IF THE SEVENTY-FOURTH LEGISLATURE COULD VOTE on the best lawmaker of 1995, the likely winner would be not one of its own but Texas Supreme Court justice John Cornyn. His January 30 opinion upholding the constitutionality of the state’s school-finance law saved the session. It took off the table the one issue that could have required a tax increase or massive budget cuts. For once the legislative agenda wasn’t driven by the courts.
The new candidates for chauffeur, in keeping with the electorate’s sharp turn to the right last November, were the governor and business. George W. Bush wanted to honor his campaign promises about education, welfare, juvenile crime, and lawsuit reform. Business wanted everything else: tax breaks for oil companies, subsidies for sports stadiums, monopolies for liquor interests and utilities, friendly regulations for banks and insurance companies, and protection from unfriendly regulations on developers and polluters. As one legislator said, putting a twist on a Bush campaign line about Texans, “What lobbyists can dream, lobbyists can do.” But it turned out they couldn’t. The business agenda never found a champion, and Bush wisely didn’t volunteer. He wasn’t about to endanger his own program by adding controversial items to his wish list.
Bush’s four issues, along with the state budget, absorbed most of the Legislature’s time, energy, and talent. The old maxim that you can do what you’re big enough to do was out of date; the new rule was that you could do what you were in a position to do. Almost all the major initiatives were carried by committee chairmen who fashioned the bills themselves or negotiated the language in back rooms. Ordinary legislators could do little more than pass noncontroversial bills and cast votes. Their awareness of their own irrelevance made them passionless, and that attitude became the dominant mood of the session.
This atmosphere made our selection of the Best and Worst legislators more difficult than usual. There were fewer players to choose from and fewer chances for them to make a difference. Our criteria for the Best list changed a little. We still placed great weight on integrity, effectiveness, fairness, and a willingness to put public policy ahead of partisanship and personal ambition. But we also looked for legislators who far surpassed the level at which they were expected to perform.
On the Worst list, we looked first for legislators who did great harm. But the opportunities to inflict damage were scant this session; the major issues had such strong bipartisan support that no amount of tomfoolery or skulduggery could affect the outcome. What we did find was a lack of respect for the basic values of politics: compromise, good faith, and a commitment to the public trust. Even John Cornyn can’t save the Legislature from all its problems.
A Done Deal
Democrat, Corpus Christi, 47. It’s easy to locate Hugo Berlanga’s desk on the House floor. His is the one with the chair that’s always empty. He may be working the floor, he may be conferring in his office, he may be in the Senate, he may even be in the governor’s office, but wherever he is, you can be sure of one thing: He’s cutting a deal. He could find common ground between heaven and hell.
Berlanga has one of the toughest assignments in the Legislature: chairing the House committee on public health, an area that a medical lobbyist aptly describes as “technical and turfy.” It is a legislative Balkans of warring factions—doctors, nurses, chiropractors, pharmacists, hospitals, insurance companies—and Berlanga is a one-man peacekeeping force. During negotiations on a mammoth bill overhauling Medicaid, lobbyists for health maintenance organizations marched into his office determined to convince him that the bill would be too costly unless Medicaid patients were limited to seeking treatment from a small group of health care providers, mainly primary-care physicians. The lobbyists marched out agreeing with Berlanga to expand the group to include chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, and the like. As the sponsor of a bill to improve rural health care, he ended an impasse by getting doctors to let nurses and physician’s assistants write prescriptions. An unwritten part of the agreement is that Berlanga-Has-Had-Enough clause, in which each side has concurred that it will not try to change the bill next session unless the others are in accord.
When Governor George W. Bush failed to name a Hispanic to the University of Texas Board of Regents, the logical assumption was that he was on a collision course with Berlanga, who is the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Instead, they ended up pals. Berlanga told the governor how to approach his meeting with the caucus: Take control of the agenda by talking about your firm stand against California’s Proposition 187. The meeting went well, and the next thing you know, a Berlanga buddy gets a gubernatorial appointment and Bush decides that maybe Berlanga’s coastal zone management bill, with a few changes, might not be so bad after all.
Berlanga is the kind of legislator whose career makes a good case against term limits. He came to the House in 1977, and for most of the eighties he was close enough to then-Speaker Gib Lewis that he was assured of having influence whether he performed at a high level or not—and often he did not. Now that he can succeed only by using his wiles and experience, he is a far better and more valuable legislator—so good in fact, that he is the only member of the House to make the Best list in 1993 and 1995.
Democrat, Houston, 33.The Legislature produces good guys and bad guys, idealists and cynics, political sophisticates and political naїfs, but it seldom produces heroes. Garnet Coleman is a hero. He came further than any member of the Legislature this session, or perhaps any session—not just from the obscurity of the House rank-and-file but also from the depths of depression in a Houston hotel room last