The Ten Best and (Sigh)…The Ten Worst Legislators

Could any public body, anywhere in the world, be quite like the Texas legislature?

All politics is applesauce.
Will Rogers

It will come as no surprise to connoisseurs of Texas politics that Mr. Rogers first uttered these words not long after addressing the Texas legislature. If the late American humorist could have returned to the Capitol this year, chances are that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion much—although, given the changing times, he might have expressed himself in stronger language. The sight of the Texas legislature in action is not likely to inspire perorations about the democratic process at work. For once, however, appearances were deceiving: the legislature was better than it looked, and far better than anyone—including us—thought it would be back in January.

Every session of the legislature has its unique, shaping influences. Four years ago the dominant force was the Sharpstown scandal; in 1973 it was the reform movement. This year it was constitutional revision—not so much as an issue, but as the fundamental element in the “atmosphere of the session.

The legislators came to Austin in January—many of them still worn out from the physical, intellectual, and emotional ordeal of the six-month Constitutional Convention of 1974—and found themselves confronted with a new crop of complex and difficult issues that wouldn’t go away. There was the unfinished business of a new constitution, of course, not to mention utility regulation, school finance, strip mining, property tax reform, prison reform, authorization for a superport… .The lobby was out in force as usual, sometimes to oppose bills, sometimes with its hand out: truckers wanting to ease highway load limits, builders seeking to cut back fire escapes on new construction, doctors, pharmacists, nursing home operators, ranchers, barbers, trial lawyers, and just about everybody else who could think of a way to let the state help them earn another buck. Fortunately, the ill-fated Constitutional Convention had a salutary effect upon legislators: it gave them a seriousness of purpose and even a quality of statesmanship which carried over to this session. If the people of Texas didn’t get a new constitution for their $3.5 million, they at least got a better legislature, and that legislature made a start toward solving some of the state’s thorniest political problems.

The lawmakers finally agreed on a new constitution and produced major legislation in two other areas that badly legislation in two other areas that badly needed attention: school finance and utility regulation. Both bills turned out to be true compromises and workable efforts — but their ultimate fate will depend upon Governor Dolph Briscoe. Under the school finance bill, his office must come up with recommendations for property tax reform (without which the inequities of the school finance system will never be eliminated), while the utility bill requires the governor to appoint the members of the new utilities commission (who will determine whether utilities are really regulated). Perhaps it is unduly pessimistic to point out (a) that Briscoe is one of the state’s largest landowners and (b) that he publicly opposed comprehensive regulation of utilities.

The performance of the two presiding officers—Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby and Speaker Billy Clayton—is hard to evaluate. Hobby arrived as an enigma and in two sessions has done little to shed light on his political beliefs or, for that matter, his abilities. For the second consecutive session, he managed to cast himself in the villain’s role on a major legislative issue. Two years ago he dillydallied on the reform bills; this time he played footsie with the lobby on utility regulation until the last weekend of the session. On both occasions, however, Hobby came to life at the eleventh hour and forced workable bills through what had been a reluctant Senate. Did Hobby cave in to public pressure on the utility issue, or did he merely string along the lobby as long as he could? Whichever is the answer, it means that Hobby is either much weaker—or much stronger—than people thought.

On other major legislative issues, his role is much better defined. He was the moving force behind Bob Gammage on constitutional revision and Oscar Mauzy on school finance; they got the credit but Hobby did most of the work, particularly the hard politicking to get the votes lined up. Less to his credit, Hobby let his gubernatorial ambitions influence his stand on two important, predominantly rural issues: water development bonds (which he supported, in an about-face) and property tax reform (which he referred to a hostile committee and then made no effort to salvage).

All too often, however, Hobby did little more than occupy the podium, making no attempt to run the Senate and leaving it to flounder like an orchestra without a conductor. Thus unleashed, senators seemed to vie with each other to see who could pass the most special interest legislation; the result was a massive outpouring of bad bills which slipped through the Senate virtually undiscussed and unnoticed. Hobby either didn’t know or didn’t care; neither speaks well for his leadership.

Clayton made no such mistake; indeed, his forces killed bills with the zeal of true believers. Clayton is a High Plains cotton farmer from Springlake who did his best to live up to the philosophy that the legislature should pass as few bills as possible. Early in the session, virtually the only bills considered by the House were blatant special interest legislation; at the end, the crush of major issues—school finance, utility regulation, appropriations—monopolized the calendar and left little time for anything else. Along the way a lot of bills, good and bad, were interred in committee graveyards—something that happened by design rather than by accident.

In some ways Clayton represented a discouraging throwback to the dictatorial speakerships of Ben Barnes and Gus Mutscher. He contemplated barring the press from the House floor, tried to shut off public access to members’ expense accounts, and secretly monitored legislators’ newsletters. He also twisted the House rules to his own benefit by broadening the Speaker’s power to stack committee membership. Perhaps his biggest mistake was in opening the appropriations process to all committees— allowing, for example, the Health and Welfare Committee

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