When I first moved to Texas and was learning about the political systems and power structures of the Lone Star State, people repeatedly reminded me that the most powerful chair in the state was the one the lieutenant governor sat in on the Senate floor. Endowed with the power to set the agenda in the state’s upper legislative chamber and pick and choose committee chairs, people would often opine about the governor’s job and jokingly say things like, “Who would want it?”
Indeed, to steal the title of a book by the great and good Glen Maxey, to be Governor of Texas is to essentially be the head figurehead in a state full of outsized personalities. While governors in Texas are often credited with setting the tone of statewide policy debates, they haven’t often been regarded as policy heavyweights, necessarily.
But understanding the nexus of power in the governor’s office is central to understanding what draws people like Rick Perry and Greg Abbott to its orbit, while also revealing the ultimate accountability trap Abbott now finds himself in after six years of his leadership did nothing to avoid a predictable and preventable calamity that has turned into an enduring and tragic humanitarian crisis.
Where governors derive most of their power in Texas is through their ability to appoint the members of the powerful boards and commissions that are actually chiefly responsible for making rules and regulating the expansive reach of state government.
One of those boards and commissions is the Public Utility Commission of Texas or PUC. While much has been made of ERCOT’s massive failure in the statewide power outages that have killed dozens and left hundreds of others sick from carbon monoxide poisoning and exposure-related ailments, Abbott is likely to push responsibility on PUC, the entity responsible for regulation and oversight of ERCOT.
It’s an extremely cynical lie because the members of PUC are all appointed by the Governor of Texas. Every single member of that commission serves at the pleasure of the governor, and Abbott is granted broad freedom to appoint new members. What Abbott would essentially be arguing is that it isn’t he who bears any responsibility, but his hand-chosen commissioners who are at fault.
What often gets left unsaid in the discussions around gubernatorial appointments in Texas is the seedy underbelly of how those appointments get made. The tentacles of the Texas government are a cesspool of high-level donors and other “influencers” in the political orbit, supposedly selected for their subject matter expertise but often chosen for their political fealty to the governor.
It is, in practice, no different from the patronage system of government still used in cities and states generally governed by Democrats that Texas Republicans love to attack regularly. I’ve lived in cities like Chicago and Buffalo, where city departments are regularly staffed by members of a specific elected official’s “organization.” In New York, both parties engage in patronage at the county level, where each party is given an office in the Board of Elections in every county and generally fills their staff with political appointees who are also active in county politics.
It isn’t a great system in many respects, but it is almost inarguable that people who live in those cities receive better service than the citizens of Texas did this week. One of the reasons for that disparity is that the patronage system is often on full display in the cities and states that still cling to it, and you know Bob has his job at the water department because he knocked doors for some state Senator, but at least Bob shows up when the water stops flowing to your house.
In Texas, our patronage system bubbles under the surface, only spilling out on the street in moments of abject crisis. For decades, PUC appointees have been ideologically aligned with the statewide Republican elected officials who opposed efforts to more closely regulate our grid and energy generation practices, leading to fairly toothless work on behalf of the people of Texas.
The end result is a crisis like the one we’re currently living through, which is an unmistakable failure of state government from top to bottom. Unfortunately, in Texas, that failure is by design. Abbott didn’t do more to keep ERCOT in check or put genuine reformers in place at the PUC because he didn’t want to. As long as energy producers were making their payday and the lights stayed on, Abbott couldn’t have cared less if they properly weatherized equipment and facilities or not. What are the odds that will be a problem anyway, right?
And now it’s Abbott who wants to talk tough about holding ERCOT responsible, making it an emergency item on the legislative agenda (one of the few legislative powers bestowed upon a governor in Texas) and pledging to hold them accountable.
But where is the accountability for Abbott, who was Texas Attorney General when the 2011 ice storms hit the state and prompted the last round of consternation over our inadequate grid and emergency preparedness? How can we possibly trust that, in six years as governor, not a single person ever uttered a concern about our grid and that there wasn’t a single staffer in his office who asked a tough question of ERCOT or the PUC?
The sad truth is that we can’t trust Greg Abbott, not to tell the truth or to execute his responsibilities as governor with any competence whatsoever. The open question people keep posing on social media is if Texas is a failed state. At times last week, it certainly felt like one, and we can’t ever forget that feeling. As we begin to rebuild and renew, we must remember why we’re in this situation in the first place and who it was that bears ultimate responsibility for the hours we’re spending in crawl spaces trying to fix burst pipes and volunteering to distribute water and food to the Texans most in need.
We can’t forget that we’re in this situation because Greg Abbott and Texas Republicans put profits and politics above human lives.
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call