The Governor’s Office

State legislatures have created “weak” governors without a lot of legal influence.  Specific state constitutional provisions specify the governor’s role, appointment and removal of other state officials, rules for succession, control over legislation, and staff.

Nevertheless, governors can have strong informal powers like appealing to the public directly, and governorships are good ways to aim for the Presidency (e.g., Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush).

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Governors generally focus on domestic issues while the President is more internationally focused.  Like Presidents, governors are the chief executive officers of the state in that they:

  • head up the executive branch of government, the bureaucracy
  • are responsible for implementing the laws and
  • are the ceremonial, or symbolic, leaders of their states.

Governors’ Characteristics

SES background:  well-educated, middle class or wealthier, mostly male.
SEX: historically, there have been few women governors; there are currently nine.
MINORITIES: the current examples are Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-NM, and David Ige, D-HI.
EXPERIENCE:  Most come up through other state offices like the legislature.
INCUMBENCY FACTOR:  governors are reelected 80 percent of the time although factors like party competition, taxes, scandals, incompetence can defeat an incumbent.

Formal qualifications to be governor:  There are few formal qualifications beyond age; exact qualifications vary by state. Most governors now serve four-year terms (Virginia: single term; Vermont and New Hampshire have two year terms w/o restrictions for running again).  Thirty-seven states set limits of two four-year terms. The Texas governor has four-year terms w/ no restrictions on reelection.

Governor’s roles

Chief Legislator: legislatures are slow and deliberative while the governor can act more swiftly.  The governor often informally sets the legislative agenda.  All governors but the North Carolina governor have veto power.

Head of State Agencies: makes sure laws are carried out; implements policies; oversees bureaucracy.

Chief Spokesperson for the State: represents the state to the public, to other states, and to the national government.

Political Party Chief: the governor’s agenda is the de facto party platform but the governor often has limited say in how other people get to local and state offices. And, in divided control governments (the legislature majority is that of the other party) governors face even greater challenges accomplishing agendas.

Commander in Chief of the National Guard. The guard is a state military agency. However, the U.S. President can take control of the National Guard when necessary.

Formal Gubernatorial Powers

As stated above, governors’ formal powers are generally weak.  Why?

1. Fear of executive led legislatures to keep the position weak
2. In the President Jackson era (1828) the idea of separately elected state officials and therefore less control for governors was promoted
3. The Political Reform movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century established merit systems, civil service boards, and boards or commissions that take power of controlling who holds many state positions away from the governor
4. The plural executive concept:  major statewide agencies officials are separately elected and have constitutional and legal powers so they are not beholden to the governor.  The President, on the other hand, has considerable powers of appointment and removal.

How much power a governor has can be examined by looking at: appointment powers, fiscal and budgetary powers, the power to issue executive orders, (limited) military powers, the power to issue pardons, and legislative powers.  We can also look at the governor’s veto powers, especially the line-item veto that allows a governor to veto a part of a bill that s/he does not approve of.  Even the President of the United States does not have line-item veto power.

Tenure in office, or the ability to succeed oneself in office,is one way to measure a governor’s powers.  In many states the governor is limited by the state constitution to two terms. In addition, governors’ powers have been strengthened in most states by extending terms from 2-year terms to 4 years (the longer an individual is in office the more influence that person will have). In Texas the term is 4 years long and the governor can be reelected. To run, an individual must be 30 years old, a U.S. citizen, and a resident of Texas at least 5 years prior to election.

Appointment powers: some state governors have the power to appoint more officials in the executive branch. However, in many states,including Texas, many executive branch officials are elected separately. In Texas, the Lieutenant Governor (primarily a legislative office), the Attorney General, Land Commissioner, Agriculture Commissioner, and Comptroller are all separately elected. This means that they are not dependent on the governor for their position, and they are not always likely to follow directions (or wishes). In addition, the members of the Railroad Commission (oil and gas), and state Board of Education are elected. So the appointment powers of the Texas governor are weak. The term for this is “plural executive,” in which the governor shares executive power with others who have their own constitutional and legal powers. In some states, the state senate must confirm any appointments governor is allowed to make.

* State commissions and boards whose members’ terms don’t necessarily overlap with those of the governor (even though the governor may initially appoint them) also weaken the formal powers of the governor.

*In contrast with appointment powers, removal powers of executive branch officials are limited.  Generally governors must provide justified reasons (in court if necessary).

Fiscal and budgetary powers:   in most states, the governor drafts the initial budget. Even though the legislature may alter the budget through legislation, the governor’s budget usually forms the basis for the state budget. However, much of the budget is largely outside the governor’s control. The reasons for this:  “earmarks,” constitutional and legal provisions requiring that monies raised in certain ways be used for only certain things weakens gubernatorial control and “uncontrollables,” or multiyear programs that demand expenditures, further limit governors.  Usually, governors (and legislatures) have more than one half of their budget funds already allocated.

Also budget making is often incremental (changes are miniscule or very gradual over time, made across the board, and very political).  In incrementalism each “actor” plays a role:  agencies ask for more, but not too much; legislators support individual requests for items that would help them get reelected, and professional budget staffs cut.   Governors by themselves generally cannot make major changes.  Most states must have a balanced budget. In Texas, the governor has minimal budget authority. Instead the Legislative Budget Board has primary responsibility for the budget.

Executive orders:  all governors have authority to issue executive orders, often in order to implement laws or to deal with emergencies.

Military powers: governors have the authority to call out the National Guard in emergencies. But the National Guard is ultimately under the control of the President.

Pardon powers:  governors generally have the power to pardon those convicted of crimes.In Texas, the governor is relatively weak in this regard. The governor can only delay executions by 30 days; he/she must rely on the pardon and parole board to make recommendations (the governor does appoint members to the board).

Legislative and veto powers: governors may propose legislation by sending messages to the legislature, and by making speeches to build public support. All governors have veto powers; many have the line-item veto.The Texas governor has the veto, including the line item veto, a power the President does not have. In practice, governors’ vetoes are almost never overridden, given constitutional requirements for extraordinary legislative majorities to override vetoes.

Special session powers:  Governors can call special sessions of the legislature after the regular session is over. Governors in 1/3 of the states can also specify exact matters for the special session.  Special sessions can be beneficial to governors in that:  legislators are eager to get back home after the regular session so governor proposals are easier to pass; governors make legislature consideration harder by delaying detailed information until the last moment; the governor can make his/her position public to put legislators on the spot.  Problems of special sessions for governors:  governor prestige on the line; extra meetings of the legislature cost taxpayer dollars; may build up resentment if used too often.

Problems of vacancy and succession

Generally, the lieutenant governor takes over if the governor cannot continue; or in the case of eight states without lieutenant governor, the presiding officer in the Senate or Speaker of the House takes over. In addition, the governor may be impeached states (except Oregon, which requires a recall election).  Twelve states allow the option of recall elections to the impeachment process where charges are brought in the state house and trial is carried out in the senate.

Informal powers

Important informal powers includepublic (popular) support, party support in the legislature, and the ability to communicate effectively with the public and other state and national leaders.

What formal powers should governors have?

There have been arguments to strengthen the formal powers of governor; the argument is based upon the same arguments as those for CEO’s of other organizations=accountability and transparency.  Some proposals are:

  • Eliminate the plural executive and allow the governor to appoint top state positions, including lieutenant governor who could become a running mate as in the case of the President and Vice President
  • Increase appointment/removal powers.
  • Increase power to organize the executive branch
  • Lengthen each term and remove limits on # of terms
  • Provide adequate staff and resources, including a budget office
  • Consider the idea of a “state manager” to handle the day-to-day supervision of agencies

Terms and Ideas

Weak governors
Characteristics of governors
Formal qualifications
Governor roles: Chief Legislator / Head of State Agencies / Political Party Chief / Chief Spokesperson for the State / Commander in chief of the National Guard   
Formal powers:  tenure/term length, appointment powers, fiscal and budgetary powers, executive orders, military powers, pardon powers, legislative and veto powers, special session powers
Informal powers

Suggestions on strengthening the governor’s formal powers

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