Rob Junell —Democrat, San Angelo, 52
Bill Ratliff —Republican, Mount Pleasant, 62
From different parties but of like minds, the chairmen of the two budget-writing committees have taken state spending off the table as an issue for other lawmakers to worry about or fight over. House Appropriations chair Junell and Senate Finance chair Ratliff are the lawmakers most frequently and effusively praised by their colleagues. During the session, they talk almost daily, anticipating problems and planning strategy, so that their respective budget bills are not on a collision course but rather fold together in the final negotiations, like the shuffle of a pack of cards.
Junell’s mantra is, “Use the public’s tax dollars to help people rather than bureaucrats”—and woe to the agency that ignores it. “We’re just crying out for needs to be met in this state,” he admonished a health agency administrator who indicated a preference for education programs over direct medical services. He delegates authority to his committee members but makes them justify any increase in spending. After one lawmaker recommended that an agency hire more employees, Junell wanted to know whether they would work in the headquarters or in field offices serving the public; only when he determined that the answer was the latter did he agree to more funding. When the budget goes to the House floor for approval, he lets his committee members explain and defend it; from the most conservative Republican to the most liberal Democrat, they present a united front to the House. Everything he does is designed to let his committee members feel as if they wrote the budget instead of him. It isn’t true, of course. Says a committee member: “He gives us the freedom to do what he wants us to do.”
An engineer by trade, Ratliff studies the foundation the budget is built on. If a formula for distributing state aid doesn’t measure up to his scrutiny, he rewrites it—as he did this session when he discovered that the convoluted method for distributing money to state medical schools created huge but hidden disparities. Notwithstanding his skill as a numbers cruncher, Ratliff never loses sight of the people behind the numbers. Skeptics of the phrase “compassionate conservatism” ought to have heard Ratliff’s explanation on the Senate floor of why public education was the big winner this session: “I believe that there’s a saying that goes, ‘Where your gold is, there will your heart be also,’” he said. “And I think that we’ve put our gold where our heart should be.’”