20 Sessions

A brief history of every Legislature we’ve ever covered.

63rd Legislature (1973)

The first session for which we produced a list of the Ten Best and the Ten Worst Legislators, the Sixty-third was unlike any other. The Legislature had been elected in the wake of the Sharpstown banking and stock fraud scandal, which felled Governor Preston Smith, Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, and Speaker Gus Mutscher and resulted in a House of Representatives in which freshmen constituted a majority. No wonder we observed that “the legislature is the best entertainment Texas has to offer.” Little did we know.

64th Legislature (1975)

“The sight of the Texas legislature in action is not likely to inspire perorations about the democratic process,” we declared. Most members were still in recovery from a six-month constitutional convention that had failed to win approval for a new document that would govern the state. The most important occurrence was the election of Billy Clayton as Speaker—he would go on to serve an unheard-of four terms, setting a precedent for long speakerships, which have been the norm ever since.

65th Legislature (1977)

For most of the fifties and sixties, the lobby had been dominated by the so-called Big Four: Harry Whitworth (chemicals), Bill Abbington (oil and gas), Jim Yancey (big business), and Walter Caven (railroads). But in the Sixty-fifth, two Houston lawyers, Sandy Sanford and Dean Cobb, busted the monopoly by backing a proposal by Houston Natural Gas (later to evolve into Enron) to build a coal slurry pipeline from Colorado to Texas. The railroads resisted the crossing of their right-of-way, but Sanford and Cobb prevailed. This was the first appearance of the “hired gun” lobbyist, and for good reason. There was plenty of money flying around, but it was, we wrote, “a scene reminiscent of The Old Man and the Sea : while legislators were contemplating how to handle their massive catch, the sharks got it first.”

66th Legislature (1979)

The seminal event was the flight of the Killer Bees, twelve Democratic state senators who walked out to prevent a vote on a presidential primary bill and dodged the DPS for four days. By the time they returned, the bill was dead. “The flight of the Bees may have been a last hurrah for the old days and the old ways,” we wrote. “The Texas Legislature, in its 132nd year, is going through a belated change of life. The good-old-boy approach to politics isn’t enough anymore.”

67th Legislature (1981)

This was the year we ceased using the term “liberal Democrats.” It had become redundant. We still recognized “conservative Democrats,” but on the left, Democrats were just plain Democrats. And the conservative D’s were dwindling with every session. And for the first time, we broke with tradition and did not honor our original position that presiding officers are ineligible for the Best and Worst lists by awarding a Best designation to Clayton, who had beaten a federal rap for conspiracy and returned for a triumphant final session.

68th Legislature (1983)

A fire almost destroyed the Capitol, a prolonged oil boom went bust, and the state found itself short of revenue for the first time in years. Can you say “gloomy session”? “The predominant emotion during the 1983 session was anxiety—something new to Texas politics,” we wrote. We had to wait until a special session, in 1984, for the most important event of the biennium: the Ross Perot–led education reforms.

69th Legislature (1985)

This was the tipping point for the conservative Democrats. Republicans had picked up 18 seats in 1984 with the help of Reagan’s coattails, and the Republican caucus had swelled to 55 members. Many of their gains came at the expense of the cadre of remaining conservative Democrats, of whom we wrote, “For the first time, [they] began to see themselves as dinosaurs, and they did not view their prospective extinction with equanimity.” They sported buttons reading “We would rather fight than switch,” but their slide into history could not be abated. The House was still officially bipartisan, with many Republicans pledging their support to Democratic Speaker Gib Lewis, but the course of Texas politics was now clearly in the Republicans’ favor.

70th Legislature (1987)

“They had only one thing to do, and they didn’t do it,” our story began. The task was to solve another in an unending series of budget crises. They didn’t even come close. An inordinate amount of time was wasted in squabbling over the numbers, with the governor’s office refusing to accept the Legislative Budget Board’s figures. Governor Bill Clements, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, and Lewis couldn’t even agree on how much the state was spending until seven days after final adjournment. Lawmakers returned for a special session, and the deadlock was finally broken when Clements signed a $5.8 billion tax bill. This was also the session of the Pit Bulls, the budget-cutting second-year members of the House Appropriations Committee, who sat on the lower tier in the hearing room—foremost among them Mike Toomey, Ric Williamson, and Rick Perry. Here were forged the friendships that would influence the future of Texas politics. As for the leadership, so poisonous was the relationship among them that we decided all three belonged on the Worst list.

71st Legislature (1989)

Sometimes the calmest sessions follow the most contentious ones. We likened the Seventy-first to “the eye of the storm,” a tranquil interlude in an era of increasing partisanship. The tension among the state’s leaders that had wrecked the previous session did not resurface, as both Clements and Hobby had announced that they would not seek reelection. The session’s major achievement was the first step toward real equity in school finance. We ended Hobby’s Ten Best write-up with this commentary: “He has never cared about anything but what is best for Texas, he has run the Senate for seventeen years without a hint of corruption, and he has brought Texas government into the modern age. What will we do without him?”

72nd Legislature (1991)

Budget problems that could not be solved in the regular session were put

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