The Best Worst Legislators 1997

From Bush’s good try on property taxes to Bullock’s grand finale, from savvy Sadler to weaselly Wohlgemuth, from Duncan’s beginning to Howard’s end: Our sorting of the session’s standouts—best, worst, and in between.

IT WAS A ONE-ISSUE SESSION AND THE ISSUE FAILED. this is the story line—or the epitaph—of the Seventy-fifth Legislature. The lawmakers gave us an official state instrument (the guitar), an official state dinosaur (Brachiosaur sauropad, Pleurocoelus), an official state native pepper (the chiltepin, the jalepeño previously having been designated the official state pepper), an official state fiber and fabric (cotton), an official state sport (rodeo), an official state vegetable (the sweet onion), and an official state bluebonnet festival (Chappel Hill). They did not give us official state property-tax relief.

Governor George W. Bush had the right idea at the wrong time. Coming into session on the heels of a free-spending and free-swinging election season that produced the Senate’s first Republican majority, legislators came to Austin with politics uppermost in mind, and the best efforts of its best members couldn’t change the focus. The will to legislate just wasn’t there. Caught between the Legislature’s Democratic past and its Republican future, the members of the Seventy-fifth just wanted to get out of town without casting a vote that could defeat them. And so property-tax relief failed, but not before it sucked the energy out of other issues. Only in the area of health did the Legislature post any achievements, mainly because it found a couple of inviting targets: tobacco and HMOs. Otherwise, the Seventy-fifth Legislature will be remembered for what it did not do.

The partisan nature of the session made it more difficult than usual to select the Best and Worst legislators. For the first time in many years, the House had a significant opposition faction (actually two, representing the extremes of each party) of members who weren’t on the leadership team, didn’t want to be on the team, and wanted to thwart the team in every way possible. The estranged Republicans became known as the Shiites; the Democrats, less numerous and less estranged, failed to achieve nickname status. (“Kurds” was tried, but it didn’t catch on.) The effect of partisanship on the Senate was different: It broke the hold of the lieutenant governor, a position that even before Bob Bullock held it was known as the most powerful job in the Capitol. Where that power will end up, no one knows; for the moment, it belongs, briefly, to small bands of senators coming together to get something done.

On the Best list, we looked for members with integrity, fairness, a desire to solve problems, a willingness to compromise, and a commitment to put policy ahead of partisanship. Effectiveness, normally a criterion, had to be waived in some cases; so much good effort came to naught. Today’s Worst legislators, with occasional exceptions, are not buffoons. They are mirror opposites of the Best legislators: They don’t care about solving problems, they don’t have a willingness to compromise, and they don’t put public policy ahead of jockeying for political advantage. As a result, five Shiite Republicans and one Democrat of the same nature are on the Worst list. They belong there. Their colleagues want them there. It is not their ideology that we deplore; it is their methodology.

BEST

Hugo Berlanga (D, Corpus Christi)
Teel Bivins (R, Amarillo)
Toby Goodman (R, Arlington)
Allen Hightower (D, Huntsville)
Bill Ratliff (R, Mount Pleasant)
Paul Sadler (D, Henderson)
David Sibley (R, Waco)
Ron Wilson (D, Houston)
Steve Wolens (D, Dallas)
Judith Zaffirini (D, Laredo)

WORST

Kevin Bailey (D, Houston)
Frank Corte (R, San Antonio)
Charles Finnell (D, Holliday)
Michael Galloway (R, The Woodlands) and Drew Nixon (R, Carthage)
Kent Grusendorf (R, Arlington)
Charlie Howard (R, Sugar Land)
Eddie Lucio (D, Brownsville)
John Shields (R, San Antonio)
Arlene Wohlgemuth (R, Burleson)

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