The Imperial Governor

If he finishes this term of office, Rick Perry will be the longest-serving governor in Texas history. There has been much speculation that Perry’s recent spasm of ambitious initiatives-mandating that all girls entering sixth grade be vaccinated for HPV, for instance, and trying to privatize the state highway system-are efforts to ensure a grand legacy for the man from Haskell County. But Perry’s greatest bequest to the people of Texas is what he has already done. This issue’s cover story, “The Governor’s Database,” details just one little known and disturbing piece of what has become the broadest expansion of the power of the Office of the Governor since Texans opted for a weak-governor system in 1876. Despite his headline-generating proposals, most of this expansion is being done piecemeal, dribbled out in press releases over time. Its true extent is largely hidden.

The TDEx database is a perfect example. To date, Perry has hidden it behind broad policy pronouncements about homeland security and border protection. His policy papers and press releases are filled with generalities. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw, who reports directly to Perry, has been putting together a database that could someday house information on every Texan-a database that would be accessible by the governor and his staff. The implications of placing such a powerful intelligence-gathering tool in political hands are obvious and frightening.

Read carefully, the state budget offers clear indications of how methodically Perry has expanded the powers of his office. At first blush, it appears the governor’s budget and staff have remained largely constant since fiscal year 2002. In any given year, Perry has about 137 people working for him and a two-year budget of about $17 million. But Perry has dramatically increased staff and resources in programs assigned to his office. In 2002, 61 full-time employees worked on the governor’s programs with a budget for that biennium of $297.3 million from general revenue. By 2006, those sums had grown to about 136 full-time employees with a budget for that biennium of $668.7 million. Since 2003, gubernatorial appointment authority grew by 67 positions, according to the Legislative Council. The 2003 legislative session also handed the governor a number of slush funds so he can dole out tens of millions of dollars, including the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Texas Enterprise Fund, and the Spaceport Trust Fund.

What is particularly troubling about Perry’s power grab is that of all the state agencies, the governor’s office is among the least open. Perry’s office has a policy of destroying e-mails after seven days. His media staff is well practiced at spinning and manipulating reporters. It is a rare day when information is released that the governor does not want made public.

Perhaps one of the reasons Perry has been somewhat circumspect about how radically he is adding to his powers is that it contravenes more than a century of Texas tradition. Texans set up a weak governor’s office because they distrusted concentrated power. They wanted authority to be dispersed among other elected offices or agency heads. The system dates to the 1876 Texas Constitution, itself a reaction to the trauma of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In particular, conservative Democrats were outraged that Republican Gov. Edmund J. Davis in 1870 created a state police they viewed as unaccountable and prone to criminal behavior. They saw a powerful executive and scant oversight as a recipe for trouble. Much like what Perry’s been cooking up for eight years now.

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Published at 12:00 am CST