Voting for the Children

Paul Sadler, Democrat, Henderson, 42.

At least he tried. He was the dominant figure in the session’s dominant issue, Governor Bush’s drive for significant property-tax relief, and he drove it farther than anyone thought possible, though not quite far enough. But the mere recapitulation of his role only begins to reflect what Paul Sadler achieved. For the three middle months of the session, he fascinated, mesmerized, enlightened, and inspired the entire Legislature. Governors and lieutenant governors have on occasion ascended to that level of leadership, but for a single legislator to do so is, in the memory of the living, without parallel.

Named by Speaker Laney to chair a special House committee on tax relief and its effect on education, Sadler found himself at the head of a panel that was as diverse and divided as the Balkans. Every conceivable political interest was represented—including ego: Seven of the eleven members chaired other committees. Instead of gridlock, Sadler achieved consensus. Until the time came to send a bill to the House floor, he never took a vote, never ran over anybody (except lobbyists trying to justify their tax breaks). He realized from the start that the governor’s plan to shift taxes from property to business didn’t offer enough relief to overcome the resistance to change of lobbyists, lawmakers, and the public. He got his committee to agree to examine the state’s tax and school-finance systems from the ground up. They exposed every tax exemption and loophole to the light. The committee’s chemistry produced a level of candor, intelligence, and political acuity that ennobled the entire political process. Senators had nothing but praise for him. “The beauty is that everything is on the table,” Senate Republican caucus chair Florence Shapiro of Plano told a reporter. “The status quo is unacceptable. Everyone is enlightened and understands the issues. We have come a long way.” (Not long enough: She later opposed him.) Sadler’s committee adopted a bill by unanimous vote that cut property taxes by half, reformed the tax system to reflect the modern Texas economy, and assured public schools of adequate and fair funding. The House debated the issue for three days and passed it overwhelmingly, after a soft-spoken Sadler ended his final speech with “Show me voting aye for the children of Texas.”

And then it all fell apart in the Senate. Without Sadler to lead them, senators saw not opportunity but risk. All the forces of inertia came into play: the lobby with its selfishness, the media with their questions, the ideologues with their narrow focus, the public with its indifference, the educators with their lack of vision. The momentum dissipated. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, they had seen the moment of their greatness flicker, and in short, they were afraid. The Legislature gave taxpayers a minimal break and went home. A few days later Paul Sadler announced that he would not seek reelection—and Texas will be the less for it.

Tags: POLITICS

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