20 Sessions

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

July 2011By and Comments

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 off until the summer, and even then, it took two special sessions to produce a budget. “This was a year when the Legislature was as bad as the public has always suspected,” we wrote. “Eight months of work produced only patches on leaky tires.” Ann Richards was governor, but she was weakened by the failure of a proposed school finance constitutional amendment earlier that year and chose to stay away from the big issues. So did almost every other politician in the Capitol.

73rd Legislature (1993) 

This session marked the introduction of two new developments that have had a profound effect on the culture of the Legislature ever since. One was an ethics law, passed in the waning moments of the previous session, that imposed financial limits and disclosure requirements on gifts. This inhibited nighttime wining and dining and barred out-of-state travel (golf weekends had been particularly popular). The other development was the Capitol restoration project, which left the members with much bigger offices and plenty of room for staff but fewer opportunities for mixing with colleagues. The behavior got better, thanks to the ethics law, but camaraderie suffered—and our story became harder to write. “Everybody felt more isolated this session,” we complained. “The usual consensus about who was being naughty and nice did not exist.”

74th Legislature (1995) 

A new governor, George W. Bush, had come into office with an agenda of four reforms, in the areas of public education, welfare, juvenile justice, and tort law. In what was the smoothest session of recent times, Bush went four for four on his wish list. The economy was growing, fueled by the high-tech boom, and Bush was able to forge personal relationships with the Democratic legislative leaders, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and Speaker Pete Laney. Bush governed in a bipartisan fashion, even to the point of inviting Democrats to sponsor some of his legislative wish list. Bush’s first session (we named him Rookie of the Year) convinced us that “his political prospects are limitless”—and so they were.

75th Legislature (1997)

The Seventy-fifth stands out as the session in which the Legislature was suspended between its Democratic past and its Republican future. The Senate had its first Republican majority in modern times—thanks to the emergence of a group with growing influence called Texans for Lawsuit Reform. In the House, the parties broke into factions, with the more extreme members of each party challenging the mainstream. Dissident Republicans became known as the “Shiites”; Democratic dissidents didn’t achieve nickname status but quarreled with the defenders of the status quo nevertheless. The crumbling of the old order was evident. An aging and ailing Bullock seldom presided over the Senate. As his phenomenal forty-year political career neared its end, he could do little but watch as senators chipped away at the lite guv’s once awesome powers.

76th Legislature (1999)

“Never will there be a legislative session like this one,” we declared. Not only was the governor gearing up to run for president, but the treasury had a $6 billion surplus. (Twelve years later, the governor is contemplating a race for national office, and we have a $27 billion deficit; go figure.) As Perry has done this year, Bush based his legislative program on national issues—tax cuts, abortion, accountability in schools. Remarkably, partisan rancor remained low, and Democrats helped Bush, who was wise enough to let them pass their priorities too. Teachers got a big pay raise and Bush got most of his tax cuts. Even so, an air of anxiety permeated the session. Continual Republican gains had reduced the Democrats’ House majority to 78–72. There was a sense of urgency, especially among Democrats, to get things done before the unknown arrived.

77th Legislature (2001)

This one never found its personality. Bush was gone, Bullock had died, and the last remaining Democrat in a major office was Speaker Laney. Perry had moved up to become governor when Bush became president, and Bill Ratliff was elected lieutenant governor by his Senate peers to fill the vacancy left by Perry’s ascension to the governorship. Neither had a mandate to lead. The Legislature had no agenda except the budget. We described it as “the antebellum session,” the last moment before full-scale partisan warfare broke out in the 2002 elections and the 2003 session.

78th Legislature (2003)

The session that changed everything. Republicans had captured the House of Representatives for the first time in 130 years, with a solid 88–62 majority. The new Speaker was Tom Craddick, of Midland, who was first elected to the House in 1968. He was determined to pass the Republicans’ long-thwarted agenda of tort reform and congressional redistricting, as well as make some headway on social issues. But Democrats did not go gently into that good night. They launched fusillades of parliamentary inquiries and points of order designed to irritate Craddick and cause him to lose his temper, which he did on more than one occasion. Adding to the Democrats’ frustration was the defection of members of their own caucus who saw an opportunity to help their constituents by pledging to Craddick. The “Craddick D’s” were ostracized by the remaining Democrats, who schemed for the next several sessions to field primary opponents against them, with mixed results. We described the Seventy-eighth as an adolescent phenomenon: “Republicans, giddy about their new driving privileges, leaped behind the wheel and careened down the road, hitting a few curbs and cats along the way.” Democrats did some traveling of their own, as House members hit the road for Ardmore, Oklahoma, and senators took off for Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a futile effort to block action on congressional redistricting.

79th Legislature (2005)

Like the Seventy-first, the Seventy-ninth followed a wild and crazy session with a fairly sedate round of legislating. Rather than pushing ideological and partisan issues, members genuinely sought to solve public-policy problems facing the state. It was possible to forge compromises between tort reformers and trial lawyers; it was possible to defeat school vouchers even though Craddick and Perry wanted them; it was possible to reverse the overcrowding of Texas prisons by defeating bills that enhanced penalties; it was possible to restore Medicaid funding for big urban hospitals. Still, the hostility between Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst and Craddick was palpable, leading us to write, “When time ran out on May 30, the biggest political question in the state—Can the Republicans govern?—continued to have the unsatisfying answer, ‘Not yet.’ ”

80th Legislature (2007)

Ah, but the waters don’t stay smooth for long. Drama returned in the Eightieth, and the lead character was Craddick, whose autocratic leadership style fueled the rise of an insurgency inside his own party. When he narrowly won a crucial test vote on the first day of the session to ensure himself a third term as Speaker, the House split into pro- and anti-Craddick factions. A dissident Republican bloc, known as the ABCs (“Anybody but Craddick”), allied with resurgent Democrats, who had picked up five seats in the 2006 elections, to conspire against the Speaker. By May, several of Craddick’s lieutenants had joined the insurgency. As for legislation, no one cared. We summed up the session this way: “With the school finance issue resolved during last spring’s special session, the only thing lawmakers had to do this year was pass a budget.” And that’s about all they did. Craddick would survive an attempt to remove him during the session, but he was fatally wounded and could not secure the votes to win a fourth term as Speaker, in 2009.

81st Legislature (2009)

Riding the Obama wave in 2008, Democrats reached their high-water mark of 74 members in the House, leaving Republicans a bare majority of 76. The ABCs met before the session to select a Speaker candidate to challenge Craddick and settled on the least known and least experienced of their group of eleven: Joe Straus, of San Antonio. It turned out to be a propitious choice. Craddick conceded, and Straus led by example rather than by force. He allowed the will of the House to determine the outcome of every issue. But the evenly split House could not do a thing. The Eighty-first, we wrote, was like Seinfeld, “a show about nothing . . . and it achieved nothing, other than an endless succession of dying bills, forlorn hopes, and bitter recriminations in the closing days.” The session ended in a talkathon: Democrats ate up time with meaningless debate on local bills, ensuring that a Republican-backed voter ID bill would not come to a vote; Republicans tolerated the delaying tactic because they were not eager to vote on insurance-reform issues. Budget writers were able to make good use of federal stimulus dollars to fund public schools, health care, and highways, but the deepening recession boded ill for the 2011 session.

82nd Legislature (2011)

What will history say about this one? That it was the craziest session ever? That it was dominated by fear of the electorate that rose up in November and dealt the Democrats their most crushing loss ever? That it was overwhelmed by the largest budget shortfall in state history? That it was further complicated by the possibility that the governor had national ambitions? That it was deeply affected by an unprecedented level of influence held by outside partisan groups? Somehow, with so much hanging in the balance—no less than the future of Texas—we had a harder time than usual believing, as we’d said four decades ago, that the Legislature truly offers the best entertainment in Texas. It didn’t seem so entertaining. 
Oh, well, there’s always next session . . .

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