The Best and the Worst Legislators

They had only one thing to do, and they didn’t do it.” That’s the epitaph of the regular session of the 70 th Legislature. The task, of course, was to solve the state’s budget crisis. They didn’t even come close. In fact, the three leaders-Bill Clements, Bill Hobby, and Gib Lewis-couldn’t agree on how much the state is spending in 1987 until seven days after final adjournment.

The failure to deal with the budget overshadowed everything else that happened this session. In fact, the best news may have been something that didn’t happen: The piles of bills aimed at emasculating the education reforms of 1984 never got unstacked. No pass, no play remains intact. So does the career ladder for teachers. The only setback was the loss of mandatory subject matter testing of teachers, something pusillanimous politicians had long ago abandoned anyway.

Positive accomplishments are not so easy to find. The Legislature did act on four high-profile issues—deregulation of trucking and AT&T, abortion, and, n a brief special session, tort reform. Whether it acted meaningfully is another question. The deregulation bills merely flipped the decision from the Legislature to a couple of state agencies that have had the power, but not the inclination, to deregulate their industries all along. The abortion ban applies only to third trimester abortions and only some of those. The tort reform-insurance reform package is the strongest of the four, but it is far short of what its backers envisioned at the start of the session.

As disturbing as the lack of progress was the deterioration of process. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion that members of the Legislature are supposed to come to the Capitol and vote? No one wanted to cast a controversial aye or nay this session. And so the concept of the shotgun compromise was born. Legislators and lobbyists with controversial bills were sent off to back rooms and told to negotiate with their opponents. If they didn’t reach an agreement, there would be no vote. The Legislature’s function became not to debate but to ratify. “I’m so tired of being told ‘Work it out,’” said one lobbyist. “The next time I get a request for a campaign contribution, I’m going to say, ‘Work it out with your opponent first.’”

Perhaps the Legislature is just plain worn out. The regular session really began last summer, with the two special sessions to raise taxes. The mood of those sessions, characterized by partisan enmity, carried over to this year. Now the odds are good that the budget crisis will keep lawmakers in session most of this summer. A year-round session: the Legislature is working as long as Congress, for a tenth the pay.

All these factors made our task of compiling the list of Best and Worst Legislators more difficult than usual. We followed the session in the House and in the Senate, in committee and on the floor; we talked to legislators, staff, lobbyists, and members of the Capitol press corps; we were there for the post-midnight sessions on the budget; and yet the nature of the

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