Expanding the Governor’s Mansion

While Texans are getting ready to watch a debate that may decide who live in the Governor’s Mansion, there’s also a debate on how big the mansion should be.  In an op-ed piece in the Austin American Statesman, Lawerence Oaks and T.R. Fehrenbach (respectively, former executive director and chairman of the THC) rejected the need for an addition:

“We believe the proposed addition not only interrupts the continuum of history that is every Texan’s birthright but is unnecessary to achieve its hazy objective. It should be an honor to be chosen to live in such a grand and historic building that, while it might have some shortcomings, has accommodated every governor of Texas without a monumental change of this scale since its construction in 1856.”

The Texas Governor's Mansion

This isn’t the first time an addition to the governor’s mansion has generated controversy. Even before the mansion was completed neighbors complained that the outhouse across from the front gate should be moved to a less visible location. A story in the Austin American Statesman lays out today’s plan and the process behind it.

While the cost of the expansion is small compared to other government spending, the symbolic nature of the Governor’s mansion is much larger. A governor housed in a large mansion doesn’t compliment the idea of small government. It’s hard to call for state agencies to cut their budget by 5% while justifying a 33% increase in space for the Governor.

The process behind the expansion of one of the state’s most visible building is somewhat mysterious. Apparently, the State Preservation Board routinely “approves” projects after they are finished–and they consider this normal because Texas seems to have created a dilemma. The State Preservation Board was created in 1983 to preserve and maintain the Capitol and its grounds. Later, they were given responsibility for the Governor’s Mansion and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Currently, the Board is composed of Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus, state Sen. Tommy Williams, State Rep. Charlie Geren, and public member Charlotte Foster of Houston. Ironically, the board has so many important members that scheduling meetings is very difficult. This is creates an almost philosophical paradox: What is the power of a board that is too important to meet?

Governor Perry (the Chair of the Preservation Board), seems anxious to distance himself from the project and has told reporters that he would leave it to the Texas Historical Commission (THC)  to make the right decision. However, the THC (17 members of the public appointed by the Governor) is responsible for approving plans based only on whether it is historically appropriate. Their role is historical preservation and is limited to approving or rejecting a plan submitted to them. That plan is coming from somewhere.

Before 1856, governors shunned the two-story dogtrot that served as Texas’ “President’s House.” Sam Houston refused to live there after the house began pulling apart after a couple of years due to the green wood used to build it and early governors took up lodging in local boarding houses. Since 1856 the mansion has housed governors from Elisha M. Pease to George W. Bush with few complaints.

The Texas Governor's Mansion

There may be ample justification for a two-story, 3,000 square foot expansion of the governor’s mansion beyond its current 9,000 square feet. However, the Governor has to take the lead in making the case. Such an expense would not go unnoticed in a state where legislators are paid $7,200 a year and at a time when many Texans are out of work and losing their homes to foreclosure. Bureaucratic inertia is not going to be enough.

Perry’s distance is odd–even given the nature of the mansion. No one should be more aware of the needs of the governor today and more concerned with the mansion’s future occupants. If Perry doesn’t care enough to speak up why should anyone believe it’s worth their money? It’s clear that Perry doesn’t want to be accused of building a palace as he campaigns for limited government. Still, it is going to be impossible to escape association with the project. Does he think he can blame Obama for this?

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UPDATE:  Late in the day on January 15 John Sneed, Executive Director of the State Preservation Board, announced that the expansion plan had been withdrawn.

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