The Land Commissioner, as the head of the General Land Office is known, gains power and significance as a result of the large amount of public land in the state and the resources, particularly energy, that are found on many of these lands. He or she is elected to a four-year term.
The General Land Office administers the use of all state-owned lands. This responsibility includes leasing for gas and oil production, mining, and grazing, and monitoring the environmental quality of public lands and waters. The office also operates the veterans' land program, in which state bonds are used to underwrite loans to military veterans for land purchases.
The Land Commissioner authorizes exploration and exploitation of public lands, so the Commissioner's decisions affect hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. This also has a significant impact on state government and services, as the General Land Office generates hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties on oil and gas extracted from state lands.
Like much of the southern region of the United States, environmental protection, particularly along the coast, has frequently been treated as secondary to generating economic growth. The Land Office has often come under criticism for doing too little to protect coastal areas. Recent years, however, have seen increased efforts to monitor coastlines and respond to water quality problems as they are detected. The implementation of a beach monitoring program coordinated by the Land Office resulted in an improvement in the state's ratings by environmental groups that monitor coastal water quality, though Texas was one of the last states to undertake such efforts. 
As with similar offices in other states and at the federal level (for example, the Department of the Interior), the Land Commissioner must reconcile the economic use of natural resources with environmental protection and conservation. State lands are a valuable source of revenue, particularly given that the state cannot draw on an income tax for revenue and that a significant share of oil and gas royalties are dedicated to public education. These issues are particularly acute in the coastal areas, where the state owns four million acres of submerged lands and all of the beaches. The General Land Office is thus under intense pressure both to exploit and preserve public lands, generating equally intense interest in elections.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson served as a state senator before being elected for the first time in 2002, and reelected in 2006 and 2010. He succeeded David Dewhurst, who used the office as a platform for his successful campaign to be elected Lieutenant Governor. Both are Republicans.
2 Tony Freemantle, "Monitoring helps Texas lose 'beach bum' status," Houston Chronicle, 8 August 2001, link: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/metropolitan/998273