The Best and Worst Legislators 2011

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 Perry and Steve Ogden—and somehow managed to remain standing. Ogden named Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson the chair of his subcommittee on Medicaid, but it was clear from the start that Zaffirini was the key player on the panel—charged with finding billions in cuts to the costly program—because of her encyclopedic knowledge of the health and human services budget and her ability to line up the Democratic votes Ogden desperately wanted. After personally consulting with each of the agency heads, Zaffirini presented Ogden with a bottom-line funding level she could live with in a list of critical programs. Z, as she is known, got some of what she wanted—softening many of the most painful cuts—but balked when Ogden let Nelson steer the lion’s share of the money to other priorities. Ogden could have patched things up, regardless of who was in the wrong, but stubbornly refused. Zaffirini, known for her long memory when it comes to slights and insults, became a steely-eyed “no” on the budget from that moment on, and other Democrats followed her lead, dimming Ogden’s prospects for a bipartisan budget.

Ogden retaliated by cutting Zaffirini out of the budget-writing loop on her other passion, higher education. But Zaffirini, who chairs the Senate’s Higher Ed Committee and counts University of Texas System chancellor and Laredo native Francisco Cigarroa among her friends, refused to be sidelined. She led the successful push back against Perry’s plan, hatched by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to limit research spending and make faculty compensation contingent on controversial productivity measures. She shared inside information with reporters—about the hiring of TPPF’s Rick O’Donnell as a highly paid but short-lived special assistant to the UT System Board of Regents, for example—and prodded

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