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Texas Politics - Texas Political Culture
Craig Washington on institutions and diverse interests Craig Washington on institutions and diverse interests
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Use the Texas Politics Links pull-down menu at the top of this page to get more info on executive branch, legislative branch, and justice system. For more info on voting behavior and the types of elections in Texas, see the chapter on voting and campaigns

6.1    Institutions of Government

Though the Texas Constitution and the three branches of government are expressions of the ideals and aspirations of the people these institutions serve, they also provide a feedback mechanism that reinforces those original ideals. This dynamic is typical of political institutions, which by their inherent nature tend to reinforce existing practices, policies, and relationships. In short, government institutions are designed to provide stability and continuity, while adapting to the inevitable changes in the social and political environment.

Does this mean that government institutions do not change? No, they certainly evolve, but at a much slower pace than the larger society in which they are situated. In Texas, the state constitution has proven to be one of the most unmovable of our institutions. It was designed in 1875 in reaction to the excesses (some perceived, others real) of the Radical Republican administration of Governor E.J. Davis. As such it sought to make it exceedingly difficult for the government to take decisive, coordinated action. The Texas Constitution achieved this central goal of its framers by specifying in sometimes excruciating detail the powers and limits of government institutions and office holders. The result of this specification is a complex, disorganized, divided and multilayered government that impedes decisive action. The considerable length and detail of the constitution means that many governmental initiatives, even on the local level, require constitutional amendments, which involve ratification by popular vote in special elections.

Under the Texas Constitution the top executive branch offices - including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer (now abolished), comptroller of public accounts, attorney general - are all elected independently. This creates a divided executive branch with relatively little power given to the governor to control high level executive branch offices. Adding to the fractured nature of executive branch authority, the lieutenant governor is the presiding officer of the Texas Senate, a key component of the legislative branch.

The key limiting aspect of the legislature is that it meets in regular session for only 140 days every two years, hardly enough time to keep up with the legislative challenges of such a large and complex state. In addition, legislators are paid very little, which undermines their independence from financially powerful interests.

The judiciary, like the executive branch, suffers from a complicated structure and divided authority. Texas has essentially two supreme courts, one for criminal cases (the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) and another for everything else (the Texas Supreme Court). Additionally, the Texas court system fills most of its ranks through popular elections, which can make judges more beholden to campaign supporters than to the pure pursuit of justice.

These core institutions of government have played an important role in perpetuating the low-taxes, low services, pro-business political culture in Texas, if unintentionally, by weakening public offices and dispersing power to such a great degree. It may seem prudent, in general, to disperse public authority. But the great extent to which this has been accomplished in Texas undermines the ability of public officials to act decisively in the pursuit of the public interest. It also undermines the independence of officeholders from powerful special interests.

The extreme detail of the Texas Constitution, the fractured, dispersed authority of the government, and the reliance on popular election for most of the positions in the judiciary and many of the top executive positions has a direct and often deleterious effect on the voting system. The sheer number and variety of elections on all levels of government in the state means that voters go to the polls frequently. To vote meaningfully, citizens must spend a lot of time learning about the issues and candidates, as well as about more mundane details like when and where elections will be held. The ironic result of the broad reliance on popular elections in Texas is that it produces voter fatigue, depressing turnout often to very low percentages of the electorate. The net effect of all this is that politically connected business interests tend to dominate state politics, reinforcing a culture that already confers considerable status to entrepreneurialism and private enterprise.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 115
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