For 140 days the seventy-seventh legislature searched for its personality without finding it. This was a budget-trimming session in which money was tight. No, it was a free-spending session in which state expenditures increased by $14 billion. This was a session that would be dominated by redistricting. No, the Legislature didn’t even pass a redistricting bill. This was a session when legislators took off a week to go to Washington to celebrate the inauguration of fellow Texan and former governor George W. Bush. But it was also a session when lawmakers passed bills to repair the damage to the state’s reputation incurred during Bush’s tenure and presidential campaign.
Republicans went to the inauguration elated and came home deflated, almost with a sense of “Daddy’s gone. What do we do now?” New governor Rick Perry had few suggestions. Both he and Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, having filled vacancies, were unelected, and neither had a mandate to lead. With no one imposing an agenda on the Legislature, the lawmakers went about their routine business with no sense of urgency. The only piece of legislation that absolutely had to pass was the budget, and the only parts of the budget that posed serious problems were Medicaid and teacher health insurance. Not surprisingly, the lawmakers who figured out how to make these programs work without rupturing the budget made the Best list.
The one thing that could have ruined the session—partisan warfare—never came to pass. The hate crimes bill could have been the Fort Sumter that plunged the world of the Capitol into civil war, but in this torpid session, the will to fight just wasn’t strong enough to generate action. Anyway, the war is coming; it will be waged in the 2002 elections and in the 2003 session, but for now, everybody was content to run away and live to fight another day.
So let’s call it the antebellum session. We followed it on the floor and in committee, day after day and for a few late nights. We found our heroes in those who looked for common ground in a divisive time, and our villains in those who failed to do likewise. And as always, we found some folks who are in immediate need of reconstruction.
Knowledge is power. Seldom has the truth of this old saw been demonstrated more convincingly than by Garnet Coleman this session. He came to Austin in January wearing a Kick Me sign, which he hung around his own neck by way of campaigning vigorously against George W. Bush last fall. House Republicans obliged by trying to gut two of his bills as soon as they got the chance. But when crunch time came, and the problem of how to pay for Medicaid looked as if it might wreck the budget and with it the entire session, Medicaid expert Coleman proved to be indispensable.
Medicaid, which provides health care to children in poor households, is a mind-clogging maze of acronyms, waivers, and arcane regulations. But the political problem was simple. On the one hand, Texas needed to cover more than 600,000 eligible kids who were not participating in the program—mainly because of an arduous application process that seemed perversely designed to discourage participation (thereby saving money). On the other, covering them cost money the state did not have. The job of solving the dilemma fell to an informal working group, of which Coleman was a co-chair, appointed by the House and Senate budget chairmen. His job: find the money to cover everybody. And he did it, in part with a plan to get $9 from the feds for every $1 Texas puts up. You don’t want to know the details, and we’re not sure we can explain them; suffice it to say that when Coleman finished fiddling with the equation, the numbers balanced.
His performance is all the more praiseworthy because he had to deal not only with his opponents in the legislative process but also with his own demons. Coleman has a history of depression, and he fought to hold himself together through weeks of little sleep, bad food, and intense pressure. His final test was negotiating with Republican Arlene Wohlgemuth over her proposals to hold down costs.The whole Capitol, it seemed, was holding its breath. Late one night they emerged from a conference room into a nearly deserted House chamber, grinning and hugging, and the moment they appeared, you knew the session was saved.
Like all rookie senators, no matter how great their potential, Robert Duncan had to spend time on the bench in 1997 and 1999 before he could get in the game. His apprenticeship over, Duncan stepped up to the plate this session and hit the ball out of the park. With former Senate leaders Bill Ratliff and David Sibley no longer in the starting lineup—Ratliff because his duties changed when he won the race for lieutenant governor and Sibley because his morale plummeted when he lost it—Duncan became the Senate’s cleanup hitter.
You name the issue and chances are the slender, sandy-haired lawyer was involved in it: His bills addressed nuclear-waste disposal, workers’ compensation reform, Permanent School Fund investment procedures, the selection method for appellate judges (he wanted to change it from election to appointment), DNA testing of inmates in Texas prisons, and on and on. He took on the Bubba lobby by passing a bill to prohibit hauling teens around in the back of pickups. He tried to save the state’s nursing home industry by reducing lawsuit costs and even won passage of a politically risky fee that would have drawn more federal dollars for Texas homes—only to be embarrassed when Governor Perry belatedly threatened to veto the bill if the fee wasn’t removed.
It’s impossible to go to bat that often without striking out occasionally. Duncan found himself in the center of a firestorm when, at Perry’s request, he temporarily withdrew his support for the hate crimes bill, forcing a delay in its consideration.