Hall of Fame

Since 1973 we've picked two hundred best legislators. We asked ten of our favorites to weigh in on how the Capitol has changed and where the state is headed.

Hugo Berlanga 

D–Corpus Christi
Tenure: Representative from 1977 to 1999
Number of times on the Best list: 3
I was the first Hispanic speaker pro tempore in the history of the House. I served under Gib Lewis, and he later told me that the reason he selected me is that he needed someone who could help work the floor and keep the agenda together. He didn’t want it to be a ceremonial position, as it usually had been—and as it has been ever since. And I would never trade the six years that I chaired the Public Health Committee. You had control over the entire medical community, including hospitals and nursing homes. You had control over funeral parlors. You were in charge of everything from being born to being put in the grave. My entire time in the Legislature I heard that we want less government, we want less regulation. But when I went to Public Health, it was all about regulation. Everybody wants to be certified, and everybody wants to be licensed.

I wish sometimes that I was still there to help navigate these issues, but of course it would be a little harder. It’s real simple what’s happening in Austin, in my opinion. There’s no semblance of lawmakers trying to work together. There’s disengagement between the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office and the Speaker’s office. I have the feeling that they are not on the same page. I believe that if George Bush remained governor during this period there’s no way he would have allowed the substitution of the franchise tax with a margins tax that was going to create a structural deficit that keeps getting bigger. The current leaders won’t face up to the fact that there’s a problem, and they keep hoping that the economy will bail us out. So we’re whacking away at public education. We’re whacking away at higher education. And what does that do for our future workforce?

When I was a lawmaker, we used to kid around and say, “Thank God for Mississippi. At least we’re three notches above that state.” I am convinced now that we want to be Mississippi. We want the whole world to know who we are and what we don’t have. Now when other states talk about how bad their situation is, they’ll say, “Thank God for Texas.”

Berlanga is a lobbyist and consultant, with offices in Austin and Corpus Christi.

Dianne Delisi 

R–Temple
Tenure: Representative from 
1991 to 2008
Number of times on the Best list: 2
Everything that I learned that was valuable to me during my tenure came from serving on Appropriations for ten years and learning that it’s not policy that drives the budget, it’s the budget that drives policy. Sitting there in Appropriations for hour after hour really taught me how Texas works, everything from the tiny agency that inspects animal hides to Health and Human Services to the TEA. I got to know everyone by name and face, and it never leaves you.

The budget is absolutely the number one issue facing the state. I’m very concerned about the Foundation School Program [the primary source of funding for Texas public schools, the FSP was cut by billions of dollars in the Eighty-second Legislature] and how that filters down to the 1,030 school districts in Texas. I’m also concerned about rate cutting on the Health and Human Services side, which filters down to hourly workers in long-term care. I went back and checked with the folks who were working on the budget in 2005, when we ended up with a $9.9 billion hole. Talmadge Heflin was chairman—you can’t get any more conservative than that—and it took all of thirty minutes to decide to use the Rainy Day Fund. So I’m puzzled by the unwillingness to use more of the state’s savings account. In my mind that’s what it’s for. I’m also mindful of the fact that the Rainy Day Fund is being replenished, and at a faster rate than we have seen in a long time.

As Scripture says, I think our ox is in a ditch now. I think the House has gone as far as it can go in terms of scrubbing the budget. Let’s just take Medicaid, which eats our budget lunch. If we have a problem funding Article III, which is education, it’s because pressure has been put on it by Article II, which is HHS. At the end of the day, I’ve always thought that the budget comes down to a battle between kindergarten and nursing homes.

Delisi is the senior policy adviser for Delisi Communications, an Austin-based consulting firm.

PATRICIA GRAY 

D–Galveston
Tenure: Representative from 
1992 to 2003
Number of times on the Best list: 2
When I served in the House, it was more closely divided than it is today, so we had to accommodate each other. In closely divided districts, you tend to get candidates who are more centrist, who understand that there is more than one way to look at an issue. The redistricting that took place after I left changed that by creating more safe districts. When you do that for either side, you put the parties in charge. And the parties are dominated by outside elements. They’re not interested in governing; they’re interested in electing. When a chamber is not so controlled by one side or the other, you get better negotiation and, I think, better legislation.

At some point we’re going to have to face the fact that we can’t grow our population and not grow our budget. And you can’t just shove the budget down onto the next lower level of government because the costs are going to be paid somewhere. There was a real debate going on when I was in the Legislature about the role of government. That is still happening today, but people aren’t listening as much. I think you have to set priorities in tight budget years, and some of those may be decisions that you don’t

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