It is late in the session, and a sticky procedural issue has brought Senate debate to a momentary halt. Senators Teel Bivins of Amarillo and Royce West of Dallas are huddled beside a desk, puzzled about what to do. West, a Democrat, nods in the direction of Bill Ratliff, who is poring over a stack of papers on his desk. “Maybe we should ask Obi-Wan over there,” he says.
The appellation fits. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars, Ratliff is the last of the old masters who—in a time that seems long, long ago, and far, far away—ruled the Senate by example: They put policy ahead of politics and expected others to do likewise. Ratliff hasn’t changed, but the same, alas, cannot be said for the Senate. Even so, Ratliff’s calm demeanor, unshakable integrity, and analytical skill have prevented many a disagreement from disintegrating into the legislative equivalent of a food fight. (Speaking of which, Ratliff took on chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim—who once handed out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor—with a bill to prohibit open-pit burial of chicken carcasses. At a hearing on the proposal, a poultry lobbyist argued that the matter wasn’t a big deal. A senator broke in to ask, “Then why is the most respected member of the Senate telling us it is a problem?” Ratliff’s bill passed unanimously.)
A structural engineer by training, Ratliff put his analytical ability to good use as a first-time chairman of the Senate budget-writing committee, spending hours on his laptop computer tinkering with formulas and matrices that mystify most budget veterans. He came up with a method of funding state universities that will reward schools whose most experienced professors are in the classroom. His research revealed that Texas A&M was using clever accounting methods to get too many state dollars for research. When an A&M official offered a tortured explanation about how some parts of the university were really separate from others, Ratliff asked, “Don’t y’all work for the same board of regents?”
It is the mixture of the mathematical and the moral that makes Ratliff so special. Outraged by rap music lyrics, he brushed off charges of censorship to bar state pension funds from investing in companies that own rap labels. Offended by gambling, he squelched an offtrack betting proposal. Concerned about head injuries, he insisted that the repeal of the motorcycle helmet law include a requirement that bikers buy health insurance. Worried about misleading the public, he warned colleagues that dedicating lottery receipts to education will not provide one more dollar for the schools. Obi-Wan will never give in to the Dark Side.