Breaking Reconstruction's Legacy
Frustrated by the weakness of their offices, the governors of Texas and South Carolina are seeking more authority over state agencies and the selection of department directors
AUSTIN, TEXAS — THERE'S a revolution brewing in Texas and South Carolina, and its instigators are the states' governors.Currently, the Texas and South Carolina executive branches rank among the weakest in the United States. Frustrated by this, Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) and South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell (R) are seeking consolidation of government agencies and more control over the hiring and firing of agency directors. While more responsibility is shifting from the federal government to the states, state bureaucracies are growing - and spending - more than ever. But Governors Richards and Campbell say the restrictions of their offices leave them powerless to respond to these changes. Increasing state burdens caused by decreasing federal assistance, budget shortfalls, and a rash of corruption charges at state agencies have both governors itching for reforms that will give them more direct control over how their states are run. "There's a crying need for more executive authority, leading to effective management of the state," says Tucker Eskew, press secretary for Campbell. Richards and Campbell actually have little control over the day-to-day governance of their states. Numerous state boards and commissions are responsible for setting the policies of state agencies. Although the governors do make board appointments, there are many restrictions on when and how many appointees a governor may make. For example, board members of Texas agencies serve six-year, overlapping terms. An incoming governor inherits the previous governor's appointees - and their political philosophies. It may take years before a governor gains a majority of like-minded members on any given board. Once board appointments are made, the boards are virtually autonomous. The situation is similar in the Palmetto state. With these restrictions, "How can a governor govern? How can he have a plan?" asks Mr. Eskew in South Carolina. Texan Richards complains the autonomy of the boards means there is a mismatch between the public expectations of the governor's power and her actual ability to get something done. There is also no way for voters to hold the agencies accountable for their actions, she adds. Now, during a special budget session of the Texas Legislature, Richards is promoting a plan to give her office hiring and firing power over agency executive directors. Changes in appointment powers are being tied to agency consolidations - such as combining disparate transportation regulatory boards into one, she says. Campbell will seek similar powers from South Carolina's state legislature when it convenes next January, and also hopes to reduce the number of state boards through agency consolidations, says Eskew. Blease Graham, a member of a bipartisan commission charged with studying Campbell's reform ideas, says Richards and Campbell are representative of a new breed of more educated, businesslike governors who are capable of handling more authority. "This is the type of person who wants to make policy," Dr. Graham says. In order to compete with other states for scarce new jobs, governors must be able to respond to the needs of the business community. That requires a unified vision, Graham says. "Regardless of which side of the political fence [you're on], you've got to be able to build consensus," he says. Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi are the only Southern states which have not undergone executive-branch reorganizations since Reconstruction. Previous efforts to draft a new Texas constitution have failed, leaving a much-amended state Constitution of 1876 as the governing document. South Carolina's state charter dates to 1895. During the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the nine coastal Southern states plus Arkansas were divided into five regions and put under federal military control. The states had to submit new constitutions, subject to federal approval, before being readmitted to the Union. When the Southern states were freed from federal supervision, resentment and suspicion of government control was high. Middle-class whites feared the aristocratic planter class would manipulate the emancipated blacks to their own ends. Consequently, when they wrote new charters, most Southern states made their executive branches fragmented and weak. While waves of state government reorganization swept periodically through the US, early reform movements "stopped at the Mason-Dixon line," says Thad Beyle of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It wasn't until 1967 that Florida became the first Southern state to undergo comprehensive reform. Restructuring of state governments then followed, in varying degrees, in North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, and Georgia, ending with Louisiana in 1977. If the Texas and South Carolina reforms do go through, Dr. Beyle says "the more important thing [will be ] that when people elect a governor to run state government, that's what they'll get, [rather than] a bunch of boards and commissions."