Democrat Pete Laney and Republican Bill Ratliff have nearly fifty years of legislative experience between them, and during their careers in their respective chambers—Laney served only in the House, Ratliff only in the Senate—they wrestled with such complex problems as public education, taxes, health care, and ethics reform. Issues, incidentally, that sound awfully familiar to observers of the 83rd Legislature. So the two men agreed to chat with Texas Monthly and offer their advice—and their critiques—about the state of affairs in Austin.
TM: Let’s start with an obvious question. Mr. Speaker, how do you think things have changed in the Legislature since you left office?
Speaker Laney: It’s hard when you’re not inside to analyze it, but Governor Ratliff and I got along well because he’s an engineer who says everything’s black and white, and I’m a farmer who says everything will be better next year. But I think we both believed we worked for Texas and tried to do what was right for the state. We were in a situation where we had lots of court orders saying you’re going do things, and we got them fixed because they needed to be fixed rather than playing games. There’s probably a little more game-playing now than there was back then.
TM: Governor Ratliff, what’s your sense of the Capitol?
Governor Ratliff: I don’t think there’s any question that the environment is far more partisan. One of the interesting things about serving with George W. Bush as governor and Bob Bullock as lieutenant governor and Pete when he was speaker was that they protected the members. They allowed the members to do what needed to be done because they took the heat a lot of the time.
Laney: It allowed the members to represent their district rather than a political philosophy.
Ratliff: Exactly. You know, they didn’t always agree. But you hardly ever heard a discussion about what the partisan impact of some decision was going to be. The discussion was, “What’s the impact on the State of Texas? What’s good for the state?” And I just think it made it so much easier to be a good member because you weren’t always looking over our shoulder.
Laney: There’s probably more outside influence now, and special interest groups that are mostly one-issue type organizations. I also think some of the pressure is coming from political consultants who are trying to be hired for the next election cycle. They want their candidate to be at a certain spot politically rather than doing what's good for the state.
TM: Do you have a sense about why you think the tone has changed?
Laney: Yeah, it’s partisan politics. You know, the biggest hit Governor Ratliff took was when he said he was 51 percent Republican. Most of us saw nothing wrong with that because all of us have a different philosophy from our party because we represent different parts of the state.
Ratliff: There was always a certain division but back then, but it was more urban and rural than it was about partisanship . . .
Laney: And philosophy—the philosophy of an East Texas logger and a West Texas cotton grower are not all that different.
TM: Do you ever think, “I’d like to suit back up and get in there?”
TM: No?! You didn’t even hesitate to answer.
Laney: It has changed so much, and at the age I’m getting it’s time for the younger folks to start being involved. We had hoped at some point we could export Texas politics to Washington, but Washington politics got imported to Texas.
Ratliff: You can’t do something for fifteen years as intensely as we did it in those periods and not ever have a little twinge of thinking, “I could solve that” or “I could do a better job than that.” But I lie down and it goes away.
TM: I want to talk about what’s happening in this Legislature, but before we do, I want to give readers a clear sense of your relationship to the Capitol today. Governor Ratliff, I noticed this morning when I was sitting in the Appropriations hearing that there was a “Representative Ratliff” on the committee.
Ratliff: Yes, Bennett just started in the Legislature, and my son Thomas is in his second term in the State Board of Education. I’m real proud of what he’s been doing. . .
Laney: He says what he thinks!
Ratliff: I’m afraid that’s a genetic thing. [Both laugh.] I do register as a lobbyist out of an abundance of caution in that I represent and make appearances on behalf of a group called Raise Your Hand Texas, which advocates for public schools. We think public schools are doing a good job, but they could do a better job if we would give them the resources necessary. Other than that I really don’t get involved. As I’m sure happens to Pete, I get people calling me asking me “Why did you all do this?” or “What’s your recollection of the arguments on that?” But I steer clear of the process in general.
Laney: I'm probably a little more involved because I do consult with a couple different groups that have an interest in the legislative process, and as my daughter says, “You express your opinion too much so you will register.” But I don’t have a big long list of clients, just about three that I do anything at all with.
TM: So let’s size up this session a bit. What issues stand out to you? For example, as we’re talking, we’re waiting for Judge Dietz’s ruling this afternoon on school finance, an issue you both grappled with.
Laney: Education always will. Public education is what has made this state great. And it’s been neglected a little bit. All you’ve got to do is go back and look in the early 1900’s and see what we had in Texas without public education and realize what it has done for the state.