The Wise Men: Pete Laney and Bill Ratliff
In the first conversation of a new interview series called "Out of Office," the former Speaker of the House and the former lieutenant governor discuss their years in the Lege, how the Capitol has changed, and what to expect this session.
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Democrat Pete Laney and Republican Bill Ratliff have nearly fifty years of legislative experience between them, and during their careers in their respective chambers—Laney served only in the House, Ratliff only in the Senate—they wrestled with such complex problems as public education, taxes, health care, and ethics reform. Issues, incidentally, that sound awfully familiar to observers of the 83rd Legislature. So the two men agreed to chat with Texas Monthly and offer their advice—and their critiques—about the state of affairs in Austin.
TM: Let’s start with an obvious question. Mr. Speaker, how do you think things have changed in the Legislature since you left office?
Speaker Laney: It’s hard when you’re not inside to analyze it, but Governor Ratliff and I got along well because he’s an engineer who says everything’s black and white, and I’m a farmer who says everything will be better next year. But I think we both believed we worked for Texas and tried to do what was right for the state. We were in a situation where we had lots of court orders saying you’re going do things, and we got them fixed because they needed to be fixed rather than playing games. There’s probably a little more game-playing now than there was back then.
TM: Governor Ratliff, what’s your sense of the Capitol?
Governor Ratliff: I don’t think there’s any question that the environment is far more partisan. One of the interesting things about serving with George W. Bush as governor and Bob Bullock as lieutenant governor and Pete when he was speaker was that they protected the members. They allowed the members to do what needed to be done because they took the heat a lot of the time.
Laney: It allowed the members to represent their district rather than a political philosophy.
Ratliff: Exactly. You know, they didn’t always agree. But you hardly ever heard a discussion about what the partisan impact of some decision was going to be. The discussion was, “What’s the impact on the State of Texas? What’s good for the state?” And I just think it made it so much easier to be a good member because you weren’t always looking over our shoulder.
Laney: There’s probably more outside influence now, and special interest groups that are mostly one-issue type organizations. I also think some of the pressure is coming from political consultants who are trying to be hired for the next election cycle. They want their candidate to be at a certain spot politically rather than doing what’s good for the state.
TM: Do you have a sense about why you think the tone has changed?
Laney: Yeah, it’s partisan politics. You know, the biggest hit Governor Ratliff took was when he said he was 51 percent Republican. Most of us saw nothing wrong with that because all of us have a different philosophy from our party because we represent different parts of the state.
Ratliff: There was always a certain division but back then, but it was more urban and rural than it was about partisanship . . .
Laney: And philosophy—the philosophy of an East Texas logger and a West Texas cotton grower are not all that different.
TM: Do you ever think, “I’d like to suit back up and get in there?”
TM: No?! You didn’t even hesitate to answer.
Laney: It has changed so much, and at the age I’m getting it’s time for the younger folks to start being involved. We had hoped at some point we could export Texas politics to Washington, but Washington politics got imported to Texas.
Ratliff: You can’t do something for fifteen years as intensely as we did it in those periods and not ever have a little twinge of thinking, “I could solve that” or “I could do a better job than that.” But I lie down and it goes away.
TM: I want to talk about what’s happening in this Legislature, but before we do, I want to give readers a clear sense of your relationship to the Capitol today. Governor Ratliff, I noticed this morning when I was sitting in the Appropriations hearing that there was a “Representative Ratliff” on the committee.
Ratliff: Yes, Bennett just started in the Legislature, and my son Thomas is in his second term in the State Board of Education. I’m real proud of what he’s been doing. . .
Laney: He says what he thinks!
Ratliff: I’m afraid that’s a genetic thing. [Both laugh.] I do register as a lobbyist out of an abundance of caution in that I represent and make appearances on behalf of a group called Raise Your Hand Texas, which advocates for public schools. We think public schools are doing a good job, but they could do a better job if we would give them the resources necessary. Other than that I really don’t get involved. As I’m sure happens to Pete, I get people calling me asking me “Why did you all do this?” or “What’s your recollection of the arguments on that?” But I steer clear of the process in general.
Laney: I’m probably a little more involved because I do consult with a couple different groups that have an interest in the legislative process, and as my daughter says, “You express your opinion too much so you will register.” But I don’t have a big long list of clients, just about three that I do anything at all with.
TM: So let’s size up this session a bit. What issues stand out to you? For example, as we’re talking, we’re waiting for Judge Dietz’s ruling this afternoon on school finance, an issue you both grappled with.
Laney: Education always will. Public education is what has made this state great. And it’s been neglected a little bit. All you’ve got to do is go back and look in the early 1900’s and see what we had in Texas without public education and realize what it has done for the state.
Ratliff: Education, in my opinion, is always the first issue, and it’s always the biggest issue. Transportation and water are going to big. We’ve pushed them back about as far as we can before we strangle on our own traffic and before we all die of thirst. But I continue to be very concerned about education. Unfortunately, the media as much as anybody else are allowing the Legislature to get by with talking about a $5.3 billion dollar shortfall in the current biennium. That’s true if you look at the current biennium. But if you go back to 2009, in the past four years, the public education system has been reduced by $8.3 billion. That’s like a 35 percent reduction over that time. No reasonable institution can survive with a 35 percent reduction over four years.
Laney: Basically if it weren’t for local school districts picking up the tab . . .
Ratliff: Where they can . . .
Laney: That’s right, where they can.
Ratliff: But now they’re limited by statute to how much they can even pick up. That’s why they’re laying off thousands of teachers. You know, one of the really good things about the Perot Commission back in the eighties was that it restricted the class size of Kindergarten through the fourth grade. We just erased that, and you now have eight thousand classrooms in Texas that got a waiver on the 22:1 rule. So you’ve got like 170,000 children that are in a classroom that has more students than 22 to 1 ratio because we just said, “Well, we can’t afford it, so, y’all just do whatever you want.”
Laney: At the same time we’re doing this, we’re out recruiting people from other states to move their businesses here, and their employees come with even more kids for the public schools.
TM: Governor Perry, for example, put out a statement aimed at California businesses, encouraging them to come to Texas.
Ratliff: That’s right. And if I’m a California business, and I look at Texas and see that lawmakers have reduced public education funding by $8.3 billion in four years, I might think again.
Laney: I remember a meeting in my office when a company was trying to locate a facility here. I was trying to sell them on all the things we could offer, and the CEO finally said, “Wait a minute—the number one thing I want to know about is the school system. All this other stuff is good, and we’ll take all these freebies, but I want to know about the schools.” He was pretty plain about it.
Ratliff: The telling thing that’s happening as we are sitting here is that you have responsible members of the Legislature and the leadership who are still saying, “Well, we’re not going to talk about appropriations for public education because we don’t know what the court is going to make us do.” It’s not that we’re not going to talk about it because we don’t know what to do or because we can’t agree. It’s because we’re going to wait until they make us do something? That’s totally irresponsible!
TM: Let’s return to the cuts for a moment. Obviously the state struggled with a very difficult economy after 2008, so does that explain the reasons for the cuts? Or do you think it is a question of leadership in the House and the Senate?
Laney: I think it’s all about priorities, and you have different individuals coming in who didn’t have public education high on their radar.
Ratliff: The single biggest thing that happened was that the Legislature made a deal. They said, “We’re going to force school districts’ rates down so they can raise less money, but we’re going to change the franchise tax into the business margins tax so that it will restore the funding.” And it didn’t even come close. But instead of stopping the deal and saying, “Hey, wait a minute, it didn’t work,” they let the second round of property tax reductions go through and still didn’t raise anywhere near enough money to hold the school districts harmless. So here they were: their ability to raise money by local control is obliterated at the same time that the state reneged on its end of the deal.
TM: That’s right, and we heard testimony in Appropriations that the new tax had underperformed by $1.3 billion in its first year alone.
Laney: Some people did not agree with those expectations to begin with, and a lot of the business community didn’t because the ones who were benefiting from it were all of a sudden for it—the new quote unquote tax. So it was obvious that if their analysts had said it’s okay, they were benefiting from it.
TM: Given what you’ve heard from the leadership so far and considering the types of bills that have been filed, do you think the tone of this session will be different? Is this a cutting session or a building session?
Laney: With the number of freshman and sophomore members in the House, and the positions that they’ve been put into, there is going to be a real learning curve for those members.
TM: You worry about the loss of institutional memory?
Laney: Oh, yeah. That’s always a detriment to the system.
TM: If you were in the business of giving advice to those new members, what would you say?
Laney: Pay attention to the process, pay attention to your constituents, and do what you think is right for the State of Texas. Sometimes you’ve got to weigh that: what’s right for your constituents and what’s good for the whole population. But basically, members of the Legislature are good people. And they’re elected to serve and they just need to keep that in mind.
TM: Governor Ratliff, we’ve had turnover in the Senate as well. Some former House members are now serving their first term in that chamber, and we another senator who is new to the Legislature entirely. What advice would you give?
Ratliff: Shut up and listen. [Both laugh.] So many members come in—I was exactly the same way—and think that all these of issues are black and white. The longer you serve down here, the grayer those issues become, because you learn so much more about the peripheral impacts. I think I would tell the new members not to run scared. I mean that, so many of them are just paralyzed over the fear that they’re going to make a vote that they’re going to see used against them on a report card the next time they run.
Laney: The first time I ever voted in 1973 on a real controversial bill, I worried about it, and I finally said, “This is not worth it. I’m going to vote for what I think is right for my constituents.” Thirty years later, I was still there. There’s no way you can worry about getting re-elected and do what’s right.
Ratliff: In 1991, I was the only Republican who voted for the gasoline tax. And I swear to you to this day, I have never had a constituent ask me about that vote, or complained about it, or had any kind of disagreement. I took the position, “Well, they know we’ve got to have highways! We’ve got to have the money to build them!” And I never had anybody ever take issue.
TM: But we are clearly in an era where taxes have become a powerful issue: no new revenue. That has been a hallmark of Governor Perry’s administration, and we even heard him speak up for tax relief in his State of the State address. How will that play out this session?
Ratliff: Well, look at the particular issue of roads. Every reasonable person knows we can’t build any highways, and we can hardly maintain the ones we have. So over the last ten years, the bonded indebtedness of the State of Texas has gone from $13 billion to $40 billion.
TM: Mostly because of road bonds.
Ratliff: Mostly because of road bonds! Where is the logic in pushing that back? And then we criticize the federal government for not balancing the budget. We’re handing off $40 billion, and maybe more by now, to our children, for the roads that we don’t have the guts to pass a gasoline tax to build. Or we’re making them pay every mile and a half on a toll road.
TM: Let’s talk about the culture of the Capitol and the subject of ethics. Speaker Laney, you became speaker at a time when three out of the previous five had some type of charges brought against them . . .
Laney: And the other one, his wife killed him.
TM: Price Daniel, Jr.!
Laney: That’s right. And my wife, Nelda, has wanted to kill me for years. [Both laugh.] If it hadn’t been for Governor Ratliff and his wife calming her down every once in a while. . .
Ratliff: I was on the conference committee on that ethics bill, and I was one of those that came running onto the floor at one minute to twelve, with it marked up, and nobody knew what was in it or we’d never have been able to pass it. If you think back to where we were before that bill, we had members that had a credit card in the name of a lobbyist who would go downtown and buy thousands of dollars worth of clothes and put it on the lobbyist’s credit card bill.
Laney: And a lot of open accounts at the Austin Club.
Ratliff: We’re not perfect today, but I have to say, compared to what it was, this is pristine. The Ethics Commission is by and large toothless. It doesn’t enforce much of its reporting requirements, which is, in part of, because as long as you’ve got disclosure at least somebody can find out what you’re doing for the most part.
TM: What, if any, surprises do you think we’ll see this session? Is there something just around the corner we should keep our eye on?
Laney: I don’t see anything, but I have hopes that some of these newer members will realize they didn’t come here for a single issue—they’re here to serve the state. And I think some real statesmen will come out of this class. You know, this is a large class, but when I came in ’73 there were 76 of us, plus two re-treads.
Ratliff: I don’t know whether you can call it a surprise, but I think you’re beginning to see the momentum building to a revolution against testing in the public schools. You know, I passed the first accountability bill in 1993, and the testing that we put in there was intended to be just a report card to the local community: how’s my school doing? It wasn’t ever intended to judge teachers, or to fail students, or to either reward or punish school districts in funding. It wasn’t intended to be part of No Child Left Behind—it was simply a little report card to the local community.
TM: No high stakes.
Ratliff: I didn’t consider it high-stakes. People started calling it that once they started using it for all these other things. My son Thomas, who is on the state board, his wife teaches at a public school. And he told me that approximately 45 days of the school year are impacted by testing. And I always wondered, how can that be? But they make the case that you might only be testing this group of kids, but it affects all the rest of the calendar for all the other kids because you have to set them off and teachers have to rotate in and out to monitor them. And if you add on to that the practice testing that they do, it has just gone absolutely berserk. The parents of this state are just fed up. As a matter of fact, I’m not going be surprised if we see Pearson’s contract under serious scrutiny.
Laney: When Bill and I were in school, you took an achievement test, and that was it, and we didn’t know till the day before we were going to take it, I don’t think.
Ratliff: You walked in, and the teacher said, “Here it is!” But I think it’s one of those situations where the public finally just have gotten fed up, and they say “We’re gonna fix this.”