Altered State

The joys of Oklahoma tourism aside, what we learned this legislative session is that Texas politics will never be the same again.

EVERY LEGISLATIVE SESSION IS DIFFERENT; every legislative session is the same. I have seen … oh, my goodness, can it really be twenty of them? T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. I count mine in points of order and sine dies. Governors come and governors go, but the rites of every-other-spring endure. Schoolchildren file in and out of the gallery. Lobbyists huddle outside the House and Senate chambers, cell phones sprouting from their ears. Grassroots groups arrive by the busload from South Texas, clad in matching T-shirts with slogans like “Save Our Schools.” On the front steps of the Capitol, demonstrators rally to their causes: Stop abortions! Stop executions!

More difficult to observe but just as obvious to participants is the shift in the mass psychology of the Capitol, from relaxed to urgent to frantic, as the time remaining in the 140-day session squeezes down from weeks to days to hours. Tempers flare. Threats fly. Skulduggery and mischief are afoot. Desperate lobbyists and lawmakers maneuver in dark corners and secret passageways to resuscitate their dead bills. This is the point in the session when the old-timers appear in the gallery—former members and long-retired lobbyists and staffers, soaking up the atmosphere and reliving old times. One night a man introduced himself to me as Jimmy Turman. I recognized the name: Speaker of the House, 1961.

But the commonalities shared by the Seventy-eighth Legislature and those that came before are not nearly as significant as the differences. The Legislature validated the election results of November 2002: This was the first session of the Republican era in Texas, and no one who lived through it will ever forget it. For 130 years Republicans had been slaves in the land of Egypt, and now they were masters; for Democrats, the roles were reversed. There was no way that the transition could be smooth, and it wasn’t. The heroes, the villains, the accomplishments, and the failures of the session are chronicled in “The Best and the Worst Legislators.” We have compiled such a list for sixteen consecutive sessions dating back to 1973, our initial year of publication. Yet to focus on the present session alone would miss the full import of the Seventy-eighth: It represents a tectonic shift in the underlying assumptions of Texas politics. Here’s what the immediate future

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