Hall of Fame

Since 1973 we've picked two hundred best legislators. We asked ten of our favorites to weigh in on how the Capitol has changed and where the state is headed.

July 2011By Comments

Hugo Berlanga 

D–Corpus Christi
Tenure: Representative from 1977 to 1999
Number of times on the Best list: 3
I was the first Hispanic speaker pro tempore in the history of the House. I served under Gib Lewis, and he later told me that the reason he selected me is that he needed someone who could help work the floor and keep the agenda together. He didn’t want it to be a ceremonial position, as it usually had been—and as it has been ever since. And I would never trade the six years that I chaired the Public Health Committee. You had control over the entire medical community, including hospitals and nursing homes. You had control over funeral parlors. You were in charge of everything from being born to being put in the grave. My entire time in the Legislature I heard that we want less government, we want less regulation. But when I went to Public Health, it was all about regulation. Everybody wants to be certified, and everybody wants to be licensed.

I wish sometimes that I was still there to help navigate these issues, but of course it would be a little harder. It’s real simple what’s happening in Austin, in my opinion. There’s no semblance of lawmakers trying to work together. There’s disengagement between the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office and the Speaker’s office. I have the feeling that they are not on the same page. I believe that if George Bush remained governor during this period there’s no way he would have allowed the substitution of the franchise tax with a margins tax that was going to create a structural deficit that keeps getting bigger. The current leaders won’t face up to the fact that there’s a problem, and they keep hoping that the economy will bail us out. So we’re whacking away at public education. We’re whacking away at higher education. And what does that do for our future workforce?

When I was a lawmaker, we used to kid around and say, “Thank God for Mississippi. At least we’re three notches above that state.” I am convinced now that we want to be Mississippi. We want the whole world to know who we are and what we don’t have. Now when other states talk about how bad their situation is, they’ll say, “Thank God for Texas.”

Berlanga is a lobbyist and consultant, with offices in Austin and Corpus Christi.

Dianne Delisi 

R–Temple
Tenure: Representative from 
1991 to 2008
Number of times on the Best list: 2
Everything that I learned that was valuable to me during my tenure came from serving on Appropriations for ten years and learning that it’s not policy that drives the budget, it’s the budget that drives policy. Sitting there in Appropriations for hour after hour really taught me how Texas works, everything from the tiny agency that inspects animal hides to Health and Human Services to the TEA. I got to know everyone by name and face, and it never leaves you.

The budget is absolutely the number one issue facing the state. I’m very concerned about the Foundation School Program [the primary source of funding for Texas public schools, the FSP was cut by billions of dollars in the Eighty-second Legislature] and how that filters down to the 1,030 school districts in Texas. I’m also concerned about rate cutting on the Health and Human Services side, which filters down to hourly workers in long-term care. I went back and checked with the folks who were working on the budget in 2005, when we ended up with a $9.9 billion hole. Talmadge Heflin was chairman—you can’t get any more conservative than that—and it took all of thirty minutes to decide to use the Rainy Day Fund. So I’m puzzled by the unwillingness to use more of the state’s savings account. In my mind that’s what it’s for. I’m also mindful of the fact that the Rainy Day Fund is being replenished, and at a faster rate than we have seen in a long time.

As Scripture says, I think our ox is in a ditch now. I think the House has gone as far as it can go in terms of scrubbing the budget. Let’s just take Medicaid, which eats our budget lunch. If we have a problem funding Article III, which is education, it’s because pressure has been put on it by Article II, which is HHS. At the end of the day, I’ve always thought that the budget comes down to a battle between kindergarten and nursing homes.

Delisi is the senior policy adviser for Delisi Communications, an Austin-based consulting firm.

PATRICIA GRAY 

D–Galveston
Tenure: Representative from 
1992 to 2003
Number of times on the Best list: 2
When I served in the House, it was more closely divided than it is today, so we had to accommodate each other. In closely divided districts, you tend to get candidates who are more centrist, who understand that there is more than one way to look at an issue. The redistricting that took place after I left changed that by creating more safe districts. When you do that for either side, you put the parties in charge. And the parties are dominated by outside elements. They’re not interested in governing; they’re interested in electing. When a chamber is not so controlled by one side or the other, you get better negotiation and, I think, better legislation.

At some point we’re going to have to face the fact that we can’t grow our population and not grow our budget. And you can’t just shove the budget down onto the next lower level of government because the costs are going to be paid somewhere. There was a real debate going on when I was in the Legislature about the role of government. That is still happening today, but people aren’t listening as much. I think you have to set priorities in tight budget years, and some of those may be decisions that you don’t want to make. But you can’t always say that we’re going to cut back on everything.

Gray is the director of research for the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center.

Rob Junell 

D–San Angelo
Tenure: Representative from 
1989 to 2003
Number of times on the Best list: 3
I was very proud as the chairman of Appropriations to pass a budget on the House floor with a unanimous vote. That happened to me several times. My theory was that I wanted to have our fights in committee. I had good members on the committee who were at opposite extremes: for example, Talmadge Heflin, a staunch conservative Republican, and Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who favored health care. We had our fights in committee, but when we came to the floor we came together. There was no way for a member to know every detail of the budget, but they knew that if someone like Talmadge was speaking for it, and they agreed with his views, then they could feel confident in it. Or if someone agreed with Pete Gallego and he spoke in favor of it, then they could feel confident in it. I think that was really important.

In the 1991 session I helped cut $2.5 million from the Railroad Commission’s budget. That was thought of as a good solution. But our budgets back then never faced anything along the lines of what the Legislature has today. When I was in the Legislature, the extreme middle ran government. Now, over a period of many years, redistricting has made it so that more races are won in the primary. Very few races are actually won in the general election, and the result of that is, if you’re a Democrat, you run to the left, and if you’re a Republican, you run to the right. It’s not possible to be a centrist. That’s where I thought I was. I didn’t have much ideology at all; I thought of myself as a problem solver. I wanted to know what the problem was and then try to fix it. Could we get the votes to solve it? “Compromise” was not a dirty word.

Junell is a federal judge for the Western District of Texas, based in Midland.

Kenny
 Marchant 

R–Coppell
Tenure: Representative from 
1987 to 2004
Number of times on the Best list: 1
There was a narrow window of time when I was in the House—starting with the 2001 session, before the Republicans won the House—where we had a lot of power and were able to get things done. We had a sweet spot for about two to four years. In 2003, when Tom Craddick became Speaker, we pushed a lot of things through as well. That was also the session we did redistricting, and it busted out badly. In fact, the last meeting I was ever in during the ’03 session was just a horrible meeting of the leadership. Midway through there was a lot of yelling and accusatory stuff, and so I stood up and excused myself. I didn’t want the last meeting that I was in in the Legislature after eighteen years to be that way. I had never been in a meeting like that, and I wasn’t going to participate in it. I wanted to remember this place a different way.

If I were back in Austin today, I would focus on creating some explanatory triggers for when to use the Rainy Day Fund. I was there when we created the fund, and now it seems to me that there wasn’t enough guidance. I would work to create some guidelines so that it’s not just the governor or just the House or just the Senate. We can look on its face and say, “Sure, we can use this,” though I think when we passed it we thought we had done that. I think that’s something lawmakers would want to focus on in a calmer time.

Marchant is the U.S. congressman representing Texas’s Twenty-fourth District.

Brian McCall 

R–Plano
Tenure: Representative from 
1991 to 2010
Number of times on the Best list: 1
The two bills that I am proudest of passing during my tenure are, number one, the DNA fingerprint database, which has not just convicted the guilty but also exonerated the innocent, and the second one would be the biggest tax cut in state history. But an important thing that legislators can do that has nothing to do with passing bills is helping someone in your district—getting a deadbeat dad to pay child support, moving a prisoner from one facility to another so that family and children can visit. The constituent work is often more lasting than the legislation. What’s a must-pass bill one session is often forgotten the next. But I often got touching and heartfelt thanks for constituent work that I did. I don’t ever remember getting heartfelt thanks for passing a bill.

In most cases things changed for the better over the years. When I was first elected, we had spittoons on the floor of the House. We had smoking on the floor. There were no laptops on the desks. We’re able to do a lot more work with the laptops than ever—and we don’t have to worry about any mishaps with the spittoon. We outlawed smoking in every state building but the Capitol. And there is so much more activism today. Twenty years ago there may have been about fifteen bills that the public paid attention to. Now they have access to everything. The average citizen knows a lot more about a lot more. A legislator can’t blunder his way through a Rotary club meeting with half-information now.

In the state appropriations and finance bills there are very few things that are investments, but higher education is one. For every dollar put into higher ed, estimates are that between $8 and $18 is returned to the state for economic development, job creation, and taxpaying citizens. And unfortunately, given demands on appropriations this session, particularly with college grants, there are students sitting in high school classrooms right now who think they are going to be a first-generation college graduate, but in fact we’re going to skip them because of an accident of their birth. Their older brothers and sisters might have had access to Texas grants, and hopefully their children will, but we’re going to skip them. That is going to have quite an effect on Texas.

McCall is the chancellor of the Texas State University System.

Bill Ratliff 

R–Mount Pleasant
Tenure: Senator from 
1989 to 2003 (Lieutenant Governor from 2000 to 2003)
Number of times on the Best list: 6
My sense about how the Senate has changed since I left office is that today’s members have a greater fear of the radical elements of both parties. I don’t think that fear exhibited itself in the Bush-Bullock days, because those two men took the brunt of that pressure and allowed the members to work together to reach solutions. I just don’t know if that element of protection is there anymore.

I’m tempted to say that the biggest problem facing Texas today is public education, but I think it’s even bigger than that. I think it’s the inability of the members of the Legislature to face the need for additional revenue. It’s easy to say we’re going to get rid of waste, fraud, and abuse, as if those were line items in the budget. I voted for the last increase in the gasoline tax—and that was in 1991. If we had not voted for that increase, our highways today would be comparable to Louisiana’s in the fifties. But we have so many members who have followed the Grover Norquist mantra of no more revenue for any purpose, and you can’t further the purposes of state government without some level of adequate revenue.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a way out in the short term. When people ask me what I think might happen, I say that it will probably get worse before it gets better. When more people see nursing homes shutting down and they don’t have a place to take their mother or their dad and when their children start showing up with forty kids in a classroom, it will change. The public is going to have to rise up and say, “This is inadequate. Texas can do better than this.”

Ratliff is a principal at the Ratliff Company, an Austin-based lobbying firm.

David Sibley 

R–Waco 
Tenure: State Senator from 
1991 to 2002
Number of times on the Best list: 3
My first full session was in 1993, and I was just getting my feet under me. So I would go early in the morning to the office of Bob Johnson, who was the parliamentarian, with a list of questions—what happened on the floor yesterday, why did they do it this way, could they have done it another way? The big issue that session was the sunset of the Public Utility Commission, and there was this huge aspect of it called “phantom taxes.” One morning Johnson asked, “Where are you on the phantom taxes issue?” And I said, “I don’t know.” We were just sitting there drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. And he said, “No, seriously. Where are you?” And I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t studied it.” About two hours later I get a call from Bullock, and he says, “Come right now.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” So Bullock says, “Where are you on this issue?” And I told him that I honestly had not studied it. He called me a lying so-and-so, and I told him, “I swear I have not made up my mind.” And he turns to Bob and says, “He’s perfect.” So Bullock put me on the committee, where there were two votes on one side and two on the other, and I was the tiebreaker. I ended up with nervous bowel syndrome. It was millions and millions of dollars on the table, and I had never been there before. And I ended up going against the utility lobby.

The issue that would be biggest for me right now would be education funding. There comes a point when if you don’t have the requisite money, you can’t do the things in the classroom that you need to do. The old expression may be applicable with teachers: The beatings will continue until morale improves. That reminds me of another Bullock story. He’d get us in a room and say, “Okay, all you sons of bitches who ran on making education worse, raise your hand.” And you know, he’d kind of shame you. But I wonder today, are we making education worse?

Another problem is that members pay too much attention to the websites of folks with the emails of hundreds of readers. I’ve never seen adults get so scared of so little. I think some members worry about what they need to do politically, and they make policy conform to their politics. In the long run that’s bad for Texas. I don’t want to live in a state where the kids don’t have good public schools, where we’re not building highways, and where we default to the person with the biggest megaphone.

Sibley is a lobbyist and an attorney, with offices in Austin and Waco.

Sarah Weddington 

D–Austin
Tenure: Representative from 
1973 to 1977
Number of times on the Best list: 1
In 1972, 78 new legislators were elected, and that meant lots of people were learning the system. So you didn’t feel like you were coming into a situation where things were set in stone. I was the first woman elected to the House from Austin-Travis County, so with the other four women who served in the House and the one in the Senate that particular session, it was a pioneer effort on behalf of women. The six of us worked very hard to pass a number of things that could change the world for women, such as the Equal Credit bill. Kay Bailey was the lead sponsor of a bill that pertained to rape. Back then a victim was told she had to pay for her own medical exam; she had to pay for the evidence to prosecute the crime. I was a co-sponsor of that bill, and we said, “Police pay to collect other evidence. They should pay for this.”

Being a legislator from Austin back then meant that you had all the agencies and all the organizations that were headquartered here look to you as their representative. It was a heavy workload, but it attracted a lot of talented women who wanted to work or volunteer in that kind of office. Ann Richards, for example, was my administrative assistant.

Everything has changed now, except the issues. The number one issue facing the state today is money. There are many viewpoints about what should be done to address the revenue crisis, but every social service issue, education issue, transportation issue—no matter what you want to pass—is going to involve money. That will never change.

Weddington, who successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court, is the founder of the Austin-based Weddington Center, which promotes women’s issues and public leadership.

Steve Wolens 

D–Dallas
Tenure: Representative from 
1981 to 2005
Number of times on the Best list: 6
In my first session I was kind of voting with the team. Billy Clayton was the Speaker, and I remember John Bryant, who later served in Congress, came over to me and said probably the most profound thing that was ever said to me in 24 years in the Legislature: “You are what you vote. That’s the whole thing. No matter what you feel in your heart. You are what you vote.” There are some in the Legislature who take a walk on the vote because they don’t want the pressure of being accountable. But if you always vote with the team, then you are the team. So when someone tells me that the Speaker is really a great guy but that he just had to move the previous question so that there would be no debate at all on a certain bill, it made me think about those words from 1981: “You are what you vote.”

When I look at what the Capitol is like now, I think that the terms of engagement have changed. I have a great deal of respect for the process. The process of the Legislature is the bedrock of our democracy because it allows for consistency and predictability, and with those you get stability. So the other night when they cut off debate on the “loser pays” bill, it would have been so easy to let the opposition have its say and then pass the bill anyway. But when you can turn off the mike and get away with it, as was done to me in 2003, the terms of engagement have changed. The ends begin to justify the means. It diminishes the reverence we have for the process. You have got to protect the process or the procedure, because that’s how you arrive at the policy. And I don’t see that kind of deference today.

But the voters spoke in 2010, and I do see the current lawmakers voting in a way that reflects what their districts want. So I don’t have that running in my head, “Oh, they should be voting this way or that way.” The voters said that they did not want a tax increase, even if that meant drastically reducing the size of government. I may disagree with the policy, but I find that the Legislature is being very responsive to the wishes of the electorate based on the previous election.

Wolens is a principal in the Dallas office of the law firm McKool Smith.

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