THIS IS A DAVID and Goliath story, and never was there an unlikelier David. For sixteen years, Hill toiled in relative obscurity, occasionally rising to rail against drunk drivers and trial lawyers but otherwise being content to avoid the spotlight and vote an unblemished conservative record. When Craddick became Speaker in 2003, Hill’s reward was a second-tier committee chairmanship (Local Government Ways and Means), where, it appeared, he would quietly serve out his days.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Hill did his homework and decided that the top two objectives of fiscal conservatives—placing caps (strict limits) on increases in property appraisals and local government revenue increases—were bad ideas. Early in the session, he reflected on the coming fight. “What we do here won’t affect me,” he said in an interview, “but it will affect my grandchildren. After Proposition 13, California went from having one of the top five school systems to the bottom, and the loss of local revenue brought about the centralization of government. I don’t care if this defeats me for reelection. This is the worst public policy since I’ve been here.”
And off he went to do battle with not one Goliath but two: the governor and the Speaker. Craddick did everything he could to stop Hill. He took both issues away from Hill’s committee and sent them to friendlier venues. He suppressed a report Hill had written about why caps are a bad idea. But Hill assembled an unbreakable coalition of urban liberals and local-control conservatives that defeated appraisal caps and effectively gutted revenue caps. Just before the crucial vote, he took the floor to rally his troops: “The time to kill a snake is when you’ve got the hoe in your hand.” Or, he might have added, try a slingshot.