Of all the issues that the Legislature tackled last year, few were as unlikely as pension reform. When it comes to entitlements, the people who benefit from the status quo are usually suspicious of change, and the pols who are supposed to keep our finances sound are usually too concerned with the here and now to worry about how much money the government is going to have to hand out years down the line. Yet last year the Lege, which was otherwise not especially enthusiastic about long-term planning, passed a major reform of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas that put the fund on surer financial footing.
If the bill was unlikely, its author—Robert Duncan, the Republican senator from Lubbock—was not. Since being elected to the Texas Senate in 1996, he has maintained a subdued public profile. In the committee rooms, however, he’s widely considered one of the body’s most effective legislators. “Senator Duncan’s leadership hasn’t always been out front and center, but he has worked tirelessly behind the scenes,” says fellow senator Donna Campbell, whose politics are considerably to Duncan’s right.
Duncan has also been honored in Texas Monthly’s Best and Worst list more times than anyone else, including last year, when he was recognized for a general pattern of sneaking around the Capitol and getting things done. Recently, Duncan and Democrat Rodney Ellis co-authored the Michael Morton Act, which is designed to prevent wrongful criminal convictions. After the bill passed, in April 2013, John Whitmire, the dean of the Senate, took a moment on the floor to recognize Ellis and Duncan for offering “as fine a moment for the legislative process as I’ve seen.” One staffer put it more bluntly: “The Senate doesn’t function without Robert Duncan.”
It should be noted that some of Duncan’s fellow conservatives have derided him as a liberal. The people of Lubbock are probably capable of judging that claim, although it’s certainly true that bipartisan-minded Republicans like Duncan are not much in fashion. And they may be even less so if Dan Patrick prevails in his attempt to become our next lite guv and pulls the Lege even farther in the direction of the tea party. Patrick will likely be assisted in that goal by the election of half a dozen new senators, most of whom will be more ferociously partisan than the people they’re replacing.
Can you blame Duncan, then, for wanting to skedaddle? Last month Texas Tech’s board of regents announced that he was the sole finalist in their search for a new chancellor, so the senator will be heading back to Lubbock, where he attended college and law school.
Those roots were one reason Duncan was picked, but so was his political acumen. With both parties pushing for new institutions of higher education in Texas and the rivalry between UT and A&M having moved from the football field to the floor of the Lege, Tech is at risk of being overlooked if it doesn’t have a leader who knows his way around the Capitol. “That was one of the prevailing reasons that the regents chose him,” says Larry Anders, vice chairman of Tech’s board of regents. “In that arena, I believe, he’s unrivaled.”
The Lege, by contrast, may become less likely to get important work done without an effective bridge-builder in attendance. Duncan has noted that the pension reform he steered through the Lege nearly fell apart until one of his colleagues, having hit the books with a magnifying glass, found $100 million sitting idly in a state account, which could be appropriated to help fund the reform. The colleague in question was Wendy Davis, a Democrat of some note who is particularly unpopular with Republicans these days. Still, the bill passed, and the Republican party managed to survive. Duncan, who had spent several years on the project, described the achievement plainly. “This is a very serious and, I think, long-term fix,” he said. Then he got back to work.