Local Government in the Texas Constitution

Focus on Counties

1866 map of Texas and its counties.

1866 map of Texas and its counties.

Local government was certainly on the minds of the framers of the Texas Constitution in 1875. They were particularly concerned with the counties, as opposed to cities and towns. They referred to "county" or "counties" 198 times, almost 1 percent of the original constitution's 23,505 words. Cities, towns and municipalities (and municipal corporations) earned much less attention with only seventy-five mentions.

Counties were historically the most important units of local government. Texas counties trace their lineage from the Spanish municipio, a word that does not translate directly to the English cognate "municipality." Municipios are city-region jurisdictions comprising large geographic areas that encompass one or more settlements and their surrounding rural territory. Under the Republic of Texas these municipios became counties, at which point their governmental structure changed to resemble the county organization in other southern states.

Practically speaking, the sparse and largely rural population of Texas in the early decades after independence from Spain made counties the natural building blocks of local government. By the time of the first vote for president of the Republic of Texas in 1836, there were an estimated 50,000 persons in Texas, including over 14,000 native Americans. That would mean that the average population per county (counting native Americans) was fewer than 2,200 people for the twenty-three Spanish municipalities that converted to counties after independence. Despite rapid population growth for the next several decades, the state remained sparsely populated.

When the framers of the current Texas Constitution met in 1875, they quite logically spent considerable time and attention on issues related to counties, including creation of new counties, governmental organization, taxation and revenue, and other powers and restrictions. Nevertheless, the framers' attention was not very focused, resulting in haphazard coverage of these basic building blocks of government in the state. As an example, Article XI nominally dedicated to municipal corporations begins by declaring that: "The several counties of this State are hereby recognized as legal subdivisions of the State."

Yes, the framers also included Article IX which focuses exclusively on counties. But the primary concern in this article is only with the creation of new counties, an important topic no doubt, but not central to their organization and operation.

County Organization

Photo of campaign signs for county and other seats.

The governmental organization of counties is established in several different, and sometimes unlikely, places. The most detail, notably, is provided in Article V on the judicial department. Here the Texas Constitution identifies the central institutions for county administration: county courts and the county commissioners court. Articles VIII (Taxation and Revenue) and Article XVI (General Provisions) provide for additional county administrative offices.

  • County court and a county judge in each county
    "There shall be established in each county in this State a County Court, which shall be a court of record; and there shall be elected in each county, by the qualified voters, a county judge, ..." (Article V, Section 15)
  • County precincts, justices of the peace and county constables
    "Each organized county in the State now or hereafter existing, shall be divided from time to time, for the convenience of the people, into precincts, not less than four and not more than eight. The present County Courts shall make the first division.... In each such precinct there shall be elected at each biennial election, one justice of the peace and one constable, ..." (Article V, Section 18)
  • County Commissioner's Court and executive administration
    "Each county shall... be divided into four commissioners' precincts, in each of which there shall be elected by the qualified voters thereof one county commissioner, who shall hold his office for two years and until his successor shall be elected and qualified. The county commissioners so chosen, with the county judge, as presiding officer, shall compose the County Commissioners' Court, which shall exercise such powers and jurisdiction over all county business..." (Article V, Section 18)
  • County clerk, county attorney, district attorney and sheriff
    The creation of several offices are required: county clerk, county attorney, district attorney and county sheriff and specify their terms of office (Article V, Sections 20, 21 and 23)
  • County tax assessor
    "There shall be elected by the qualified electors of each county, at the same time and under the same law regulating the election of State and county officers, an assessor of taxes, ..." (Article VIII, Section 14)
  • County tax collector
    "The sheriff of each county, in addition to his other duties, shall be the collector of taxes therefor. But in counties having ten thousand inhabitants, to be determined by the last preceding census of the United States, a collector of taxes shall be elected..." (Article VIII, Section 16)
  • County treasurer and county surveyor
    "The Legislature shall prescribe the duties and provide for the election by the qualified voters of each county in this State, of a county treasurer and a county surveyor, who shall have an office at the county seat, ..." (Article XVI, Section 44)

County Operation

Cartoon image of two people with a tax bill; money is flowing from the woman's purse into a county institution, which in turn produces a schoolhouse, a badge, and a fire hydrant. 

As one might imagine, many of the details of how county government operates are included in Article V (the Judicial Department), where the county commissioner's court and several other county offices are specified. But other areas of the Texas Constitution include important details on the operation and operational restrictions on counties and their public officers, including:

  • Apportionment for representation in the state legislature
    "...whenever a single county has sufficient population to be entitled to a Representative, such county shall be formed into a separate Representative District, and when two or more counties are required to make up the ratio of representation, such counties shall be contiguous to each other..." (Article 3, Section 26)
  • Taxation of lands for public education
    "All lands heretofore, or hereafter granted to the several counties of this State for educational purposes, are of right the property of said counties respectively, to which they were granted, and title thereto is vested in said counties, and no adverse possession or limitation shall ever be available against the title of any county. Each county may sell or dispose of its lands in whole or in part, in manner to be provided by the Commissioners Court of the county." (Article VII, Section 6)
  • Occupation tax
    "...the occupation tax levied by any county, city or town, for any year, on persons or corporations pursuing any profession or business, shall not exceed one-half of the tax levied by the State for the same period on such profession or business." (Article VIII, Section 1)
  • Assessment and taxation of property
    "All property, whether owned by persons or corporations, shall be assessed for taxation, and the taxes paid in the county where situated, ..."
  • Exemption of local public property from taxation or forced sale
    "The property of counties, cities and towns owned and held only for public purposes, such as public buildings and the sites therefor, fire engines and the furniture thereof, and all property used, or intended for extinguishing fires, public grounds and all other property devoted exclusively to the use and benefit of the public shall be exempt from forced sale and from taxation, ..." (Article XI, Section 9)
  • Multiple paid public offices
    "No person shall hold or exercise, at the same time, more than one civil office of emolument, except that of justice of the peace, county commissioner, notary public, and postmaster unless otherwise specially provided herein." (Article XVI, Section 40)

In addition, the Texas Constitution contains numerous other provisions that either empower or prohibit actions by county government. Some of the things counties are empowered to do include: constructing seawalls in coastal counties, prohibiting alcohol sales, establishing a poor house or farm for taking care of indigent or poor inhabitants.

Source: Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "COUNTY ORGANIZATION," http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/muc10.html (accessed March 11, 2005). Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "TEJANO POLITICS," http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/TT/wmtkn.html (accessed March 15, 2005). 
Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "CENSUS AND CENSUS RECORDS." http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/ulc1.html (accessed Oct 2, 2003). Library of Congress, "Schonberg's map of Texas." http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4030.ct000542 (accessed Mar 10, 2005).