For 140 days the seventy-seventh legislature searched for its personality without finding it. This was a budget-trimming session in which money was tight. No, it was a free-spending session in which state expenditures increased by $14 billion. This was a session that would be dominated by redistricting. No, the Legislature didn’t even pass a redistricting bill. This was a session when legislators took off a week to go to Washington to celebrate the inauguration of fellow Texan and former governor George W. Bush. But it was also a session when lawmakers passed bills to repair the damage to the state’s reputation incurred during Bush’s tenure and presidential campaign.
Republicans went to the inauguration elated and came home deflated, almost with a sense of “Daddy’s gone. What do we do now?” New governor Rick Perry had few suggestions. Both he and Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, having filled vacancies, were unelected, and neither had a mandate to lead. With no one imposing an agenda on the Legislature, the lawmakers went about their routine business with no sense of urgency. The only piece of legislation that absolutely had to pass was the budget, and the only parts of the budget that posed serious problems were Medicaid and teacher health insurance. Not surprisingly, the lawmakers who figured out how to make these programs work without rupturing the budget made the Best list.
The one thing that could have ruined the session—partisan warfare—never came to pass. The hate crimes bill could have been the Fort Sumter that plunged the world of the Capitol into civil war, but in this torpid session, the will to fight just wasn’t strong enough to generate action. Anyway, the war is coming; it will be waged in the 2002 elections and in the 2003 session, but for now, everybody was content to run away and live to fight another day.
So let’s call it the antebellum session. We followed it on the floor and in committee, day after day and for a few late nights. We found our heroes in those who looked for common ground in a divisive time, and our villains in those who failed to do likewise. And as always, we found some folks who are in immediate need of reconstruction.
THE WORST: Senator Carlos Truan
High maintenance, low performance: if Carlos Truan were an automobile engine, he’d have been relegated to the scrap heap long ago. Unfortunately, he is the dean of the Senate, practiced in the art of longevity—and nothing else. He doesn’t do his homework nor does he contribute; he just takes up everybody’s time. Sometimes it seems that if he would just go away, or at least forgo his oratorical meanderings, the Senate could wind up its business in half the time. “Carlos Truan” is a two-word rebuttal to the argument that the Texas Legislature needs to meet more often than 140 days every two years.
His specialty is the phantom complaint. He objects that a bill will do X when in fact it does Y. He worried that a bill setting accounting standards for school districts would hurt poor districts. (It would not.) He worried that a bill requiring consumer disclosures on credit life insurance would cause poor people to purchase it. (Not even close.) His questions reveal nothing except how unprepared he is. Once, he began to harrumph that a bill would deny college admission to poor children. Puzzled looks ensued around the chamber. An embarrassed silence filled the air, finally to be broken by Lieutenant Governor Ratliff: “Senator, . . . this is about bats.” Truan had launched into a passionate argument about another of the author’s bills, which had to do with educational opportunity, while the rest of the Senate was considering bat conservation. If Truan was for a bill, he still complained. After signing on as a co-sponsor of the teacher health insurance bill, he peppered the lead sponsor with hostile questions during floor debate and wondered aloud about national health insurance.
Even the trivialities were beyond his ken. One day he interrupted a committee hearing to introduce a group of young people whom he had just met. Oops. Wrong group. “Let the record reflect that we will not recognize you to introduce phantom constituents,” said the chairman. Let the record reflect that we do recognize phantom senators.