Texas, like most other states, has functioned under a series of Constitutions, each of which has contributed to the state’s constitutional legacy. Each is appropriately understood from the perspective of the period in which it was adopted. The current Constitution was written in 1876 after the termination of Reconstruction policies. Because reconstruction policies were oppressive, the Constitution was designed to put strong restraints on government to guard against future abuses of power. Today, the document is so restrictive that many believe it is counterproductive. However, a rewrite of the Constitution has been elusive, due to special interests and others who believe that they benefit from the current system.
The 1876 Constitution was predicated on the theory that governmental excesses could be minimized by carefully defining what governments could and could not do. The document was built upon the national constitutional tradition and embodies three dominant principles: popular sovereignty, limited government, and separation of powers. The post-Reconstruction Texan preference for an independent judiciary is reflected in an elected judicial branch.
The framers of the Texas Constitution failed to anticipate that the limitations they imposed on governmental institutions would ultimately allow major economic interests within the state to dominate the policy-making process, often to the detriment of the lower socioeconomic groups. What the delegates to the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1875 regarded as the strengths of the constitution–fragmented authority, detailed limitations on the power of governmental institutions, and decentralization–have served to limit the ability of state and local governments to adapt effectively to economic and demographic changes. The perceived solutions to many of the problems of 1875 have compounded the problems of state and local governments in the 2000s.
Efforts to overhaul the Texas Constitution have failed. Consequently, the state has been forced to amend the document continually on a piecemeal basis. Fully 409 amendments were approved by Texas voters between 1876 and 2002, while 172 were rejected. The first amendment was adopted on September 2, 1879. A record twenty-five amendments were on the November 3, 1987 ballot. In 1999, a proposal to rewrite the constitution, the first such proposal in twenty years, was rejected by the Legislature. This process has produced some success in modernizing the charter, but many structural problems of state government require major institutional changes that cannot be resolved through this amendment process.
In many ways, the Texas Constitution reflects the values of the state’s conservative political culture, which continues to be suspicious of far-reaching constitutional changes. Moreover, constitutions and debates that surround them are complex, and most people give little attention to these issues. Consequently, it is much easier to mobilize public opinion against rather than for wholesale change.
Over the years, numerous groups have attempted to protect their interests through constitutional amendments. But the same groups usually oppose any proposed changes that threaten their influence, power, or benefits. Consequently, the interests of small segments of the state’s population often prevail over the interests of the majority.
A revision of the Texas Constitution would require large amounts of political capital to challenge or accommodate the numerous special interests who benefit from provisions in the current charter. Until the Constitution is revised, the state legislature will continue to put several proposed amendments on the ballot, as needed, to deal with issues and problems that the 1876 Constitution could not have envisioned.