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National Perspective | POLITICS

Bush's Absence Doesn't Hinder Texas Operations

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, the state's strongest official, is in charge while the governor campaigns. The state constitution helps too.

March 16, 2000|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN — Powering across the country from Iowa to California, Texas Gov. George W. Bush has spent most of the last year touting his credentials as the Lone Star State's leader. Which begs a delicate question: Who's running Texas while Bush is elsewhere, explaining how mighty the task is?

To varying degrees, Texans say, the answer includes the following: A. The lieutenant governor--by law and tradition, the state's strongest official; B. Texas' distinctive, influence-diffusing constitution and C. Bush's spirit, embodied by more than 2,800 appointees who support all he stands for.

Because the governorship has such limited power--and the Legislature only meets every two years--Bush's frequent absences don't rattle operations, officials and pundits say.

"There's not a huge amount going on in Texas that requires the presence of the governor," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political historian. "The kind of stuff that's going on would be ceremonial events, and a problem that might erupt, such as an oil spill."

Should either a festivity or industrial accident arise in Bush's absence, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry takes the helm. Perry becomes acting governor whenever Bush is away and has authority over executions, command of the National Guard and the power to call a special legislative session.

In practice, Perry's job hasn't changed much. "I don't feel an added burden relative to workload," Perry said.

Where he does feel the difference, Perry added, is in the number of non-Texans who are now intently curious about the state's workings. "George Bush does not worry about what's going on in the state of Texas with me as his lieutenant governor. He knows what I'm going to do on any given day," Perry said.

Replacing Bush for about 90 days in the last nine months, Perry has presided over several executions. His role in the process is to monitor court and parole board decisions, and consult with state attorneys before formally giving permission for the execution to go forward. Perry has not granted any stays.

Perry has also assigned committees to study several issues during the legislative interim, including education, water conservation and transportation and infrastructure.

The two men, friends for more than a decade, campaigned heavily for each other in previous elections, worship at the same church and send their children to the same school.

Perry, a onetime Democrat, served in the Texas House before becoming agriculture commissioner in 1990. Bush backed him energetically in that race, and again when Perry faced a powerful Democratic opponent in the 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor.

Today, Perry and Bush confer at least weekly by phone. Bush also keeps up regularly with his own staff, said spokeswoman Linda Edwards. While on the road, he checks in by telephone, or mulls e-mails relayed by intermediaries.

"Bush has been a delegative chief executive anyway, and he's got a lot of people who know how to run" state affairs, said Dave McNeely, political columnist for the Austin American Statesman.

Back in town, even if it's a Sunday, Bush holds updating meetings with his senior staff and hears recommendations from a very busy appointments staff.

Leery of centralized power after the Civil War, framers of Texas' constitution made sure the governor's post was one of the weakest in the United States. So unlike some counterparts, Bush has no Cabinet. Legislators, not the chief executive, draft the budget. And the lieutenant governor oversees the Senate, controls the flow of legislation and sits on the board that carves out voting districts.

Even capital punishment decisions are handled, ultimately, by the state Pardons and Paroles board. Should Bush doubt if a prisoner received justice, the best he can do is grant a one-time, 30-day reprieve.

Texas governors do, however, appoint boards of almost every state agency. The boards select their own chiefs, who take office several years into each new governor's term. One and a half terms into office, Bush now enjoys a phalanx of agency chiefs who follow his drumbeat, said Austin lobbyist Dee Simpson. "He should have his appointments in there by now, so he should be fairly in control," Simpson said.

Bush also enjoys an auspicious political constellation. Texas' previous lieutenant governor, the late, legendarily influential Bob Bullock, exercised his statutory independence from the governor far more than Perry chooses to.

Perry now presides over a Republican-dominated Senate, in a state where, since a 1998 sweep, Republicans occupy all statewide elected offices. Bullock, a Democrat who left office in 1998, had no interest in being governor, so had little reason to defer either to former Gov. Ann Richards or Bush, who took office after her.

"Bullock set the agenda," Simpson said. "He controlled the Senate's agenda, and the way the rules worked [he] could move issues and use and create majorities when he had to."

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