Rookie of the Year
Phil King, Republican, Weatherford.
It’s increasingly difficult for a freshman to have any effect on major legislation, but King made a breakthrough: He showed a sharp understanding of the law, a respect for opponents’ arguments, and a veteran’s negotiating savvy as the GOP’s point man in dealing with State Affairs chairman Steve Wolens on the bill requiring parental notification of abortion.
Senator Robert Duncan, Republican, Lubbock. When the Boy Scouts needed help at the Texas Capitol, it surprised no one that they sought out Duncan. “Be Prepared” was his motto this session; when other colleagues’ proposals encountered unexpected problems, he fixed them. A bill prohibiting cities from suing gun manufacturers drew heavy fire until he added a provision that preserved the state attorney general’s ability to file such suits. No issue was too tough for him to tackle: He took an idea that started as hotly disputed (insulating companies from lawsuits for Y2K glitches), persuaded the businesses involved that they were as likely to be plaintiffs as defendants, and produced a bill that was fair to all sides and noncontroversial. Such attention to detail won Duncan a Senate merit badge in just his second session. And he earned the thanks of real-life Scouts by enacting into law a retirement ceremony for the Lone Star flag that was written by a hometown Cub Scout pack.
On the Bubble
Warren Chisum, Republican, Pampa
Garnet Coleman, Democrat, Houston
Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat, Houston
Toby Goodman, Republican, Arlington
Glen Maxey, Democrat, Austin
Craig Eiland, Democrat, Galveston
Senator Mike Moncrief, Democrat, Fort Worth
Senfronia Thompson, Democrat, Houston
Jim Dunnam, Democrat, Waco
Pat Haggerty, Republican, El Paso
Brian McCall, Republican, Plano
Bull of the Brazos
Representative Ron Wilson, Democrat, Houston. “Sometimes categories fail and words fall short. Sometimes the line between a scoundrel and a statesman is hammered too thin to recognize”—so we wrote about the original Bull of the Brazos, the late senator Bill Moore of Bryan, in 1973. It is equally true of Wilson. He is unpredictable, irrepressible, uncontrollable, sometimes irresponsible, but never immaterial. He can destroy peace and harmony, as he did when he maneuvered to bring up the divisive issue of school vouchers and called out to the chief opponents by name, daring them to debate him; he can restore peace and harmony, as he did by pulling down his voucher proposal without a vote. He loves nothing more than to create chaos, which he did by spoiling, temporarily, the debut of Austin’s new airport with a provision requiring the old one to remain open. No one, perhaps including himself, knows what he is going to do next or why he’s going to do it. They only know that he is going to do something.
Individually, the three legislative leaders—Governor Bush, Lieutenant Governor Perry, and Speaker Laney—found plenty to be satisfied with this session. But as a team, they did not, mainly because there was no team. Perry and Laney don’t really get along, and Bush could hardly wait to get along…to Iowa and New Hampshire, that is. The big question of the session was, What was the governor going to be able to take with him to impress the folks in Des Moines and Manchester?—besides pictures of Laura and the twins.
BUSH ended up with everything that he had to have and a little more, notwithstanding a plethora of doom-and-gloom headlines along the way. His Big Three issues—tax cuts, notifying parents about abortions, and ending the social promotion of failing students—all made it into law. The tax package included Bush-backed reductions in local school property taxes and a host of other Bush ideas, including an exemption from franchise taxes for small businesses. The governor can legitimately say that he got $1.9 billion in tax cuts and can arguably claim another $200 million. Spoilsports will note that this is short of the $2.6 billion he campaigned for and that the amount of across-the-board property-tax cuts (Bush’s dream for two sessions now) was exactly zero, although property-tax reductions for targeted school districts do amount to more than $1.35 billion. These distinctions will be of absolutely no interest to the people of tiny New Hampshire, to whom $2 billion may sound like enough to pay off the national debt. Bush was less successful in dealing with issues that seemed to explode spontaneously, such as hate crimes legislation, but at least he got some valuable experience in facing real opposition for the first time. So much for the practice round; now he’s playing for keeps.
PERRY had a good session for a rookie, unless you measured him against predecessor Bob Bullock at the top of his game. He seldom attempted to influence the Senate on substantive issues, as Bullock used to do (telephone competition was a notable exception) and instead concentrated on building good relationships with senators in both parties. He had only one crisis, a blowup over hate crimes, and he did what a lieutenant governor is supposed to do, which is tell everybody to cool off and find a middle ground. (They did the former but not the latter, which is probably what Perry wanted all along.) He made two really smart moves: He visited each senator in his district, and he honored the request of ailing Greg Luna (D-San Antonio) to give him 24 hours notice before considering school vouchers so that Luna could come to Austin to cast a negative vote. By honoring Luna’s request, Perry lost his number one legislative priority but gained the respect of the Senate. He established without a doubt that he could handle the job; now he has to prepare himself for the possibility of becoming governor.
LANEY was, well, Laney, which is to say fair, amiable, and unflappable. If he has not changed in his six years as Speaker, however, the House has; the conservative Democratic cadre that elected him has all but vanished, including three top lieutenants who did not seek reelection.