The lame duck at the top of the state government is having a pretty good run.
Rick Perry has six months left in his record-setting 14 years as Texas governor. The race to succeed him is entering its final stretch, with early voting in less than four months. Power in the Legislature has already begun to shift, reflecting resignations, pending retirements and election defeats.
The power of the current clutch of top government officials is ebbing, with a couple of notable exceptions, like House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. Barring an upset in January, he will be alone among the top state officials to have some experience on the job. The governor will be new, as will the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, and the land and agriculture commissioners — nearly everyone on the top two rows of the organizational chart.
Who has time to listen to a departing governor?
And yet, here is Perry, blasting away at the Obama administration, demanding attention for the throng of immigrant children jamming shelters on the Texas-Mexico border, asking the federal government to reimburse the state for border security expenses, and elbowing his way, for the moment, to the front of the pack of men and women who might be Republican candidates for president in 2016. Short-timer or not, he is overshadowing everyone else in Texas, including its two United States senators and the candidates who hope to succeed him as governor.
In Austin, his appointees are forcing changes at the top of the University of Texas, backed by the governor even as one of them faces possible impeachment in the House. Wallace Hall, a UT System regent from Dallas, has earned the ire of many legislators, but not that of Perry. While lawmakers were meeting to draft impeachment articles against Hall in May, the governor came to his side: “Wallace Hall should be commended for his persistence — in the face of overwhelming opposition from bureaucrats — in trying to ensure the institutions of higher education under his purview are operating effectively, efficiently and within the law.”
That did not stop the proceedings, but it let everyone know that Hall was not a rogue appointee. Last week, Bill Powers, president of UT-Austin, agreed to resign next June, after the regular session of the Legislature.
That was a victory for Powers, believe it or not, but one that saved face for the people trying to push him out. He leaves on his own timetable, subverting an ultimatum from UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, who told Powers to submit his resignation this month or be fired by the board of regents. The chancellor, who has announced his own resignation and will serve until his successor is named, wanted Powers out by the end of October.
The regents who wanted Powers’ head will get what they wanted, but not when they wanted it.
The governor, a proud graduate of the other supersized state school — Texas A&M University — could have a longer-term victory. Conservatives pushing overhauls of state colleges and universities — ideas they say would improve higher education and give students more marketable skills — have been frustrated in their efforts. In UT’s case, the leaders who are leaving have stood in the way and their departures remove significant obstacles.
Perry could also count it a loss if his successor — Republican Greg Abbott or Democrat Wendy Davis — ignores that particular set of proposals and appoints regents who want to take higher education in another direction. The chancellor and the president will be replaced, but Perry will not be here to follow through. The new leaders might be just like the people they replace.
That is for next year’s news, when the newly elected and their appointees take over. Powers and, perhaps, Cigarroa, will still be here to see it. Perry will not, and neither will at least three of the current regents at the University of Texas.
Save all that for later: The news right now is that this governor’s point of view is prevailing on a couple of big issues that might lie beyond the powers of the average lame duck in state government.