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Government/Politics

In Texas, The Governor Has Unchecked Veto Power.

Fog enshrouds Texas Capitol dome on Jan. 8, 2019, opening day of the 86th Texas Legislature. KEN
Ken Herman/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
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Fog enshrouds Texas Capitol dome on Jan. 8, 2019, opening day of the 86th Texas Legislature. KEN HERMAN/American-Statesman

At the end of the 2019 legislative session, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed 58 bills. That was the most since 2001, when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed 83. In both cases, lawmakers were powerless to override any of them.

“There's been no effective veto override power for decades largely because of the structure of the system,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project. "And I think the awareness of governors that all they have to do is wait."

When a bill is vetoed at the end of the session, it’s dead, despite the fact that in the Texas Constitution, there is a veto override clause.

Henson points out that most bills are passed near the end of the session. After lawmakers go home, the governor can go to town with his veto pen. That’s because the only way lawmakers would be able to override it is for the governor himself to call a special session to override his own veto.

“At the time when the most important legislation is passed, the governor's override power is effectively unchecked,” he added.

That is something State Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, discovered.

“They use the veto not only from a policy standpoint but from a political standpoint,” he said. “If you cross them, they could very well kill your bill.”

In 2017, Larson was at odds with Abbott. “I was on the wrong side of the governor on a bill dealing with pay for play,” he explained.

Larson’s ethics bill would restrict a governor from appointing big donors to state boards. Abbott responded by killing all but one of Larson's bills.

Those bills were later passed in the following session. “The governor and I sort of made up.” Larson said. “I think we’re good but I’m not certain.”

The governor is required to explain his veto in a written statement.

“What you are reading is very frequently is not the only reason,” Henson said. “So, if a lawmaker is being punished, obviously, the veto doesn't say that this is because representative so-and-so has been a bad boy or girl it says this is fiscally irresponsible or redundant.”

This is not the way Texas state government was set up to function, according to Henson.

The last time there was an override in Texas was in 1979. The Democratic controlled legislature overturned a mid-session veto from Republican Gov. Bill Clements. The fact that it’s been 42 years since a successful veto override may seriously suggest that something is broken.

In 2009, when Rick Perry was governor, then State Sen. Jeff Wentworth tried to fix it. The San Antonio Republican sponsored a resolution that would have made it easier to override a governor’s veto.

“Unlike a lot of other legislatures around the country, there's no way for us to call ourselves back into session. Only the governor of Texas can call special sessions,” Wentworth said. “So, this was designed to fix that by allowing us to come back into session -- beginning the day after his time for signing bills has expired -- to look at bills to see whether or not we need to override his veto.”

Wentworth wanted to create a Veto Override Day. Other states with part time legislatures have them. Texas is the only state with this form of government that doesn’t allow a veto override.

Wentworth’s bill — House Joint Resolution 29 — was passed in committees, and he said he had the votes in the Senate to pass it. Then it would go on the ballot, and Texans could vote if they wanted a Veto Override Day.

But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst refused to recognize Wentworth on the floor of the Senate, blocking the bill from being voted on. Wentworth said Dewhurst told him he was acting on an order from Perry.

“I'm sure he was exaggerating when he said it, but he told me that governor Perry had called him 1,000 times to make sure that I was not recognized on that amendment,” Wentworth explained.

“It's understandable," he added. "No governor wants his power reduced. And clearly this would reduce the power of the governor. This was not personal against Gov. Perry. This was an institutional mechanism, a governance issue that I thought needed to be fixed. I still believe it needs to be fixed.”

This issue could be on full display on Sunday, June 20, as Abbott faces a veto deadline. Many lawmakers are expecting Abbott to make full use of his power, including threats to veto the budget for the legislature.

Critics wonder if anything can be done about it.

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