NEVER WILL THERE BE A LEGISLATIVE SESSION LIKE THIS ONE: the governor running for president, a $6 billion surplus in the treasury, Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats the House by the barest of margins, and the portentous end of the millennium at hand. With George W. Bush headed for the campaign trail and reapportionment looming in 2001, Texas politics was fast approaching some major changes; everyone sensed it. The languid pace of the 140-day session contrasted with an air of urgency to get things done before the unknown arrived.
No one felt the urgency more than Bush (see “Guv Story,”). His presidential ambitions dominated the session, as reporters kept a closer watch on the Governor’s Mansion than on the Capitol. The high stakes had the effect of spurring Democrats to act like Democrats, especially when Bush came out with a legislative program perfectly tailored for a national Republican electorate: tax cuts, notifying parents about abortions, and cracking down on the social promotion of failing students. In response, Democrats drew the battle lines for the session: “Kids versus cuts.”
In the end, the Santa Claus surplus provided ample money for kids and cuts. The teachers got a big raise, working families got a children’s health insurance program, college students got a scholarship fund, and the schools benefited from $800 million in new spending. Bush got most of his tax cuts, his plan to stop social promotion, and his abortion bill. Meanwhile, the Legislature was able to clear the table of some unfinished business: electricity deregulation, phone competition, and to everyone’s amazement, the first serious step toward cleaning up Texas’ biggest air polluters.
We watched it all, from Bush’s State of the State speech to the dramatics of the last weekend, when the session still hung in the balance. In choosing the Ten Best and Ten Worst legislators, we judged lawmakers by their reputations inside the Capitol community. On the Best list, the criteria were leadership, character, a strong desire to solve problems, and an impact on the big issues of the session. For the Ten Worst list, we looked for legislators who failed to work and play well with others or who lacked respect for such basic values of politics as compromise, hard work, good faith, and a commitment to the public trust. The nature of politics stays the same, but the nature of the 76th Legislature was unique.
|Rob Junell||Democrat||San Angelo|
|Bill Ratliff||Republican||Mount Pleasant|
|Norma Chavez||Democrat||El Paso|
|Troy Fraser||Republican||Horseshoe Bay|
|Charlie Howard||Republican||Sugar Land|