IMAGINE A KITTEN, VERY CURIOUS BUT EASILY FRIGHTENED: That was the Seventy-ninth Legislature. It poked around school finance, pawed at tax reform, heard loud shouts of “No!”, fled to Mama, curled up, and went to sleep. Lawmakers did a lot of exploring, learned a lot about the world, even grew up a little, but in the end they obeyed their instincts and took refuge in the safety of cultural issues. As a result, this legislature will be remembered not for what it did but for what it didn’t do: fix the biggest problems facing the state.
The session did see a few accomplishments—reforms of workers’ compensation and Child Protective Services, as well as a state budget that undid much of the damage caused by the $10 billion revenue shortfall in 2003. Many other big issues, though, failed to get resolved and ended in frantic eleventh-hour negotiations that proved to be too little, too late. A major reason for the lack of success was the worst antipathy between the House and the Senate in memory, fed by the hostility between their presiding officers, Speaker Tom Craddick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
When time ran out on May 30, the biggest political question in the state—Can the Republicans govern?—continued to have the unsatisfying answer, “Not yet.” Rank-and-file members dreaded having to vote for new taxes, even if the revenue was earmarked for reducing property taxes and fixing the school finance mess. In the House, particularly, there was a sizable number of members who were tempted to desert their leadership on some issues—moderate Republicans who would have liked to have seen more GOP support for public schools, conservative Democrats who would have liked to have voted for sales taxes—but couldn’t, for fear of getting opponents in the 2006 primary. Partisan feelings weren’t as heated as they were in 2003, but party lines were just as hard to cross.
In compiling our list of the Best and Worst Legislators, we relied, as usual, on our observations of the Legislature at work, in committees and in floor debate, as well as our interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists, and staff. We gave the most weight to events that took place in public and are part of the permanent record of the session. We did not impose our personal views about legislation, with one exception: Texas Monthly has a 32-year history of believing that the future of this state depends upon its public schools and the Legislature’s support of them.
Our objective is to produce a list that reflects a consensus of the Capitol community, though we recognize that universal agreement is impossible. In choosing Best Legislators, we look for members who put public policy ahead of partisan politics, who make major contributions to the big issues of the session, and who work and play well with others. The surest way to end up on the Worst list is to do public harm, either through bad legislation or bad behavior.
One more thing: please, no cracks about how hard it is to find ten folks for the Best list. It’s no joke. Nor is there anything funny about how easy it is to find ten Worsts. Especially this year.
THE BEST LEGISLATORS
Dianne Delisi, R Temple
SHE IS THE MOST underrated member of the Legislature, due to her low-key style and the mind-numbing vocabulary that is designed to shield health care policy, the area in which she performs her good works, from ordinary human understanding.
A case in point: She passed a bill whose description read, “relating to the Medicaid managed care delivery system.” Perhaps if the title had been more stimulating—say, “relating to stopping the greedy HMOs and their even greedier lobbyist from putting in the fix with the bureaucracy so that the health plans make profits while local hospitals get the shaft”—more folks might have realized that she was taking on the governor, whose chief of staff happens to be her own daughter-in-law, in an effort to prevent a catastrophic loss of federal matching funds for big urban hospitals ($50 million for Dallas’s Parkland alone) that serve Medicaid patients. Maybe she would be better off if she tooted her own horn a little instead of reading in a bland monotone (“Integrated care management better aligns risk and incentives,” blah, blah, snore) and sharing credit with her Public Health Committee members. But don’t be fooled: What you see of Delisi is only 10 percent of what’s there. The rest, as with an iceberg, is submerged.
She passed two other major bills this session, one preserving funding for trauma centers and the other trying to shift Medicaid care from emergency rooms to clinics and homes. But the way she runs her committee is just as important as her legislation. “It was like the old days,” says Garnet Coleman, a partisan Houston Democrat who has long been active in health care. “There were no R’s and no D’s. Just good public policy.”
Sen. Robert Duncan, R Lubbock
WHEN HE LEARNED last year about a hazardous waste company’s plan to expand its nuclear dump in West Texas, Duncan forced a state agency to delay its okay of the project. Risking political fallout from the company’s influential investors, he championed legislation requiring hefty state fees and closer government scrutiny, only to see it killed at the last minute—and this was only the first of his brushes with radioactivity this session. From helping hammer out a compromise on asbestos litigation to negotiating the final education budget and revamping the ailing Teacher Retirement System, Duncan immersed himself in issues whose common traits were complexity, volatility, and their potentially lethal impact on his political career.
He’s the rare senator who masters both the big ideas and the details. When Senate debate gets mired in controversy over the language in a bill, keep your eye on the huddle that forms around him, a sure sign that other senators are looking to him for a technical fix that will resolve the problem. Says an admiring colleague: