The Ten Best and The Ten Worst Legislators

It began with the Capitol almost burning down. It ended with Governor Mark White burning up over teacher salaries. But in between, the 68 th Legislature was anything but fiery.

The predominant emotion during the 1983 session was anxiety—something new to Texas politics. In recent years the Legislature has had lots of money to spend, low turnover, and little pressure from the public. Suddenly the rules changed. The good old days of multibillion-dollar surpluses were replaced by a budget crunch. Almost a third of the House and Senate was new, the most radical turnover since Sharpstown. And as is always the case when times are hard, people wanted government to do something.

The budget crunch seemed to take the fun out of the Legislature; there wasn’t even any room to logroll. The session plodded along dispiritedly. Mark White couldn’t decide whether he wanted a tax increase. Then he couldn’t decide what kind of increase he wanted if he wanted one. Early on, the Senate bogged down in a battle over Bill Clements’ holdover appointments and couldn’t get unstuck; the House bogged down while Speaker Gib Lewis tried to undo the damage of his failure to disclose his financial holdings. Nothing happened. Then, when the big issues- trucking deregulation, utility reform, interest rates- finally reached the floor, they all fizzled out into deals with no clear winner. April turned into May and the governor still hadn’t phoned in from Mars to say what he wanted. Horse racing died. The son of son of son of water package died. Teacher salaries died. The tax bill was murdered.

A bad session? Not at all. In fact, while the headline-grabbing issues were running into trouble, the budget crunch was having a completely unforeseeable effect on the session: it was turning out to be a blessing in disguise. After a decade on the crest of the oil boom, the state bureaucracy was cushioned in blubber. The budget crunch forced the Legislature to hunt for all the fat that had accumulated over the years. It found plenty- especially in higher education, which underwent its first close inspection since the huge expansion of the sixties and early seventies.

Almost all the Legislature’s accomplishments can be traced back to the money crunch. Without it, prison reform would have been impossible; the state would have gone on building maximum-security prisons ad infinitum. The crunch eased the way for PUC reform and lower interest rates too.

It was, in sum, a pretty good record. To make it better, this was one of those rare sessions when the good was not canceled out by the bad. The Legislature passed only one bill that should shame the collective conscience: the one that made it next to impossible for cities to get rid of existing billboards—and Mark White saved the day by vetoing it. In fact, the only group that didn’t fare well this session was teachers, who didn’t get their 24 per cent pay raise.

That defeat did not augur well for White, who had made education and teacher pay his number one priority. But then, little did. By remaining aloof from the tough negotiating sessions on PUC reform in the House and Senate, he blew his chance to earn legislators’ respect choosing instead to stick with the one issue, an elected commission, that he couldn’t and shouldn’t have won. His tax bill follies were pathetic, as he successively embraced and dismissed highway bonds, gasoline taxes, severance taxes, and sin taxes. His treatment of legislators, including stumping against several in their home districts, made Bill Clements look like Emily Post. Without question he was the big loser of the session.

Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, suzerain of the Senate, was the big winner. If he were eligible for the Ten Best list, he would be at the top. During his tenure, Hobby has reshaped the Senate in his image, changing it from a brawling House of Commons to a restrained House of Lords. The best senators are Hobby’s alter egos on the floor: never provincial, always pragmatic, only interested in sound public policy.

Then there’s Gib. His ethics problems were foolish (and illegal; he paid an $800 fine in May), and his limited understanding of substance was deplorable. Yet he was never in any serious danger of palace coup, even when he was at his nadir. Why not? It was partly because Lewis is not a threat to the House. While his predecessor Billy Clayton was a strong prince with week barons, Lewis is a weak prince with strong barons; in this session the committee chairmen had most of the skill and most of the power. But it’s also because Lewis did some things right this session. He was right to oppose the tax bill (even if their was a lot of self interest in that decision); a tax bill would have destroyed the discipline needed to cut the fat out of the budget. And his rule change to choose the members of the appropriations conference committee exclusively from among chairmen of the substantive budget and oversight subcommittees- that is, from experts- was a stroke of genius. It was a built-in brake on logrolling. This year there are more major committee chairmen on our Ten Best list and fewer on our Ten Worst list than ever before; Lewis deserves some credit for that.

Our criteria for Best and Worst rest on personality rather than ideology, because that is how legislators judge their colleagues. They don’t want to know whether a member is conservative or liberal; they want to know whether he is smart or dumb, honest or venal, industrious or lazy, open-minded or closed-minded, straightforward or backstabbing. Apart from openly partisan battles like redistricting, an accurate assessment of personality is far more useful to a legislator than the knowledge that someone is a Republican or a Democrat.

A legislator on the Ten Best list uses his good qualities to the fullest. He wants to be at the center of action, and his colleagues what him there. He inspires respect rather than fear.


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