The Best and Worst Legislators 2011

captured the ambiguity of Ogden’s session. The starched former submarine officer, now an oil and gas producer, labored mightily to create a budget that both Republicans and Democrats could support, but try as he might, he couldn’t do it. Some would say that this was Ogden’s fault. Others might say, more plausibly, that the opposition party was never going to vote for such a lean budget; still others would point the finger at Dewhurst for his flip-flop on using the Rainy Day Fund. Pick your poison. But no one would say that Ogden didn’t try.

All session long, the strongest call for leadership on the budget remained Ogden’s opening-day speech upon becoming president pro tempore, when he goaded his colleagues to fix the school finance system and the business margins tax. As Finance chair, he drove the Senate to produce a budget that, while lean, was far more generous than that of the House, whose leaders caved in to the governor and the tea party elements of the Republican caucus.

Is the final budget a good one? No, it’s horrible. Its ruinous effects will be felt for years. But it could have been worse, and the main reason it wasn’t was Ogden. When the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker were showing no leadership, Ogden was doing what he always does: finding a way to stretch every dollar, making the best of a bad situation.

MIKE VILLARREAL D–San Antonio

Mike Villarreal

It was next to impossible for a Democrat to be effective in a House with a Republican supermajority, but Mike Villarreal, a wonkish Aggie with a Harvard graduate degree in public policy studies, found a way. Early in the session, he proposed an amendment to the House rules that required the Legislative Budget Board, the fiscal gurus of the Capitol, to prepare a report on the economic effect of the House appropriations bill. As a rule, nobody reads such reports, but this one was different. Villarreal had planted a nasty time bomb with a delayed fuse. When the LBB released its findings, in March, the projected numbers were front-page news: an estimated 335,000 jobs lost due to the cuts in the House bill, a projected decline in the gross state product of $19 billion, and a drop in personal income of $17.2 billion. Kablooey.

This became Villarreal’s trademark: If he couldn’t get the votes to pass his own bills, he could at least call attention to other people’s bad legislation. Next up, a dark corner of the tax code that provided natural gas producers with a little-known tax break called a high-cost gas exemption. As was the case with the LBB report, Villarreal’s research provided information that was previously unknown by most members, staffers, and lobbyists in the Capitol. His most telling revelation: The value of the tax break since 2004—some $7.4 billion in lost revenue—was more than enough to fund the shortfall in public education.

Very few members bother to do this kind of research, which is often thankless. You have to be wonky (check), driven (check), and you have to care (check). Most of all, you have to believe that you can find something important that people will actually act on, even if you’re a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature. You have to start somewhere.

SENATOR JOHN WHITMIRE D–Houston

Senator John Whitmire

Photograph by Marjorie Kamys Cotera/BDP

In an early meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, John Whitmire waited until one of the state’s budget analysts was done reciting a list of proposed cuts to programs that served kids with disabilities and then said, “I enjoy the math, but it’s not putting a face on the decisions that we have to make.” As the weeks passed, Whitmire’s effort to “put a face on the cuts” became one of the few effectively compassionate themes in an otherwise brutal session. After 28 years in the Capitol’s east wing (and 10 in the House before that), Whitmire treats the floor of the Senate like his living room, holding court from his desk in the rear of the chamber, where members from both parties gather to cut up and chew the fat. He grumbles off-mike in committee meetings like an old bachelor talking to his television. Still, when the dean talks, people listen. Republicans know he is not an ideologue; when he gets angry, the anger is real, not calculated. And they know he is somebody with whom they can make deals.

That’s why Finance chair Ogden let Whitmire write the public-safety section of the Senate budget, even after he’d voted no on the health and human services portion. Despite the enormous shortfall, Whitmire, the Senate’s expert on criminal justice, managed to wrangle enough money to continue his progressive prison-diversion programs, which have helped stabilize the decades-long growth in the state’s prison population. For the first time in modern Texas history, the state will actually be closing a prison rather than building new ones. In a session where the budget fight overshadowed most major reform initiatives, Whitmire (along with his counterpart in the House, Jerry Madden) quietly completed his overhaul of the Texas Youth Commission, a task many years in the making. Four years after a sexual abuse scandal shocked the state, the number of kids held in state lockups has declined by more than half. Whitmire is independent, sometimes to a fault, and this had led to some legendary clashes with the leadership over the years. But that is a source of strength, according to the dean. “There’s nothing they can do to me that they haven’t already done,” he said.

SENATOR JUDITH ZAFFIRINI D–Laredo

Senator Judith Zaffirini

Photograph by Marjorie Kamys Cotera/BDP

They say politics is the art of compromise, but nothing brings people to the table like a little bloodletting, which reminds everyone why compromise is usually a good alternative. This is why it’s useful to have a veteran brawler like Judith Zaffirini on your side. All session long she waged a two-front war against two of the most powerful men in the Capitol—Rick

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...