Every legislative session is different, but the Seventy-third Legislature was really different. When it was bad, it was awful. There were raucous debates over sodomy and handguns, attacks on sex education, and a rodeo war between Mesquite (honored as the Rodeo Capital of Texas) and Pecos (honored for its Oldest Rodeo in the World).
At times, though, the Legislature resembled a serious body interested in making Texas a better place. This occurs more often than the arrival of a new Ice Age, but not much more often. The Legislature was unable to pass any good education laws, but it did do the next best thing: repeal the bad laws. In fact, it repealed most of the education code. Two years from now the Legislature will have the chance to rebuild the education system from the ground up. Lawmakers dealt with overcrowded prisons by starting a system of state jails for nonviolent offenders. Presumably people caught violating the sodomy law will be sent there, although one lawmaker said the punishment should be hanging. There wasn’t anything funny about a constitutional amendment providing property tax relief. To get it, Texans will have to vote for an income tax.
Two things made the legislature a more serious place. One was the 1991 ethics law, which eliminated a lot of nighttime wining and dining. The other was the unique geography of the session. A renovation project moved most representatives and all senators out of the Capitol. The result was an instant loss of camaraderie. Instead of going out, people worked. Very unusual.
The decline of the social side of the Legislature had an effect on our selection of the Best and Worst. Everybody felt more isolated this session. The usual consensus about who was being naughty and nice did not exist. The Legislature started to resemble Congress, a place where members know only their small corner of the political universe and talk to their staffs instead of colleagues.
In choosing our lists, we sat in on committee meetings, listened to floor debates, and interviewed staff and members. Our criteria for the Ten Best list (which includes twelve legislators this year, since three share one slot) included integrity, initiative, effectiveness, and commitment to a public purpose. On the Ten Worst list, we looked not only for the absence of these qualities but also for a lack of respect for the legislative process of compromise and good faith. And did we ever find it.
High Water Marks
Democrat, Victoria, 46. They said it couldn’t be done, but Ken Armbrister did it. He forged an agreement on the session’s most hotly contested issue—allocating the waters of the Edwards Aquifer. Last session he made the Ten Best list as a detail man; this session he again played the role of the Senate’s human data bank, but he also proved he could see the big picture.
The aquifer struggle resembled something out of the Balkans, filled with warring factions who hated each other. Farmers asserted the right to pump all the water they wanted for irrigation, and city dwellers asserted the right to pump all they wanted for swimming pools and lawns. The issue was as much a clash of cultures and lifestyles as it was a question of policy. Into this holy war stepped Armbrister at the request of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. He proved to have the perfect training for the job—a stint as a Little League coach, which gave him the ability to inspire teamwork among people acting like rowdy, self-absorbed eight-year-olds.
Armbrister insisted that the participants drop their philosophical diatribes and specifically address what they liked or disliked about his bill. When a farmer began ranting about the sanctity of property rights to underground water, Armbrister listened politely and then asked if the witness had read his bill. No? End of discussion.
Finally, with time running out in the session, Armbrister worked around the clock to produce an agreement for creating a water district that would divvy up the Edwards. He kept House and Senate negotiators up all night, never called a break, and created a sense of momentum as the dog-tired panel went through the lengthy bill, item by item. One by one the other members of the conference committee began to wilt, but not Armbrister; a feisty ex-cop, he runs a security service, and the wee hours are his home turf. By sheer effort of will, Armbrister fashioned a deal just before dawn.
Only one thing prevents Armbrister from being in the very top rank of senators. He sometimes plays errand boy for the lobby. This session, for example, he passed a controversial bill allowing a few developers to escape a tough Austin environmental ordinance that was applied retroactively. Whether the bill could be justified or not is beside the point, which is that the great senators never touch blatant special interest bills. It’s one detail Armbrister has overlooked.
Take a Vow
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 44. To borrow a line from Mark Twain, reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. After five heady sessions as right-hand man to Speaker Gib Lewis, Berlanga seemed consigned to oblivion when Pete Laney took over as speaker and removed him as chairman of the powerful Calendars Committee. Instead of quietly accepting a secondary role, Berlanga made a presession vow: “I’m going to prove there’s life after Gib Lewis for Hugo Berlanga,” he told a medical lobbyist. He made it good. Short, combative, and intense, Berlanga turned his consolation chairmanship of the previously inconsequential Public Health Committee into a power base for public good. When a bill requiring nonprofit hospitals to provide more charity care stalled, Berlanga addressed opponents with his trademark tough-guy preface—“Lemme tell ya somethin’”—and warned them against killing the bill. They capitulated. He also embarked on a campaign to have medical schools use their income from patients to train more family physicians. Just when it looked as if the universities had blocked Berlanga’s efforts to audit their fees, he made a deal in the Senate and won that battle too.
On the House floor