More power sought for some governors. Oklahoma, Mississippi join debate

When former Texas Gov. Mark White was faced with a multibillion-dollar state budget shortfall last year following the oil-price collapse, his short-term options for dealing with the budget crunch were limited. In Texas, where the powers of the executive branch are among the weakest of the 50 states, Mr. White could do little more than request the state's highly independent commissions and agencies to curtail spending. Nothing in the state's constitution required them to heed his request, at least until the Legislature could meet to formally approve budget cuts.

Had he been working under the laws of some other states, White could have ordered spending cuts or used other means to begin meeting the crisis. Most states have undergone a transition from a weak to a strengthened executive branch, as the problems facing states have become more complex.

Yet some states continue to wrangle with proposals that would give their governors stronger powers. This year Mississippi and Oklahoma are debating the merits of empowering their governors in ways that the states' founders would have found alarming.

Oklahoma is working on a cabinet system of executive government, the idea for which was approved by the Legislature last year. Mississippi is considering a constitutional convention, which proponents want primarily to give the state a stronger governor. The idea faces stiff opposition in the state's lower chamber, however.

As for Texas, there are no serious moves to enhance the governor's powers. But some observers of state politics believe action in that direction may be necessary to improve the state's operation. ``The governor cannot provide the clearcut leadership these times require. We've suffered because of it,'' says Randall Bland, a political scientist at Southwest Texas University.

``You might say these states are playing catch-up,'' says Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to Dr. Beyle, governors have historically been weak, reflecting the traditional fear of a strong centralized government.

But he adds that the executive branch has ``come to the fore'' in most states over the past few decades as state government has required more decisive action. The Reagan era's ``new federalism,'' which has sought to delegate more responsibility and policymaking to states and localities, is also a factor.

``There's been a general realization that state governments cannot operate without a strong governor,'' says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and author of a book on the American governorship. ``States are multibillion-dollar businesses, and they need a strong executive with the authority to match the growing demands of the office.''

Last year the Oklahoma Legislature approved the concept of a governor's cabinet that would include the department heads of 15 major state agencies. Studies have called Oklahoma's executive branch ``a many splintered thing'' that gives the state an ``observer'' more than a governor. The object of the reform is to create a stronger central executive.

A reorganization council authorized by last year's legislation recommended in January that the governor have appointive power over the cabinet secretaries. This would provide a major boost to the Oklahoma governor's powers. But the proposal faces opposition from some legislators and agencies.

In Mississippi, as in Oklahoma, the state's economic troubles are a principal mover behind the push for a stronger governor. ``We're faced with the need for some strong economic initiatives,'' says Brad Pigott of Mississippi First, a political action committee that is leading the push for a constitutional convention to strengthen the governorship. ``In a national and international economy, the private managers like to deal with an individual who's in charge. Right now Mississippi doesn't have that,'' he says.

The state's 1890 constitution left a ``void'' in the place of an executive branch, Mr. Pigott says, that permitted the Legislature to ``create a maze of politically independent and publicly unresponsive boards and commissions.'' He says such a system is confusing to companies that deal with the state.

He says Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander made that point to the Mississippi Chamber of Commerce last year. ``He pointed out that when General Motors came calling [about a site for the company's Saturn plant], he had the authority to deal with them with assurance on such important questions as service delivery, taxes, and road construction.''

Citing a 78 percent approval last year in a referendum to allow the governor to succeed himself, Pigott says the public favors a stronger governor.

But Charlie Capps, chairman of the House of Representatives constitution committee, says his contact with the public, especially rural constituents, indicates a more cautious response. ``I don't favor too strong a governor, and I think that's one reason this committee is so strong against the convention idea,'' he says.

Still, Representative Capps says he does not oppose some action to give the governor more power. He says that if the convention proposal dies, he will propose an ad-hoc committee of legislators to come up with some specific means of improving the executive branch. Among his suggestions are greater appointive power for the governor, and a strengthening of the governor's budget submission authority.

``I'd say we probably need to change some things to strengthen the governor's hand,'' says Capps, ``but I sure don't mean to turn over the whole ship to him.''

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