Comptroller, railroad commissioner, lieutenant governor: What do Texas state officials actually do?

The states top executive leaders the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are on the ballot in November. (Emily Albracht For The Texas Tribune, Emily Albracht For The Texas Tribune)

The Texas Tribune is answering reader questions ahead of the midterms about elections and the issues Texans are voting on. Thanks to readers like Kenneth S., Colette T. and others for asking us to define statewide officeholders’ roles. For the latest news and information on elections, sign up for our free daily newsletter. You can also get election updates over text message by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919.

Texans’ ballots for the midterm elections this year will be particularly long.

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Along with their district-based representatives — in Congress, the Texas House of Representatives, the Texas Senate and the State Board of Education — voters have the opportunity to select several elected officials who work for Texans across the state.

This means the state’s top executive leaders — the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — are on the ballot.

But so are other statewide offices, such as the land commissioner and agriculture commissioner, that wield significant power by regulating industries or managing grants and funds. Judges and justices for the state’s top courts, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court, will also appear further down on the ballot.

Not familiar with these statewide offices? You can find more information about each office, including its responsibilities and power, below. You can also find your district-based lawmakers through our ballot finder.

Republicans have held every statewide elected office in Texas for more than two decades. The length of the term for each state office varies, but there are no limits to how many terms an officeholder can serve. There are also no referendums or recall elections at the state level in Texas.

In Texas' general elections, state and federal candidates only have to secure the most votes to win, unlike in presidential elections, which are determined by electoral college system, or primary elections, during which candidates must win more than 50% of votes to avoid a runoff.

Governor (four-year term): The governor is the chief executive of the state. The governor’s responsibilities include outlining budget recommendations for the Legislature and leading the state and its military forces during emergencies.

The Texas Constitution was written to limit the governor’s powers, especially within the Legislature, but the governor can still hold a lot of informal power through political influence, said Jennifer Hayes Clark, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.

The governor’s legislative powers include signing or vetoing bills and laying out emergency items for the Legislature to focus on during the first 60 days of regular legislative sessions, when no other bills can be passed.

The Legislature usually meets only for about five months every other odd-numbered year, but the governor can call special sessions for lawmakers to reconvene and pass laws on issues of the governor’s choice, as Gov. Greg Abbott did three times in 2021.

But it’s through appointments that the governor can amass power. The governor can make appointments to hundreds of government entities.

Notable appointments include the secretary of state, who oversees elections; the commissioner of public education; the commissioner of higher education; members of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates the state’s power grid and other utilities; and the boards of regents for four-year public universities.

The governor can also fill vacancies for the remainder of an unfinished term if an elected official, a judge or a justice resigns or dies. Many appointments require confirmation from the Texas Senate, but governors can skirt that requirement if an election for an office is held before the Senate reconvenes, said Drew Landry, an assistant professor of government at South Plains College. Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry, in particular, often used this workaround, Landry said.

This is an effective strategy because gubernatorial appointees then have the advantage of name recognition and are more likely to win an election, Clark said, and these appointments can be especially influential in the state’s top courts.

“Given the long tenure of Perry, and now Abbott, they’ve both appointed nearly all members of the Texas bureaucracy — so many of those important boards and commissions of the state, which make important decisions,” Clark said.

This means that the power and influence of a Texas governor can grow the longer they’re in office — even with a state constitution that is designed to give more power to the legislature.

Abbott is seeking a third term. His challengers are Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee, Mark Tippits, a Libertarian, and Delilah Barrios, a Green Party candidate. O'Rourke and Abbott debated in September.

Lieutenant governor (four-year term): The lieutenant governor, the second-highest state executive, presides over the state Senate. It is often regarded as the most powerful statewide elected office because of its role in the Texas Legislature, Landry said. In the Senate, the lieutenant governor is in charge of the agenda and standing committees and has the deciding word if there’s a tie or a procedural question. This gives the office a lot of influence over senators and power over what bills make it to the governor’s desk.

“Basically, he gets to roll the dice, and everyone else is going to play that game,” Landry said.

The lieutenant governor also co-chairs the Legislative Budget Board, which leads the development of the state budget, and is on the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is in charge of redrawing political maps based on census data if the Legislature fails to do so. (The other members of the Legislative Redistricting Board are the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, attorney general, land commissioner and comptroller.)

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who quietly amassed influence with former President Donald Trump and often has tense relations with more moderate members of the Texas Republican party, is seeking a third term. His challengers are Democrat Mike Collier and Libertarian Shanna Steele. Collier has embraced his GOP past and received endorsements from some Republicans while Patrick has focused on rural Texas in his campaign.

Comptroller of public accounts (four-year term): The comptroller is the state’s accountant and chief financial officer. The office is responsible for collecting state fees and taxes, which are primarily sales taxes from local governments. (Texas doesn’t have a state income tax, and property taxes are collected by local governments.)

The comptroller also manages hundreds of state contracts on behalf of other agencies and provides forecasts on the state’s revenue and economy for the Legislature. This helps set the course for legislative sessions, Clark said.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who is seeking reelection for a third term, has recently taken a more active approach by challenging companies and Harris County over political issues. He faces Democratic challenger Janet Dudding and Libertarian challenger V. Alonzo Echevarria-Garza.

Attorney general (four year-term): The attorney general is the state’s top attorney. The office is responsible for representing the state in legal matters, primarily in civil litigation. This can look like defending the state in lawsuits, especially if a case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. It can also mean bringing forward or participating in lawsuits against the federal government, corporations or others on behalf of the public.

The attorney general can also make legal interpretations and issue opinions on legal questions. The opinions are not rulings and are nonbinding, but they are often followed and cited by others, such as local governments and attorneys.

“Even though it’s nonbinding, they then sort of take that as basically a stamp of approval,” Clark said. “And the implication is that then if somebody sues, then they can use that to kind of bolster their argument.”

The attorney general’s office also enforces child-support orders and open-government laws and can investigate for consumer and Medicaid fraud. The office can also provide support in criminal investigations, but that is usually limited to when local officials request help from the office, Clark said.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose tenure has been clouded by a fraud indictment and an FBI investigation into claims of malfeasance while in office, is seeking a third term. There is no law preventing someone from running for office while under indictment, according to Landry and Clark. State election code says only that an eligible candidate must “have not been finally convicted of a felony from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.”

Right now, Paxton would have to be investigated and impeached by the Legislature or voted out to be removed from office, Landry said. Despite his legal troubles, Paxton likely benefited from Trump’s endorsement to win the crowded Republican primary for attorney general, Clark said.

Paxton’s midterm challengers are Democrat Rochelle Garza and Libertarian Mark Ash. Garza faces an uphill battle against Paxton, who backed former President Donald Trump in attempting to overturn 2020 election results.

Land commissioner (four-year term): The commissioner of the General Land Office manages 13 million acres of state land. The office also administers federal aid after natural disasters, manages the historic Alamo site and oversees investments from the Permanent School Fund, a state endowment created in 1876 to help fund public education. It also provides support for veterans through the Veterans Land Board, which offers land and home loans and other services to veterans.

Three candidates are vying for the office currently held by Republican George P. Bush, who unsuccessfully ran to be the Republican candidate for attorney general. They are state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway; Jay Kleberg, a Democrat; and Green Party candidate Alfred Molison. Kleberg's campaign has focused on protecting Texas wildlife and land, including the coast.

Agriculture commissioner (four-year term): Apart from supporting farmers and regulating the agriculture industry, the commissioner of agriculture regulates weights and measuring devices, including grocery scales and retail price scanners. The agriculture commissioner is also in charge of administering school lunch programs and other assistance programs to help address hunger and promote nutrition.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is seeking a third term. His Democratic opponent is Susan Hays. The two have deep Texas roots but offer a stark contrast in their campaigns for the office. There are no Libertarian or Green Party candidates.

Railroad commissioners (six-year terms): The Railroad Commission, which is made up of three elected seats, regulates oil, gas, coal and pipelines in the state. (It was originally established to regulate railroad tariffs, but railroads are now overseen by the Rail Division of the Texas Department of Transportation.) This means railroad commissioners oversee gas utility services and rates, as well as coal and uranium mining in the state.

The seat of Republican incumbent Wayne Christian is up for election. His challengers are Luke Warford, the Democratic nominee; Jaime Andrés Díez, a Libertarian; and Hunter Crow of the Green Party. Warford has focused his campaign on the state's power grid and response to climate change and was endorsed by Christian's primary opponent.

Justices of the Supreme Court of Texas (six-year terms): Texas and Oklahoma are the only two states with two courts of “last resort,” according to Clark and Landry. The Texas Supreme Court is the top court in the state for civil litigation. It is made up of nine justices, including the chief justice, who serve staggered six-year terms. The state supreme court also oversees the State Bar of Texas.

Texas is one of a handful of states that elects judges through partisan elections. In Missouri and other states, judges are appointed by the governor through a merit-based nomination system. These judges then go through retention elections, in which voters decide whether a judge should remain in office. If voters reject a judge, a new one is appointed.

Other states elect judges through contested, nonpartisan elections. New Mexico uses a combination of partisan and nonpartisan elections after a judge is appointed by the governor.

In Texas, governors like Abbott can still exert influence in the court by appointing individuals with similar policy and legal perspectives to fill vacancies. And although those appointees still face elections, they tend to side with the governor who appointed them.

“It's very rare to see them actually go against the governor,” Clark said.

That’s given Abbott and Texas conservatives wins in significant cases, such as those about the state’s abortion restrictions. The state Supreme Court determined that state leaders couldn’t be sued over a near-total ban passed in 2021 due to its private-enforcement mechanism. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Texas court also allowed the state to enforce another near-total ban on abortions dating to before the Civil War.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Texas Supreme Court also temporarily blocked enforcement of mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, siding with Abbott and Paxton’s argument that the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor the power of commander-in-chief. More recently, the state Supreme Court questioned Abbott’s directive for the state to investigate families providing gender-affirming care to transgender children, but the justices allowed most investigations to continue.

The three justices up for reelection are Republicans Debra Lehrmann, Rebeca Aizpuru Huddle and Evan Young. Democrat Erin A. Nowell and Libertarian Tom Oxford are challenging Lehrmann. Huddle and Young are facing Democratic challengers Amanda Reichek and Julia Maldonado, respectively. Read more about the court and candidates here.

Judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals (six-year terms): The Court of Criminal Appeals is the top court in the state for criminal law. It is made up of nine judges, including a presiding judge.

All death penalty cases go directly to the Court of Criminal Appeals for an automatic appeal to determine whether there were any legal errors in the court proceeding. Other criminal appeals go to one of 14 lower courts of criminal appeals in the state, and the Court of Criminal Appeals can then decide to review decisions made by one of those lower courts.

The Court of Criminal Appeals has final say over all “habeas corpus” appeals for those convicted of a felony, in which people claim they are being illegally punished or unlawfully detained. This type of appeal generally focuses on constitutional rights and claims of innocence, and can include facts outside of the original trial record, like new evidence. Lower courts can make recommendations to the high court in such cases, but it’s the Court of Criminal Appeals that determines if an appeal will result in an overturned conviction or reduced sentence.

The three judges up for reelection are Republicans Mary Lou Keel, Scott Walker and Jesse McClure. Keel’s seat is uncontested. McClure is being challenged by Robert Johnson, and Walker’s challenger is Dana Huffman. Learn more about the court and candidates here.

This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed to protect it.

Jolie McCullough contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The University of Houston and the Texas comptroller of public accounts have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, Sept. 19, 2022: Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Texas Department of Agriculture regulates fuel pumps in the state. Regulation of fuel pumps was transferred to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation in 2020.

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