Before you say it, yes, I know the California vs. Texas comparisons on this site are getting tired. You’re probably wondering what’s up with my strange obsession with this topic. I think the debate is emblematic of the deep cultural/ideological divides and vastly different historical tracks that define our nation (though this polarization is another hotly contested notion). Going beyond the “red vs. blue” dichotomy that colors the comparisons between the Golden and Lone Star states, I think it is useful to understand the differences in the organization of the respective governments and how those systems operate differently. To begin with, neither state’s government is a carbon copy of the national government, though both take cues from our Founding Fathers and long Greco-Roman tradition of Democratic-Republicanism (though, that’s a whole other can of worms). So let’s dig in.
California Like the federal government, California’s state government is composed of three distinct branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. The state also has a state constitution and elements of Direct Democracy. Executive There are 8 elected executive positions in California’s state government, each is elected by popular vote to a 4 yr. term and there is a limit of two terms per officeholder for each office. The most significant of these elected positions are: Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Controller, State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, and Superintendent of Public Instruction. The different offices are all voted for separately from each other; there are no joint Governor-Lieutenant Governor tickets, for example. There are a number of redundant executive positions and so much of the power of the executive branch is vested with the governor. As is expected, there is a plethora of state regulatory agencies under the auspices of the executive. Of all the executive positions, the governor is the most significant as he is the commander-in-chief of California’s military forces, submits the state budget, and enforces the laws of the state. There are 7 cabinet-level agencies under the oversight of the governor; these include but are not limited to: CA Health and Human Services Agency, CA Business/Consumer Services/Housing Agency, and the CA Environmental Protection Agency. The governor may be ousted after impeachment by a 2/3 state Senate vote or through majority vote in a recall election, initiated by petitions containing a number of signatures equal to 12% of the total vote for the previous gubernatorial race. The lieutenant governor is a largely ceremonial job, akin to that of the VP of the United States of America. The vice president presides over the California State Senate, appoints bureaucrats to certain state agencies, steps in for governor during times of absence from state, and sits on the Board of Regents for certain state universities. The state controller is basically the CFO of California; he has the power to investigate all monies spent by the state, is the bookkeeper of then state’s finances, and sits on 76 different boards and commissions. The state treasurer manages state investments, trades state bonds, and pays out state funds authorized by the controller. Needless to say, these positions seem a little redundant. The insurance commissioner heads the Department of Insurance and has the power to: adopt insurance regulations, take complaints against insurance industry, licenses/regulates insurance companies. The superintendent of public instruction, heads the California Department of Education and sets the policies of school districts. Legislative The California Legislature is bicameral, composed of the State Assembly and State Senate. All legislators are limited to 12 years of service in the California Legislature in any combination of 2 year assembly terms and/or 4 year senate terms. Each assemblymember represents 465,000 residents and each senator represents 931,349 residents. No bill, save budget bills, may be acted upon by the legislature within 30 days of introduction, inviting legislative bottlenecks and gridlock. Any bills enacting tax increases, requires a 2/3 vote to pass. To override a governor’s veto, a 2/3 vote is required in both houses. Judiciary The Supreme Court of California is composed of 1 Chief Justice and 6 Associates. Each justice is appointed by the governor to a 12 year term. Justices are subject to retention every 12 years in the general elections after their initial appointment to office. The California Supreme Court mainly deals with civil cases of great significance in public policy (freedom of speech, eminent domain, etc.) and nearly all death penalty cases in the State of California.
Direct Democracy The cornerstone of California’s high-profile practice of direct democracy, a modern take on an Attican form of governance, is the Ballot Proposition. There are two types of: Constitutional Amendments and Statutes. There are two ways by which a ballot proposition originates; it’s either initiated in the State Legislature or it’s initiated by the Popular Initiative System. In order for a proposal to get on the ballot put before voters in a general statewide election, its petitions must garner a number of signatures equivalent to 5% of the total vote cast in the previous gubernatorial race. A simple majority of votes in the general election is all that is then needed to pass a proposition. I would argue that this is, perhaps, the most fatal flaw in the structure of California’s government. Since turnout for elections is generally low, and turnout for gubernatorial in a politically noncompetitive state are really low, the threshold of 5% allows well-marketed special interest groups to prey on low-information and win the popular opinion of voters. Ballot initiatives are largely responsible for California’s capricious record on gay marriage, confusing patchwork of marijuana laws, and budget squeeze. Constitution There is nothing of great remark in California’s current constitution other than its great lengthiness. A few key highlights: the constitution grants broad-based home rule powers to municipal and county governments; Stanford University is granted tax-exempt status as long as it remains an educational institution; an University of California is guaranteed no political interference.
Texas True to American form, the Texas government is composed of three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The state also has an interesting constitution that packs a punch, giving the people a huge check on the government. A true plural executive branch and expressed constitutional limits on the power of the legislature make Texas’ government a Tocquevillean masterpiece (okay maybe that’s a stretch). Executive There are 9 executive positions in the Texas state government. Other than the three Railroad Commissioners, the holders of these positions are all elected to 4 year terms with no term limits. The Governor is the commander-in-chief of Texas’ military forces, can convene a special session of the legislature, approve/veto bills, use power of line-item veto, and grant pardons (but only with the permission of the legislature or a majority of members on the Board of Pardons and Paroles). As in California, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas is elected separately from the governor . The Lieutenant Governor: assumes power when the governor is out of state; presides over state senate; heads the Legislative Budget Board; establishes all special and standing committees; appoints chairpeople and members to committees; and he assigns legislation to committees of his choice. As you can see, the Lieutenant Governor is a relatively strong position in Texas. The comptroller collects basically all taxes owed to the state and is responsible for remitting portions of taxes owed to local governments. He/she also manages the unclaimed property fund, issues fiscal reports, and produces economic forecasts. As required in the Constitution of Texas, the comptroller must certify the amount of money that the legislature plans to spend. What this means is that the legislature cannot spend money that the comptroller says isn’t available (i.e “certifies”). The only exception to this, is a 4/5 override vote from both chambers of the legislature. The Land Commissioner heads the Texas General Land Office, the Texas equivalent of the Bureau of Land Management. Effectively, the Land Commissioner negotiates, trades, and leases mineral rights owned by the State of Texas. Those royalties then furnish the Permanent School Fund. The Land Commissioner also manages the Alamo. The Agriculture Commissioner predictably heads the Department of Agriculture which basically acts as a glorified Chamber of Commerce for rural communities. In addition to marketing and economic development initiatives in rural areas, the Department of Agriculture also regulates pesticide usage. There are three Railroad Commissioners in Texas. Each is elected separately to a 6 year term without the imposition of term limits. The department is a throwback to the progressive era w hen railroad monopolies were the prime target for regulators. Today, transportation issues are relegated to the authority of TxDOT. The Railroad Commission sets monthly production quotas for coal, gas, mining, propane, oil, and pipeline construction. At one time(1930’s – 1970’s), the organization had the type of clout that OPEC has over the price and production of crude oil. Given the crucial role that all of the above fuels have had, currently have, and will have on development in Texas, this group of executives are not to be ignored. Legislative The legislature is bicameral, with 150 representatives and 31 senators, which comes out to 150,00 people per representative and 806,000 people per senator. Perhaps our federal congress could use some of the limits imposed on the legislature of Texas. How does Texas house train its legislature so well? For starters, the Texas legislature meets biannually for one, 140 day session. Furthermore, only the Governor may call a special session of the legislature; the legislature cannot call a special itself. Special sessions are limited by the constitution to 30 days and the only legislation that can be considered during such sessions is that dealing with the emergency for which the session was convened. The governor may call as many special sessions as are required to resolve the emergency. The Texas Senate doesn’t include minority or majority leaders but, rather, a pro tempore position that leads the Senate in lieu of the Lieutenant Governor in times of his absence. This position is not decided (officially) by political affiliation but usually goes to the most senior member of the chamber. The legislature passes a budget submitted by the governor with a simple majority and the legislature has the power to impeach state judges. All in all, the Texas Constitution forces the legislative branch to be very limited in scope and focused in purpose. Judiciary Unlike the federal Supreme Court, Texas has two ultimate courts; the Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal cases, and the Supreme Court for civil cases. The Supreme Court is composed of one Chief Justice and eight Associates, each is elected to a term of 6 years and the elections are all staggered, that is, all of the justices are not up for election at once. The highest civil disputes come before the Supreme Court. The Court of Criminal Appeals also features a Chief Justice and eight associates subject to the same conditions as their peers on the Supreme Court. As part of its duty to hear appeals, The Court of Criminal Appeals automatically deals with and reviews all death penalty cases. Constitution Perhaps the most admirable feature of the Texas government, the constitution is full of strong language that puts the government in its place. In Article VIII Section 24, the state is severely limited in its ability to impose a personal income tax (which it does not). The article also places limits on the types of taxes that the legislature may enact as well as strictly defining the way in which property taxes may be appraised. Article XVI places protections on people who are forced to sell their homes as a form of debt payment. Article VII establishes the Permanent University Fund which benefits from oil & gas revenues. The fund supplies the state’s preeminent university systems: Texas A&M and University of Texas. This article could use some re-working, as there are many other deserving 2nd-tier state schools whose potential is arguably stifled by their lack of access to this fund. Texas could, perhaps, do itself a favor by opening up these funds to larger ranks of its public universities. Article XIV establishes the Texas General Land Office, the only one of its kind in the Union. This is significant because titleholders in every other state in the U.S have their land records under the supervision of the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management while Texans’ records are held in their home state. Articles IX and XI provide for weak county and municipal-level governments; the diametric opposite of California’s constitution on this issue. Draw whatever conclusions you may from the comparison of the governments of our union’s two largest members, but one thing is certain, they represent two significantly different understandings of government and its relation to the citizens it should serve.