Power Company

Who are the most influential people determining the fate of Texas—and what do they want?

This list marks the fourth time TEXAS MONTHLY has sought to identify the state’s most powerful players. The first was in 1976, when one of “the secret capitals of Texas” was at Houston’s Lamar Hotel, in Suite 8F, the archetypal smoke-filled room. The power brokers at the time were legendary figures whose era was coming to an end: George R. Brown, the co-founder of Brown & Root; John Connally, the former governor and U.S. Treasury Secretary; Leon Jaworski, the prosecutor of Richard Nixon; Allan Shivers, the former governor and University of Texas regents chairman; Erik Jonsson, the Dallas mayor and Texas Instruments co-founder. These men ran the state by exercising power in all three sectors that count: politics, business, and civic affairs. There is nobody on the 2011 list who even remotely resembles them.

The very thing that made this establishment powerful proved its undoing: oil. Our 1987 story declared that the old power structure was a casualty of the oil bust. “No one in the business and political leadership of Texas even mentions the establishment anymore,” we wrote. Instead, it had been replaced by a small group of wealthy movers and shakers with ideas, people like Ross Perot, who promoted education reform. And oilman George Mitchell, an early proponent of sustainability. And San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, who preached the importance of economic development and diversity. These new players differed from the old ones in that they set out to change the arena in which they operated without the expectation of immediate profit.

Our next list came in 2005, two years after Republicans won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction and elected Tom Craddick, their longtime legislative leader, as Speaker. The 2005 power list was unlike any previous list. Gone were titans of business like Perot and T. Boone Pickens. Lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants, big Republican donors, and key staffers and advisers dominated the list. Power was almost exclusively Republican (and remains so today).

Which brings us to the 2011 list. Why compile another? Because we stand on the cusp of the most important legislative session of our lifetime, when those with power will make decisions that affect Texas for decades to come. This list reflects who will wield influence during this session—and how they’ll use it. But it also demonstrates the incredible pace of change. The past six years have brought an unprecedented transformation in the distribution of power in Texas, none more important than the rise of the grass roots, epitomized by the emergence of the tea party, which, for all its disorganization, is a force to be reckoned with. The tea party groups have benefited from the way the Internet and social media have revolutionized politics, empowering anyone with a BlackBerry and a mailing list to drive issues and influence elections. Yet, for all the ways that power has changed in the past 35 years, in one way it remains the same. Power is still an insider’s game, where the decisions are made behind closed doors. Let’s have a look inside the room.

The Purse Strings—Steve Ogden and Jim Pitts

As lawmakers gird themselves for a session in which the state’s budget crisis is by far the most pressing issue, these two longtime legislators are at the center of the storm. Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, has been chairman of the Senate Finance Committee since 2004; Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie, will chair the House Appropriations Committee for the third time in the past four sessions. Each will prepare a version of the budget, which, according to tradition, will be numbered Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1. They will have the biggest say about who gets how much funding.

Their power is not absolute. Both chairmen are dependent on their committee members to provide the votes to send a budget to the floor for debate, and both must heed the priorities of their presiding officers, Lieutenant Governor David Dew­hurst in the Senate and Representative Joe Straus, the front-runner to be reelected Speaker of the House at the time of this writing. But for the most part, the buck—or lack thereof—stops with Ogden and Pitts.

Both have had long careers: Ogden served six years in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1996. Pitts first won election to the House in 1992; he challenged Tom Craddick for Speaker in 2007 but came up short. Ogden contemplated retirement after the 2009 session. It would surprise no one if this were the last session for each (all the more reason for them to wield power). Both regard the budget as a moral document. Ogden almost caused a meltdown in 2009 by insisting on a rider that prohibited the expenditure of state funds on stem cell research (he yielded), and during the same session Pitts took on the governor’s office for its questionable manipulation of funds for a $50 million grant to Texas A&M, Governor Rick Perry’s alma mater.

The problem for these two legislators is that without money, power doesn’t mean much. They must find a way to pay for public schools, universities, health care, roads, and law enforcement in a year when new revenue is next to nonexistent—a 7 percent increase at most, Pitts says. Ogden believes a budget deal can be reached. “Texas will be bruised up but probably won’t be permanently harmed,” he told us. Pitts warned that in the first version of the budget bill, “every number is going to be pretty scary.” Even so, he said, “some people would be ready to vote for it on day one.”

What To Watch For: Ogden wants to spend some of the Rainy Day Fund and pass a constitutional amendment to raise more gasoline tax revenue for highways. Pitts will likely propose delaying some payments—to school districts, for example—until the next budget cycle.

•••••

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