The 20th edition of the “Best & Worst Legislators” story is complete. Yesterday we posted, on Twitter and on this blog, the names of the ten Best, the ten Worst, the Bull of the Brazos, and the Rookie of the Year. Today the write-ups for all of these 22 members are available online. The full story, including honorable and dishonorable mentions, furniture, and the very special features that mark the 20th edition of the story will be available in the magazine, which will begin reaching subscribers this weekend, and on our website next week. I have been involved in nineteen of the twenty previous articles, and I cannot recall a more difficult year when it came to selecting the members on both lists. This was a session without heroes. All the usual jokes about naming 5 Bests and 15 Worsts were on point, for a change.
The budget dominated everything, with the result that there were few major bills. I count three: Truitt’s effort to regulate payday loans; Ritter’s attempt to get funding for the state water plan (one of several occasions on which Perry could have exercised leadership for the state’s future but did not); and Keffer’s bill regulating hydraulic fracturing in shale formations. The rest was noise. Particularly cacophonous was the governor’s “emergency” agenda, which consisted of nothing but red meat for Republicans. Republicans got to vote on abortion, immigration, voter fraud, tort reform, and, shades of the fifties, state’s rights. Democrats got to vote no a lot. Even the major Sunset bills didn’t seem to generate any interest. You could look out across the House floor during any debate and see few members engaged. The House Republican caucus was a curious organism. Its members preferred to vote as a block, as if they lived in fear that their age-old enemies, the Democrats, might perhaps be resuscitated to offer a scintilla of opposition. The group-think voting was reminiscent of the refrain sung by the “Monarch of the Sea” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore: “I grew so rich that I was sent/by a pocket borough into Parliament/I always voted at my party’s call/and never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
The anemic Democratic caucus, meanwhile, mustered up occasional resistance, mostly with parliamentary maneuvers, but the D’s were so outnumbered, and so demoralized by their election rout, that they never seemed to have a leader or a plan. Not that it would have made any difference.
Democrats in Texas are fast approaching the point that Republicans were at when our list began. Over the 20 sessions that we have compiled Best & Worst, Texas politics has turned upside down. In 1973, the first year we published our story, Republicans were vastly outnumbered, lacked political power, and virtually absent from our lists. No Republican made the Worst list that year (though one, Ray Hutchison did make the best list). There weren’t enough of them to cause trouble. Today, some thirty-eight years later, the tables are turned, and no Democrat has made the Worst list. This fact has already caused some consternation on Twitter and in the comments to this blog, but we don’t have quotas. When one party has a supermajority, they dominate our story. Wendy Davis was a possibility for either list, but at the time we went to press, it wasn’t clear–and it still may not be–whether her session-ending filibuster was productive or destructive. The fact is that Democrats were not consequential this session (except in a few rare instances). They may not be a factor in Texas for a decade. The necessity to cut, cut, cut defined the session. This is not the Legislature’s fault. It was the fault of the Republican leadership, which has systematically starved public schools of revenue since 2006 and appears to be bent upon extending its shameful record of neglect and structural deficits. The leadership, especially Perry, seemed eager to embrace the catastrophe; the more the Legislature cuts, the more Perry can brag that he balanced the budget without raising taxes. Hence, the House version of the budget, which was based on the miscalculation that deep cuts might scare Republican members into voting for a more benign budget—a flawed strategy if ever there was one, since the likes of Jim Landtroop and Phil King view cuts with all the trepidation of B’rer Rabbit encountering a briar patch. A session without money is destined from the start to be ugly, and this one was really ugly. Perry drew a line in the sand over the Legislature’s use of the Rainy Day fund and made it stick. Well, sort of. Budget writers may have had the last laugh by deferring required payments (such as to school districts) into future budgets. The first thing the Legislature is going to do in 2013 is siphon off the deferred spending out of the Rainy Day Fund. Budget writers struggled mightily to give schools, nursing homes, and hospitals a little more money.
Some of our Ten Best legislators shined in this effort: namely, Ogden, Duncan, Zaffirini, and Zerwas. Yet to be decided is whether the 82nd session will mark a turning point for Texas. With each passing day, the likelihood grows that Rick Perry will run for president of the United States. Perry has had a remarkable career, which began in a different millennium, and he has outlasted and outperformed a myriad of challengers, naysayers, and disrespecters. In all that time he has never lost a race. His political skills have become finely honed, and he has been able to impose his rigid ideological views on a diverse state. If Perry does run for president, win or lose, Texas politics in the 83rd Legislature will be different from what it is today. And you can count on our being there to tell you who were the Best and the Worst of the 83rd.