“the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made cause, including fire, flood, earthquake, wind, storm, wave action, oil spill or other water contamination, volcanic activity, epidemic, air contamination, blight, drought, infestation, explosion, riot, hostile military or paramilitary action, extreme heat, cybersecurity event, other public calamity requiring emergency action, or energy emergency.”

Under this law, the governor can declare a disaster for up to thirty days (and can renew the declaration upon expiration at his or her discretion) when faced with an “imminent threat.”  The Texas legislature has the authority to cancel an emergency declaration if they are in session.

Prior to 2020, the governor’s emergency powers under the Texas Disaster Act had been primarily applied to “specific, isolated areas directly affected by severe weather”; however, in response to COVID-19, Governor Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration that was renewed several times and, in doing so, “exercised near-unchecked authority over the state” because the legislature was not in session and, as such, did not have the ability to respond to the declaration (Johnson, 2020).  The Texas legislature responded during the 87th regular session with HB3.

Even though this was a legislative priority during the 87th regular session, the bill did not make it to the governor’s desk for action:

The House and Senate passed competing legislation to give themselves more oversight in public health disasters, but failed to hammer out a compromise by Saturday’s deadline. A big sticking point was whether to curb the governor’s authority only during future pandemics or in natural disasters too. (Morris, 2021)

State of the State Address

The Texas Constitution requires the governor to address the state legislature about the condition of the state; this address is referred to as the state of the state address.  The state of the state address occurs at the beginning of each regular legislative session and at the end of a governor’s term.  The state of the state address can be an opportunity for the governor to exert informal, political powers to influence the state’s legislative agenda.

Line-Item Veto

The governor has the power to veto specific appropriations items from bills – in other words, the governor has the ability to cut spending without having to veto the bill in full and send it back to the Texas legislature to be revised.

Recently, the line-item veto has become an area of dispute between the governor’s office and the Texas legislature.  Governor Abbott expanded the application of the line-item veto to strike descriptive riders, or provisions “inserted by the Legislature to provide direction or information to state agencies”, in the state’s budget for the 2016-2017 biennium (Fikac, 2015 opens in new window).  As with any other perceived expansion of gubernatorial powers, tensions arose between the legislature and the governor’s office: the Legislative Budget Board argued that this was an expansion of the governor’s line-item veto power and was improper because it did not actually reduce spending on those items, and Abbott responded by asserting that the LBB was trying to restrict his constitutional authority.

Budget Powers

The budgeting process in Texas is dominated by the Legislative Budget Board.  The governor is required to submit a proposed budget at the beginning of each regular legislative session; however, the Texas legislature generally ignores the Governor’s budget.  The governor may attempt to influence the budgetary process through informal powers.

Emergency Legislation

The Texas Constitution grants the governor the power to identify emergency legislation items.  Emergency legislation items are moved to the beginning of the regular legislative session and can be voted on during the first 60 days of the session.  Despite how detailed our state constitution is when it comes to government power, it fails to define what constitutes an emergency.  As such, governors have broad discretion in making this determination.  Governors can increase the chances of their legislative agenda passing the legislature by declaring their legislative priorities “emergency legislation.”

Emergency Legislation Items, 2021

The video below identifies Governor Abbott’s emergency items for the 87th regular legislative session.


Clemency refers to “granting a person convicted of a criminal offense relief from a court-ordered sentence or punitive measure” (Lo, Pearl, and Amaning, 2020).  When it comes to clemency, the governor has the power to:

  • grant reprieves, commutations of sentences, and pardons (full or conditional) upon the written recommendation of a majority of the Board of Pardons and Paroles
  • grant a one-time, thirty-day stay of execution in capital punishment cases

Head of State: Texas Governor’s Symbolic Role

The governor, as chief executive officer and the most visible officeholder, serves as our head of state, carrying out the role of serving as the symbolic representative of the lone star state.  As head of state, the governor represents Texas in meetings with other governors or foreign officials.  The governor also is responsible for various ceremonial duties, such as throwing out the first baseball of the season, visiting disaster areas, attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies, riding in parades at fairs and festivals, etc.  Bob Bullock (who helped turn the Lieutenant Governor’s office into the political powerhouse it is today) “said he didn’t want the job [of being the governor] . . . because all a governor does is cut ribbons” (Ramsey, 2013).  This sentiment, however, discounts the fact that this ceremonial role can serve as a source of informal power.  For example, Abbott’s decision to reject the invitation to throw out the first pitch illustrates how the ceremonial role can be used strategically in an attempt to exert political influence.

Texas Governors: Common Characteristics

“No definite pattern is discernible in the political experience, educational background, or occupation of those attaining the office of governor” (Fry, n.d. ).  Most Texas governors are college graduates, with many having studied law and worked in the legal field.  Among those who did not work in the legal profession, “occupations . . . have ranged from newspaper editor to flour manufacturer to housewife” (Fry, n.d.).  Most Texas governors have prior military experience.  Many Texas governors had prior political experience in state or local government; those who lacked prior political experience often had larger-than-life personalities and were able to appeal to the populist beliefs of Texans, such as James Edward “Pa” Ferguson (also known as Farmer Jim; served as governor from 1915-1917) and Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel (served as governor from 1939-1941, and represented Texas in the U.S. Senate from 1941-1949).

FUN FACT:  The character Pappy O’Daniel from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou — Mississippi’s governor — is loosely based on Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who hosted a popular radio program prior to serving as Texas’s Governor and representing Texas in the U.S. Senate.

“The religious background of candidates has played an important part in the elections for governor” (Fry, n.d.).  Most of our governors since Texas was annexed as a state in the United States have been WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants).  In fact, there have been no Catholic governors in Texas since annexation.  This is not very different from what we find when we look at who has served as the U.S. president – aside from John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, the rest of our presidents have been WASPs.

All but two of our Texas governors have been male.  The first female governor of Texas (and one of the first two female governors in the U.S. – Wyoming also elected a female governor in 1924) was Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson, who was first elected in 1924.  Ma Ferguson was the wife of former Texas governor James Edward “Pa” Ferguson, who was the first (and only) Texas governor to be impeached and convicted by the Texas Legislature on charges related to mishandling public funds — “using the public’s money as a personal slush fund” — and abuse of power (Strong, 2020).  Miriam initially ran on the promise of “two governors for the price of one”, and during her initial campaign, “Jim vowed to do the governing if Miriam won.  Many women were furious at Jim’s plan to govern over his wife’s shoulder, but the unusual plan worked” (Humanities Texas, 2020).  Her first term as governor (1925-1927) was plagued with charges of corruption (the video below discusses some of the policy goals and actions taken by her administration, which sheds more light on this).  She failed to be reelected in 1926; however, she was re-elected again in 1932 and served a second term from 1933-1936.  She is one of two Texas governors who have served two non-consecutive terms.

Direct Link: Miriam Ferguson

Texas did not elect a female governor again until 1990, when Ann Richards became the 45th Governor of Texas.

For most of our history as a state, Texans elected Democratic governors.  Five out of Texas’s 48 governors have been Republicans:

  • Edmund J. Davis, the Reconstruction governor (1870-1874)
  • William P. “Bill” Clements, Jr. (Bill served for two non-consecutive terms: 1979-1983 and 1987-1991)
  • George W. Bush (1995-2000)
  • James Richard “Rick” Perry (2000-2015)
  • Greg Abbott (2015-present)

Texas Governor: The Basics

Generally speaking, governors are the most powerful state offices: “most governors have more power relative to their state legislatures than does the U.S. president relative to the U.S. Congress” (American Government, 2019); however, this is not the case in Texas.

Plural Executive = Constitutionally Weak, but Politically Strong Governor

The Texas Constitution of 1876 divided executive power between several directly-elected positions that comprise the plural executive due to Texans’ distrust of executive authority, which was exacerbated due to experiences under president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and governor E.J. Davis.  Even though the Texas Constitution of 1876 refers to the governor as the chief executive officer of the state, the governor does not have formal authority over the executive branch, making it difficult for the governor to develop and roll out a policy agenda, coordinate policy implementation efforts within the executive branch, and assume accountability for the administration of the state’s laws.  The strength of the Texas governor’s office has grown over time alongside the general growth in government powers at both the federal and state levels, but the office today is still relatively weak (at least in terms of its formal powers).  The best way to characterize the modern governor is institutionally weak, with opportunities to be politically strong.

Selection, Terms, & Qualifications

Under the Texas Constitution of 1876’s original form, the Texas governor was elected by statewide popular vote and served two-year terms.  Most of Texas’s governors from annexation in 1845 through the mid-1900s served at least two consecutive two-year terms (four years).  In 1972, our state constitution was amended to reflect this fact, extending the governor’s term from two years to four years; this change went into effect in 1975.

The gubernatorial election falls during federal midterm election years (in other words, between presidential election years — 2014, 2018, 2022 . . .), when voter turnout tends to be lower.  According to the Texas Constitution of 1876, gubernatorial inaugurations occur “on the first Tuesday after the organization of the legislature, or as soon thereafter as practicable” – meaning that the beginning of a governor’s term begins in January following the gubernatorial election, coinciding with the beginning of a regular legislative session.

The Texas Constitution of 1876 sets forth the basic qualifications to serve as governor of Texas:

  • 30 years of age
  • U.S. citizen
  • a resident of Texas for 5 years

Removal & Succession

Once elected, most governors remain in office until they either fail to be reelected, choose to not seek reelection, or resign (like George W. Bush did when he became president).

The Texas Constitution of 1876 provides a mechanism to remove the governor, other elected officials in the plural executive, and state judges of state district courts, courts of appeals, or the Texas Supreme Court during their term: impeachment.  The impeachment process in Texas is procedurally similar to impeachment in federal government:

  • the Texas House of Representatives has the power of impeachment; they initiate articles of impeachment with a majority vote
  • the Texas Senate serves as the trial for impeachment; conviction and removal requires a two-thirds vote

In the event that a governor is unable to fulfill his or her term, the Texas Constitution outlines a clear line of succession: (1) Lieutenant Governor; (2) President Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate; (3) Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives; and (4) Attorney General.  There have been times when the Lieutenant Governor became the Governor through succession — William P. Hobby became governor after James Edward Ferguson was removed, and Rick Perry became governor after George W. Bush resigned.  “At no time in Texas history has succession officially gone beyond the lieutenant governor” (Davis, n.d.).