Monday, May 07, 2007

"Our state will run better if the Legislature is more involved and takes more responsibility for how our government runs."

Voters could be asked to leash governor's holdover appointments

Proposal could be latest setback for Perry.

May 07, 2007

By W. Gardner Selby
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry, whose authority has been challenged repeatedly by lawmakers this year, could see individual appointees who outlast their terms of office dismissed by the Texas Senate under a Senate-approved proposal awaiting House attention.

"Whenever somebody's term expires, either they need to be reappointed, or somebody else needs to be appointed for that term," said Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. "It's the same for me, as an elected official. When my term ends, I'm not a state senator anymore. And I think that same principle should apply to people who are appointed. . . . When your term ends, you no longer have the job."

In a twist, Perry's office proposed the dismissal mechanism as an alternative to Senate ideas that might have led to the scuttling of hundreds of so-called holdover appointees: people continuing to serve on boards, commissions and task forces past the ends of their terms.

More than 750 of Perry's nearly 2,200 nonjudicial appointees are holdovers, including members of university boards of regents, the Texas Lottery Commission and the Texas Transportation Commission, according to figures provided by the governor's office.

Most terms expired late last year or early this year, causing a spike in the number, Perry's office said. About 175 positions expired in 2005 or earlier, as long ago as Aug. 29, 1999.

The GOP governor's holdovers amount to 34 percent of his appointees, though his office said that some positions should soon be filled, pending Senate approval of nominees before the legislative session ends May 28.

Several hundred holdovers serve on obscure boards where unpaid positions can be hard to fill. Others reflect Perry's desire to keep experienced people in position to give advice through the legislative session.

More than a dozen river authorities account for about 100 holdovers. And regional review committees, which recommend how to spend federal community development grants, include more than 200 holdovers.

Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, is one of the better-known holdovers. He's been a proponent of plans to establish privately financed toll roads around the state.

Williamson's term ran out Feb. 1, but he continues to serve — and doesn't appear to be seeking reappointment. He wasn't immediately reachable by telephone Friday.

"I don't think (he) particularly wanted another six-year term," said Ken Anderson, Perry's director of governmental appointments. "We're not sure how much longer that he wants to serve."

Among holdovers, Buster E. French of Liberty might be the longest serving.

French, 69, was appointed to the Coastal Water Authority Board of Directors by Democratic Gov. Preston Smith in October 1969. He was reappointed several times, with his latest term expiring April 1, 2000.

French, one of three holdovers on the seven-person board, said local officials have urged Perry to reappoint him: "I guess it kind of fell on deaf ears. It'd be good to be reappointed, but it doesn't bother me too much."

Earlier in the session, several senators drafted get-tough proposals to deter governors from leaving appointees in place indefinitely.

For instance, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, filed a plan that would have resulted in any holdover's service ending within 30 days of the start of a regular legislative session or, if the term expired during a session, 30 days after that.

The concern was that after an appointee wins Senate confirmation, the person could linger in a post without being subject to legislative scrutiny, outside of the rare path of impeachment.

"We just want to let the Senate do its work," said Jackson, author of Senate Joint Resolution 49, the proposed constitutional amendment awaiting House review. "We are here for 140 days every two years; we're supposed to confirm these nominees."

His measure, to be heard today by the House Committee on State Affairs, would give the 31-member Senate the power to single out a holdover and, by a two-thirds vote of members present, end his or her service. Under the proposal, the governor would be barred from reappointing the person to the same board.

Anderson said he suggested the less drastic approach after realizing that senators' initial proposals could cripple boards, commissions and task forces, depriving them of enough members to have quorums needed to conduct business.

If the House gives the proposal a two-thirds endorsement, voters would have the final say at the polls in November.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said lawmakers merit more sway over how government operates — especially because, barring special sessions, they're out of session for 19 months of every two years.

Ogden, noting appointment imbroglios this year involving the Texas Youth Commission and Texas Southern University, suggested that legislators sometimes sidestep oversight duties. "Our state will run better if the Legislature is more involved and takes more responsibility for how our government runs."

Jackson's proposal developed in a session brimming with sallies on gubernatorial power, including the intended cancellation of Perry's order that preteen girls get shots against the virus that can cause cervical cancer, a reversal sitting on Perry's desk.

Lawmakers also have endorsed a moratorium on toll roads, against Perry's wishes, and the House has signed off on a proposed constitutional tweak authorizing brief legislative sessions enabling members to override vetoes.

Some push-back might be attributed to Perry already serving as governor for more than six straight years, a longer unbroken period than any predecessor since Allan Shivers in the 1950s.

"It is kind of strange to have that kind of longevity," said Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, who is carrying the holdover measure in the House.

"God bless him; he's made history," he said. "With that, you have some ripple. A lot of people are just re-examining constitutional issues."; 445-3644

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