The Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators

Legislative bodies seldom live up to what the public expects of them- and certainly the 65 th Legislature is no exception. Perhaps our standards were unrealistically high after the statesmanlike 1975 Legislature. That session was under the shaping influence of the ill-fated 1974 Constitutional Convention; legislators retained a seriousness of purpose that enabled them to attack many of the state’s most pressing problems. Unfortunately, this session’s dominant force was nothing so noble; it ws money, both too much and not enough. Legislators began work with $3 billion more than in 1975; it seemed more than enough to fund state agencies adequately, make real headway in achieving school district equalization, provide some taxpayer relief, and perhaps have some loose change left for a new program or, or possibly to purchase some park land. What happened instead was a scene reminiscent of The Old Man and the Sea; while legislators were contemplating how to handle their massive catch, the sharks got it first.

Every pressure group imaginable wanted a bite—from junior colleges to nursing homes—but by far the biggest appetite belonged to a tight-knit alliance of road contractors, truckers, and gasoline refiners. When Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby capitulated on the $528 million highway bill (after insisting earlier that $245 million was enough), morale in both houses plummeted to a post-Sharpstown low. It didn’t take long for legislators to realize that there wasn’t going to be any money left for their pet projects; the only question unsettled was not how the rest of the surplus would be spent but where. As a result, though the 65 th legislature will not go down as one of the most eventful in Texas history, it may well prove to be a watershed in Texas politics, the session where the old divisions into liberal and conservative camps were replaced by new alignments along urban-rural lines. This reshuffling of alliances—more than one key vote found big-city Republicans uneasy in bed with minorities, and rural white populists snuggling uncomfortably close to country conservatives—was accelerated by the types of issues before the Legislature this year, particularly school finance, but also property tax reform, county ordinance-making powers, and tax relief for agricultural property. All had greater urban-rural than liberal-conservative overtones—as will more and more of the issues that future Legislatures will face.

The unique pressures of this session made the selection of the Ten Best and Ten Worst more difficult than in previous years; not only was there little major legislation, but also there was less opportunity for members to reach the grand heights—or abysmal depths that are often achieved when ideology is involved. In simplest terms, there were fewer stars. Nevertheless, by following the Legislature from beginning to end, in the gallery and on the floor, and by interviewing legislators themselves, as well as the Capitol press, key lobbyists, state agency legislative liaisons, and prominent political figures, we were able to arrive at a consensus.

Our criteria were the same as always. We avoided consideration of political philosophy; the test of a good member is the same regardless of whether he has conservative or liberal views. A good legislator is intelligent, well prepared, and accessible to reason; because of these qualities he is respected by his colleagues and effective in his work. He uses power skillfully and to its maximum without abusing it, and without exception his integrity is beyond reproach. On issues of statewide importance he wears no parochial blinders; he is both faithful to and broader than his district. It is more difficult to summarize the attributes that qualify a member for the Ten Worst list. Stupidity and ignorance by themselves are not enough, nor is ineffectiveness. Some of the worst members have great talent and use it very effectively; that indeed, is the problem. If a consistent thread joins the worst members, it is their penchant for being sand in the legislative machinery; they are noticed primarily for being in the way.

We have traditionally considered the heads of both houses ineligible for either list, but both Speaker Bill Clayton and Lieutenant Governor Hobby deserve special attention. Clayton solidified his reputation as a fair Speaker, working the House hard but letting issues be resolved without arm-twisting. He continued to be suspicious of new legislation—an attitude which fell equally on both human-and special-interest bills—yet to his credit, the House spoke to most of the session’s major issues, passing bills reforming the property tax, granting counties ordinance-making powers, and providing utility tax relief. All died in the Senate. Clayton’s most serious deficiency is that he is a politician of limited vision surrounded by politicians of even more limited vision; his team unfortunately includes some of the House’s most provincial minds.

In the Senate, Hobby is unquestionably the best presiding officer since the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. He is totally free of lobby influence and expertly informed about issues. Yet for the third straight session he ended up cast in a villain’s role on major issues; reform in 1973, utility regulation in 1975, and both tax reform and highways this year. Unlike in previous years, he could manufacture no eleventh-hour solution. Hobby’s biggest problem may be beyond his control: a senate that, sadly, is more under the influence of small lobby groups, like realtors, than any within memory.

In addition to the Ten Best and Ten Worst, a few legislators deserve special mention—honorable and dishonorable. The best legislator not to make the top ten was House Ways and Means Chairman Joe Wyatt (35, Bloomington). He ran the best committee in the House and in the process demonstrated a thorough grasp of state finances. No one this session did better work under more pressure than he did on his utility tax relief compromise, which died in the Senate’s closing hours. Someone not always taken seriously in the past, he is definitely the most improved legislator, and were he not so closely identified with a few powerful lobbyists, Wyatt would have to be one of the Ten

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