When former governor Bill Clements died in the final week of the Eighty-second Legislature—a session dominated by a $27 billion budget shortfall—there was one story that found its way into almost every obituary of the irascible, archconservative oilman. In 1987, faced with a budget shortfall of his own, he had insisted on the leanest budget the state could manage, only to finally sign off on a $5.8 billion tax increase to fund public education. As Clements understood, in a state that already budgets lean (Texas currently spends the least per capita in the nation), you cannot cut your way out of every shortfall—no matter what you promised on the campaign trail.
Veteran budget writer Steve Ogden summoned some of Clements’s courage in a bracingly candid address to his fellow senators at the beginning of this session. On a day normally reserved for pomp and self-congratulation, Ogden delivered the news that nobody wanted to hear: The shortfall wasn’t caused solely by the recession. It was an inevitable result of the state’s rickety tax system, especially the underperforming business tax known as the margins tax, which was bringing in billions less than anticipated. “None of us are elected to go out and raise taxes on anybody . . . but if the margins tax is not fixed, [property] taxes will go up,” he warned. The solution was not complex—a few tweaks to the way the tax is assessed in a bill no more than three pages long would do the trick. The challenge was entirely political. “Check your political considerations and your political ambitions at the door,” Ogden said. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Instead we got an Eighty-second Legislature dominated by those very political ambitions, in particular the aspirations of two men: Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Perry’s anticipated presidential run meant there could be nothing that remotely resembled a tax increase, so the margins tax fix was dead on arrival. Instead, the opening weeks were spent fretting over red meat for the conservative base: chasing elusive instances of voter fraud and mandating medically unnecessary procedures for women seeking abortions. After Speaker Joe Straus let the Republican supermajority in the House pass a truly draconian budget, the pressure was on Dewhurst—who is aiming at either the U.S. Senate or the governor’s chair, if Perry moves on—to do the same. The hounding from the tea party and other conservative groups was relentless, thanks in part to the increased presence of social media.
In the end, Dewhurst caved. Amid the parsing and posturing from the leadership, it was a tough session for the men and women with the rolled-up sleeves. “It was like a classroom with no teacher and no principal,” as one veteran legislator put it. And unfortunately, no summer vacation either, as lawmakers were dragged back for a special session.
With this, our twentieth effort at compiling a Best and Worst list, we faced a difficult task: How do you select the ten best legislators when the worst seemed to prevail at every turn? It was not a session for big ideas—the budget battle and, to a lesser extent, redistricting sucked the air out of almost every other debate. But there was important work being done in quiet corners of the Capitol, in the meeting rooms where members who strive for good government and fairness work hard to bring competing interests to the table and hammer out thoughtful public policy. On the budget, we have tried to recognize the members who made the best of a bad situation. And the worst? As usual, they picked themselves.
DAN BRANCH R–Dallas
After his childhood friend Joe Straus became Speaker, in 2009, Dan Branch could have had any assignment he wanted. Most members would have wanted a chairmanship of one of the power committees—Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Calendars. Branch chose Higher Education. That’s the essence of Branch—he doesn’t care about status; he cares about making a difference. He believes that Tier I research universities are the future of the state, and he wants to be in a position where he can help more institutions achieve this status.
This was an unusual session for Higher Ed, a committee that normally does not generate a lot of noise. Most of Branch’s agenda was useful tweaking: requiring students seeking Texas Grant scholarships to demonstrate academic prowess, providing new money for universities with Tier I ambitions, tying funding for state universities more directly to graduation rates. Then, into these calm waters sailed Governor Perry, flying the reform flag and blasting away at the state’s flagship universities with his “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” a controversial package of ideas produced by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Suddenly the seas were choppy. A steady hand was needed, someone who could turn Perry’s criticisms of higher ed in a positive direction. Straus promptly named Branch co-chairman (with Senator Judith Zaffirini) of an oversight committee for higher ed.
Branch will never be one of the more popular members. His role is that of a man apart, like a senator in the House. He represents Highland Park, one of the wealthiest areas in the state, and, like Straus, he is just too smart, successful, and straitlaced to be one of the boys. Political savants have long believed that he harbors ambitions for higher office, presumably attorney general. In the meantime, his new assignment might have some fringe benefits: Co-chair of the higher ed oversight committee is not a bad position from which to build a constituency of influential alums—and, maybe, find a way to get the governor to take some good advice.
SENATOR ROBERT DUNCAN R–Lubbock
Legislatures can’t function without members like Robert Duncan. “He has become the fixer,” one colleague said of the soft-spoken attorney from Lubbock, who seems to find himself doing more than his share of the Senate’s heavy lifting every session. This time around Duncan spent months negotiating “loser pays,” a controversial bill backed by perennial lobby heavy hitter Texans for