The 1989 Legislative session was the eye of the storm. For the first time since the boom years the Legislature didn’t face the double whammy of raising taxes and cutting spending. The absence of pocketbook issues abated the pressure, meanness and partisanship that had characterized recent sessions. The Legislature was fun again, for both participants and onlookers, and its most enduring characteristic reemerged: It is an arena where personality and talent count more than party, ideology, and seniority. It is a place where you can do what you’re big enough to do.
The calm of 1989 will not last long. Ahead in 1991 lie redistricting, a likely tax increase, and a new governor and lieutenant governor. A crucial issue of the last two sessions—putting limits on the rights to sue and collect damages—isn’t about to go away. Proposed limitations on lawsuits kept plaintiff’s attorneys on the defensive in two major battles this session (reforming the way the state compensates injured workers and keeping rural hospitals open) and many minor skirmishes.
The benign political climate made our job of compiling the Best and Worst lists easier than it was in 1987. That session seemed to produce nothing but negatives. This one yielded some impressive positives: a far-reaching criminal-justice package, the first step toward real equity in school finance, an overhaul of the much criticized State Board of Insurance, and help for nursing home patients and rural hospitals.
We followed the session from beginning to end, on the Senate and House floors and in committee. We conducted more than a hundred interviews of staff members, lobbyists, and legislators. In choosing the Ten Best, we looked at both the character and effectiveness. We valued the traits that legislators themselves respect: integrity, intelligence, independence, industriousness, and ingenuity in the legislative process. We recognized that politics necessarily involves the use of power, and we respected those who used their power with skill and honor. The Worst of the Capitol list, however, was based on different criteria. We focused not only on lack of skill but also on the aggressive use of skill to impede the process. In politics the worst blunders are usually committed by people with some talent. Few things in the Legislature are as dangerous as people who fail to measure up to expectations. Last session the entire Legislature failed to measure up. This time, the good guys won out in the end.
The Ten Best
Part of the Solution
Democrat, Bryan, 39—The consensus choice as the best member of the Legislature. His influence is pervasive; his motives are honorable; his list of achievements is long. It’s fortunate that he loaded his plate so full, because the Senate is running short of people with the ability to digest big issues.
As chairman of the Finance Committee, Caperton took on the task of writing the state’s budget—normally a full-session job. He helped produce the fairest budget in the history of the state, oversaw a House-Senate conference committee that had unprecedented rapport, and still found time to pass bills on child support and open records, to kill a utilities bill unfair to ratepayers, and to negotiate compromises on rural health care and deceptive trade lawsuits. Here’s how he did it.
1. He’s innovative. In the past the entire Finance Committee reviewed the budget of every state agency. But Caperton assigned different areas of the budget to subcommittees, then made sure that they didn’t spend too freely.
2. He’s driven. If the Senate quit work at 12:40pm, Caperton would announce that Finance would meet at 1:10. No leisurely lobby lunches here.
3. He’s tough. When insurance companies won a court case that overturned the state’s premium tax, threatening to unbalance the budget, Caperton told them he’d pass “poison pill” legislation forcing them to give the proceeds to policyholders. They compromised.
4. He’s relentless. All session Caperton railed against pork-barrel bills that created new or expanded colleges. He lost on the floor but didn’t give up. In private, he won the ear of Bill Clements, who then vetoed a bill expanding UT-Dallas and two other schools.
5. He’s focused. Members and lobbyists trust him as a negotiator because he argues each issue on its merits, rather than mix his bingo cards (Capital parlance for trading votes). He truly believes that a mutually acceptable solution can be found for any problem—and when the Legislature comes back for a special session on workers’ compensation, he’ll be the key to a resolution.
Democrat, Godley, 35—It is five minutes before twelve on the last night of the session. Speaker Gib Lewis has just decreed that the school finance compromise contains a technical violation of House rules. The bill is dead. Schools will lose almost half a billion dollars, most of it earmarked for impoverished areas. There are hisses from the gallery. On the House floor everyone is stunned—except Bruce Gibson. Standing next to the Speaker, in the center of a huge huddle, Gibson calmy asks, “Will you recognize me for a motion to suspend the rules?” Of course! Why didn’t someone think of that sooner? Papers fly. The motion is made. It requires a two-thirds margin. The speaker announces that he is voting aye. The scoreboard is activated—green lights overwhelm the reds. Cheers ring down from the gallery. The school bill is saved. The session ends.
Like a kid in a toy store, Bruce Gibson wants to touch everything. A former TCU student body president who likes to read Machiavelli and think about politics and public policy, he is always looking for ways to have an effect on the process. He had no expertise in school finance, but he saved the bill.
Gibson’s achievements are all of the more impressive because the tides of the session did not work in his favor. He didn’t get the committee chairmanship he wanted (Calendars, which sets the daily agenda), but he made the most of the one he got (Government Organization, which oversees the restructuring of state agencies). He came up with the broad outline of the pesticide compromise that saved