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Law and Government

State Law and Government

Texas state capitol buildingAustin is the capital of Texas. The State Capitol resembles the federal Capitol Building in Washington, DC, but is faced in pink granite and is topped by a statue of the "Goddess of Liberty" holding aloft a five-point Texas star. Like several other southern state capitols, it faces south instead of north. The capitol building is taller than the U.S. national capitol, but less massive.

Republican Rick Perry has served as Governor of Texas since December 2000 when George W. Bush vacated the office to assume the Presidency. Two Republicans represent Texas in the U.S. Senate: Kay Bailey Hutchison (since 1993) and John Cornyn (since 2002). Texas has 32 representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives: 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

The current Texas constitution, adopted in 1876, is the second longest in the nation. As with many state constitutions, it explicitly provides for the separation of powers and incorporates its bill of rights directly into the text of the constitution (as Article I). The bill of rights is considerably lengthier and more detailed than the federal Bill of Rights, and includes some provisions unique to Texas.

The executive branch consists of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller of Public Accounts, Land Commissioner, Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, the three-member Railroad Commission, the State Board of Education, and the Secretary of State. The Comptroller decides if expected state income is sufficient to cover the propsed state budget. Except for the Secretary of State—who is appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate—each of these officials is elected. There are also a large number of state agencies and numerous boards and commissions. Partly because of the large number of elected officials, the Governor's powers are quite limited in comparison to other state governors or the U.S. President. In popular lore and belief the Lieutenant Governor, who heads the Senate and appoints its committees, has more power than the Governor. The Governor commands the state militia and can veto bills passed by the Legislature and call special sessions of the Legislature. He or she also appoints members of various executive boards and fills judicial vacancies between elections.

The Legislature of Texas, like the legislature of every other state except Nebraska, is bicameral (that is, has two chambers). The House of Representatives has 150 members, while the Senate has 31. The speaker of the house, currently Tom Craddick (R-Midland) leads the House, and the Lieutenant Governor (currently Republican David Dewhurst) leads the State Senate. The Legislature meets in regular session only once every two years.

The judicial system of Texas has a reputation as one of the most complex in the United States—if not in the world—with many layers and many overlapping jurisdictions. Texas has two courts of last resort: the Texas Supreme Court—which hears civil cases—and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Except in the case of some municipal benches, partisan elections choose all of the judges at all levels of the judiciary; the Governor fills vacancies by appointment.

County Government

Texas has a total of 254 counties, by far the most counties of any state. Each county is run by a "commissioners court" consisting of four elected commissioners (one from each of four precincts drawn based on population) and a "county judge" elected from all the voters of the county. The county judge does not have authority to veto a decision of the commissioners court, s/he votes along with the commissioners. In smaller counties, the county judge actually does perform judicial duties, but in larger counties the judge's role is limited to serving on the commissioners court. Certain officials such as the sheriff and tax collector are elected separately by the voters and state law specifies their salaries, but the commissioners court determines their office budgets.

Municipal Government

Texas does not have townships; areas within a county are either "incorporated" (i.e., part of a city, though the city may contract with the county for needed services) or "unincorporated" (i.e., not part of a city, in these areas the county has authority for law enforcement and road maintenance).

Cities are classified as either "general law" or "home rule". A city may elect "home rule" status (i.e., draft an independent city charter) once it exceeds 5,000 population and the voters agree to home rule. Otherwise, it is classified as "general law" and has very limited powers. One example of the difference in the two structures regards annexation. General law cities cannot annex adjacent unincorporated areas without the property owner's consent; home rule cities may annex without consent, but must provide essential services within a specified period of time or the property owner may file suit to be deannexed.

School and Special Districts

In addition to cities and counties, Texas has numerous "special districts". The most common is the independent school district, which (with one exception) has a board of trustees that is independent of any other governing authority. School district boundaries are not coaligned with city or county boundaries; it is not uncommon for a school district to cover one or more counties or for a large city to be served by several school districts.

Other special districts include water supply, public hospitals, and community colleges.


Texas politics is currently dominated by the Republican Party, which has strong majorities in the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. Every executive branch official elected statewide is Republican, as is every member of Texas's two courts of last resort; no Democrat has won a statewide election since 1994. The majority of the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is Republican, as are both U.S. Senators.

Like other Southern states, Texas historically was a one-party state of the Democratic Party. The Democrats controlled a majority in the Texas House and in the state's Congressional delegation until the 2002 and 2004 elections, respectively. One of the most famous Texans was a Democrat: Lyndon Baines Johnson served in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as vice-president and president of the United States.