The best that can be said about the long struggle of the Seventy-second Legislature is that it is over. This was a year when the Legislature was as bad as the public has always suspected. Three issues critical to the future of Texas faced the lawmakers when they came to town last January: the declining quality of the public schools, an overcrowded prison system with no room to keep violent criminals behind bars, and a tax structure based on land instead of the modern Texas economy. Eight months of work produced only patches on leaky tires: a school-finance law that hurts as many schoolchildren as it helps; new prisons but no change in the practice of crowding them with nonviolent felons; and new taxes on the same old taxpayers.
The Legislature did make small strides forward in areas like ethics and environment, but it must be judged on the gut-check issues — and on these it failed. The main reason why is that none of the legislative leaders was willing to demand that it succeed — not Governor Ann Richards, not Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, not Speaker Gib Lewis. Richards stayed away from the big issues that could cause her political damage. Bullock made a play for a state income tax, found that he had no following outside the Senate, and turned his energies toward preventing a budget meltdown. Lewis, a five-term Speaker with a misdemeanor ethics indictment hanging over his head, contributed neither ideas nor leadership. Even his team of floor leaders seemed visionless, cynical, and out of gas. The House has lost interest in Texas’ future. The Senate is in even worse shape; the talent level has hit bottom.
Still, we were able to find some heroes this year — although we had to delay our selection of Bests and Worsts until after the midsummer special sessions in hopes of finding them. The budget was the one policy area that produced stars and rewarded new ideas; it contributed five members to our Best list. As might be expected of a Legislature with so dismal a record, the competition for the Worst list was unusually fierce.
We followed the Legislature from January to August, on the floor and in committee, through observations and interviews. We sought a consensus of the Capitol community about both lists. Our criteria for the Best legislators included character and effectiveness; above all, we were looking for people who put solving the state’s problems ahead of their personal ambitions. In choosing the Worst list, we focused on members who seemed to personify the failings of the Seventy-second Legislature — the absence of courage, comity, vision, integrity, independence, leadership, or commitment to the state. Texas deserves better.
Ken Armbrister: Details, details
Democrat, Victoria, 44 — The comeback of the year; a conversion as unexpected as Manuel Noriega’s. Two years ago he ended up on the Worst list for … well, let’s let bygones be bygones. This session he got serious about being a senator and rehabilitated himself as the most alert member of the Senate. At a time when senators are increasingly dependent on staff, Armbrister became the detail man that the Senate desperately needed. “He has the best sense of what is really going on of anybody in the Senate,” said a colleague. “He can read a bill and tell immediately who is trying to do what to whom.”
Short and sturdy, with the unreadable face of the cop he once was, Armbrister went on a manhunt for unintended consequences. He read every bill every day, searching for problems no one else had thought of — and finding plenty. He pointed out that a bill banning can’t-miss wildlife hunts could cause trouble for circuses and zoos. He discovered that a bill to coordinate programs for three-year-olds would actually abolish those very programs. Skimming through a lengthy last-minute criminal justice bill, Armbrister came across a provision that added more big-salaried administrators to the prison system. Out it came.
His mastery of details extended to the state budget. On the Senate Finance Committee, Armbrister made agencies explain how they spent money earmarked for “other operating expenses”; usually they couldn’t do it. Whenever an agency claimed that more state money would bring in more federal funds, Armbrister questioned whether the federal grants were certain or just wishful thinking. Aggie researchers ran afoul of Armbrister by asking for $190,000 for killer bee research. He wanted to know why, with a $50 million budget, they couldn’t scrape up $190,000 in savings — and began asking questions about their entire budget.
On the final night of the last special session, Armbrister struck again. He found a provision that changed the way the state purchasing agency would be scrutinized by the Legislature. Off he went, asking questions, ticking off from memory the other agencies scheduled for scrutiny, very concerned. Then a Senate aide whispered to him: This isn’t a sneaky play, Ken; it’s part of an eleventh-hour deal approved by Lieutenant Governor Bullock. Armbrister abruptly sat down. Last session’s bad boy was now too smart for his own good.
Robert Eckels: The Good Samaritan
Republican, Houston, 34 — A knight-errant who succeeded in his crusade to restore respect to the family name. Eckels’ late father was a Houston pol of the old school, first as a school board member and later as a county commissioner whose career ended in disgrace. Robert Junior could not be more different. Soft-spoken, earnest, and squeaky clean, he did the best work on the session’s most thankless issues — ethics reform and redistricting — and found time along the way to save colleagues in distress.
As the Republicans’ standard-bearer on ethics, Eckels wrote a bill that outshone its rivals as silver outshines dirt. The eventual House bill incorporated many of his ideas, including a sorely needed provision that legislators disclose all sources of income greater than $15,000. But Eckels was thwarted when Speaker Gib Lewis, an object of ethics reform rather than an advocate, omitted him from the House team that was negotiating with the Senate.
In a body