Every legislative session has its own narrative. The narrative of the Eighty-third Legislature was about atoning for the sins of its predecessor. To be fair, the lawmakers of the Eighty-second drew the blackest of all black beans: a $27 billion shortfall, which necessitated mammoth cuts in state services (more on that in the Worst list). The Eighty-third was a different story entirely. What had seemed to be a looming disaster simply melted away. Lawmakers returned to the Capitol to find that the state had a surplus of $8.8 billion and an overflowing Rainy Day Fund. By the time they put the finishing touches on the new budget, most of the cuts inflicted two years ago had been reversed. Moreover, budget writers took advantage of the situation to tend to some long-neglected needs, including water. (The most notable failure in this regard was to find some middle ground on Medicaid expansion, which would have gone a long way toward improving the health care crisis among our poorest residents.) And in response to a huge backlash from teachers and parents on high-stakes testing, the Legislature passed one of the most sweeping education bills in recent memory, which lowered the number of end-of-course exams required for graduation and expanded pathways to earning a diploma. Under such bright skies, it was a collegial session. The Senate, which was expected to take a turn to the right because of the addition of five new conservative members, retained its friendly, clubby character. And the House implemented “purple Thursdays,” as R’s and D’s alike demonstrated their disdain for the red-blue divide in American politics. But money only eases tensions; it does not change character. The fundamentals of Texas politics remained in place. Notwithstanding an oh-so-modest rebound by Democrats, this remains a conservative state, where the tea party is a presence of questionable power. One of the fascinating aspects of the session was watching two of the state’s leaders return to jobs in Austin they had campaigned to leave behind. Governor Rick Perry suffered one of the most dramatic flameouts in modern history in the 2012 Republican presidential primary; Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst was defeated in the Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate by a hard-charging Ted Cruz. With Perry and Dewhurst wounded, all eyes turned to Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican who looked to find a coalition in a splintered House of Representatives. At times, he even found one.Our role in the grand drama that is a legislative session is to be present from the first speech on day one to the last gavel on sine die. Our writers follow the session on the floors of both chambers, in committee hearings, and in backrooms, all with the ultimate aim of selecting the Ten Best and the Ten Worst legislators. Over the years, we have come to believe that the most important element in legislative politics is not party or ideology but personality. Intelligence is rarely the deciding factor in one’s political fortunes. Rather, success in politics is all about well how one plays with others: who is fair, who is trustworthy, who offers help to his colleagues. These are the things that count—in bad times as well as good. Additional research for this article by Lillie Noe and Laura Wright.
THE BEST: Representative Jimmie Don Aycock
Last session’s $5.4 billion in cuts to the public schools left the state’s education community reeling. But that wasn’t the only source of anxiety heading into the Eighty-third Legislature. To begin with, the issue’s most experienced hands would not be back: gone was Florence Shapiro, the longtime chair of the Senate Education Committee; gone was Rob Eissler, the House public education chair; and gone was Scott Hochberg, the member with the best understanding of the complexities of education funding. To make matters worse, parents were in open rebellion against standardized testing and business groups were agitating for a greater emphasis on career training. Enter Jimmie Don Aycock, a veteran member who had served on his local school board in the eighties, back when Ross Perot was overhauling the public schools. As the new education chair, Aycock’s mission was to address the concerns of a diverse group of constituents, and with folksy good humor and aw-shucks charm, he navigated the shoals that threatened to sink the boat. His solution, HB 5, reduced the number of end-of-course exams from fifteen to five and rewrote the state’s graduation requirements. But its greatest accomplishment may be its provisions for a pathway to graduation along a career or technology track, which is intended to help keep kids who are not interested in pursuing a college degree from dropping out. No bill is perfect, of course, but when the time came to punch the buttons, Aycock’s colleagues rewarded him with 145 votes—a huge show of confidence in their new chairman.
THE BEST: Senator Wendy Davis
After last night’s dramatic filibuster, read why Senator Wendy Davis made our list of 10 Best Legislators of 2013.
Wendy Davis started this session stripped of her coveted Education Committee membership—punishment, many thought, for her filibuster on the final day of the 2011 session to block the deep cuts to public education funding. But casual observers might not have noticed, because she showed up for meetings all session long, logging hours behind the dais and peppering witnesses with tough questions. During a hearing on a bill by Senator Dan Patrick that would have given tax credits to businesses to pay for private school scholarships, Davis spoke out against it: “I believe every one of those dollars should go to public schools,” she said. (Sure enough, the bill died.) She maintained a tight focus on school finance throughout the session. While she voted against the initial budget in March because it didn’t restore enough to schools, the final version—which was the result of Democratic pressure and added $3.9 billion to public education—earned her vote and her praise. On the penultimate day of the session, she opposed changes to the Texas Economic Development Act, holding that corporations relocating to Texas shouldn’t get a break on property taxes. The school finance system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, is “not a piñata that’s meant to be whacked until the goodies pour out,” Davis said.
The Harvard-educated lawyer has emerged as a prominent voice in her party, and she inspires an almost visceral dislike among some Republicans; many observers believe she will run for governor in 2014. While Davis sometimes couldn’t resist the urge to grandstand, she kept that impulse mostly in check as the session progressed, instead focusing her energies on compromise and bipartisanship. Kirk Watson, the chair of the Democratic Caucus, tapped her to help him and Republican Robert Duncan with negotiations to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System. When another of Patrick’s bills, about charter schools, came to the floor for debate in early April, Davis rose to congratulate him: “I think you’ve created a very good product here.” Dewhurst seemed surprised at Davis’s kind words. “Senator Davis, I want to compliment you on your comments,” he said. One final bit of bipartisanship before the next election cycle?
THE BEST: Senator Robert Duncan
What’s the worst thing that can be said about Robert Duncan? He’s terribly predictable. After his first session in the Senate, in 1997, Texas Monthly named him Rookie of the Year. The next time around he earned an honorable mention. As of 2011, he had been named to the Best list five times. So once again, congratulations, Senator.
The keys to Duncan’s success are his credibility, calm, and collegiality. Those traits don’t often grab headlines, but they do make him as effective as anyone in the Legislature. Duncan led the effort to reform two major public pension programs. He couldn’t have managed such a huge task alone, so he enlisted help from Democratic senators Kirk Watson and Wendy Davis; the resulting bills were a testament to bipartisanship.
Duncan is such a stalwart that he brings out the best in other legislators. In the final days of the session, both chambers were tense because the budget deal was contingent on the passage of several supporting pieces of legislation. At least one of those, relating to the state’s System Benefit Fund, which helps low-income Texans pay their electricity bills, was at risk of being torpedoed. As soon as Duncan was named to the conference committee tasked with arranging a truce, though, there was no further cause for concern. Admittedly, it took them a few hours, but the conferees emerged with a compromise: retire the fund after several years of significant rebates for eligible consumers.
At times, Duncan seemed to look for extra problems to solve. In late May the Senate passed a measure to protect women against wage discrimination, which Democratic representative Senfronia Thompson had first tried to pass ten years ago. With the midnight deadline approaching, the bill squeaked through on a 16–15 vote. Afterward, Thompson told reporters that a couple of Republicans deserved credit too, including Duncan, who had quietly approached her a few days earlier to help break the impasse. Yes, he’s predictable, all right, and Texas is all the better for it.
THE BEST: Representative Charlie Geren
An indispensable member of Team Straus, Charlie Geren is the glue that holds the House together. All session long, he was the most ubiquitous presence on the floor. One moment you’d spot him at the back microphone, helping a colleague pass a complex pension bill; the next moment he’d be saving an amendment to the budget. Along with Democrat Sylvester Turner, he is surely the most natural politician in the House, and though his formal title—chairman of the Administration Committee—may sound a bit prosaic, his role in the chamber is anything but. He praises, he berates, he inspires. His chairmanship provides him with a wealth of information about every member, and he knows how to use it. He doles out and withholds favors, and he understands how to solve a problem before it becomes a crisis. This session he even waded into a contentious Ethics Commission sunset bill by offering an amendment that would require 501(c)(4) nonprofits that engage in political activity to identify their donors. In that debate, he fired off a memorable line when Van Taylor, a tea party Republican, spoke against the amendment. Geren patiently endured the exchange, then wryly skewered Taylor’s poor reputation in the House by saying, “Members, contrary to what some of y’all might believe, I didn’t pay Van Taylor to speak against the amendment.” Indeed, it passed handily, though it was later killed in conference committee. Still, not much roils Geren’s placid surface. On the day of a key vote late in the session, when asked if he was worried about the budget bill’s prospects, he replied, “I never worry.” Sure enough, the bill passed comfortably.
THE BEST: Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa
“Very historic,” David Dewhurst told Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa after the Senate granted final passage of a measure by the veteran lawmaker to create the University of Texas Health Science Center–South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. Indeed, few bills passed during the Eighty-third Legislature will have such a profound long-term impact on any region in the state. Hinojosa’s bill also merges UT–Pan American and UT-Brownsville into a new regional “super-university,” which will enable the institution to access the $13.9 billion Permanent University Fund.
Plans to build a medical school in the Valley had been under way since the nineties, and frustration over the years of delay had been mounting, particularly after the UT Regents signed off on a plan, in early 2012, to build the state’s next med school, at UT-Austin.
Hinojosa closed the deal. He has long made a virtue of compromise, and although his own party has occasionally been frustrated that he doesn’t fight harder, the result is that the other party trusts him. That’s why he was called in for late-night negotiations as the Senate’s budget chiefs battled to keep this year’s deal from falling apart.
That same talent for finding a middle ground served the Valley well when it came to the medical school. Rather than let a blue-ribbon panel hem and haw for months over where to locate the school, Hinojosa offered an amendment to place the first two years of medical education in Hidalgo County and the third and fourth years forty miles away in Cameron County. With help from Democratic representative Eddie Lucio III, Hinojosa was able to sell the Valley delegation this regional approach.
But Hinojosa didn’t stop there. The mild-mannered former Marine quietly passed a slate of other bills, including one that expands the Texas Forensic Science Commission (which he created in 2005) and another that will collect fees from cigarette manufacturers who were not party to the state’s 1998 tobacco settlement. He also filed a bill to legalize civil unions, but that died in committee. Consider that his first challenge for 2015.
THE BEST: Representative Trey Martinez Fischer
Do not be confused: this is not the Worst list; it’s the Best list. And, yes, Trey Martinez Fischer is on it. Infamous in previous sessions as the Legislature’s enfant terrible, a member always eager to upset the nearest applecart, Martinez Fischer had a reputation as the baron of bomb-throwing and the prince of POO (shorthand for “point of order,” a legislative tactic by which bills can be crippled). Impulsive and aggressive, with the build of a linebacker, he once flouted House decorum by grabbing the front microphone during a floor debate and turning it around so that he could assail the Speaker face-to-face.
What a difference an interim makes. Martinez Fischer showed up for this session sixty pounds lighter and determined to use his skills to help and not to hinder. Central to this was his détente with Straus. The two San Antonians seemed to realize how useful they could be to each other. Martinez Fischer emerged as one of the Democrats’ key ambassadors to Straus’s office, a soldier prepared to do battle but ready to make peace. He realized that he could accomplish more by working from the inside than the outside. For his part, Straus recognized that the tea party had, by its extremism, empowered the Democrats to ride to his rescue. And he often let Martinez Fischer lead the charge.
A lawyer by training, Martinez Fischer showed his mettle on the House Transparency Committee with his tough questioning of the discredited board members of CPRIT, the state’s embattled cancer institute. And though he didn’t serve on the Appropriations Committee, as House budget negotiators walked through the east hallway of the Capitol on their way to meet with the Senate, Martinez Fischer was among them, entrusted with one of the most important tasks of the session. House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts patted him on the shoulder and said, “He’s my protection.” And he was—the budget passed, another victory secured.
THE BEST: Representative Jim Pitts
Having power doesn’t earn you a spot on the Best list. Knowing how to use it wisely does. As the chair of the Appropriations Committee, Jim Pitts could teach a master class on the subject. You can see evidence of his influence in his office on the coveted first floor of the Capitol, which is always overflowing with lawmakers, staffers, and reporters. And you can see it in the all-important budget bills that he passes. While at the front microphone, Pitts has a soothing tone and an endearing manner (in his subtle twang, “can’t” comes out as “cain’t”), and he’s learned to use this to great effect. Pitts may be the House’s foremost expert in how to avoid messy floor fights. Take the first critical issue of the session, an emergency appropriation to fund Medicaid for the current budget cycle. Pitts thoughtfully made the case for why the House needed to move quickly on the measure, but he had to gain the trust of anxious Democrats, who wanted assurances about public education dollars, and tea party Republicans, who wanted to keep spending in check. When the gavel fell, not a single red light marred the voting board. Pitts walked off to cheers, handshakes, and hugs.
But he was just getting started. A few weeks later, he would shepherd through a complex budget bill, which included $1 billion more for education than the Senate plan. It passed 135–12, with Democrat Sylvester Turner praising Pitts’s work. And then, as the session heated up and tensions began to rise, he helped negotiate a complicated deal that would get the budget across the finish line in the final days. An effective and subtle display of power? No one does it better than Jim Pitts.
THE BEST: Speaker Joe Straus
This was the year joe Straus’ supporters had been waiting for. After two sessions in which he was an often passive presence on the dais, this year he finally quit presiding over the House and figured out how to lead it. He’s still not the sort of Speaker who aggressively imposes his will on the body, but he got his way all the same. Partly this was due to the clarity of his vision for what needed to be done. As he said before the opening gavel, the state can’t cut its way to prosperity. It is a measure of the climate in Austin that, coming from the Speaker, this forgettable corporate cliché was actually a statement of political courage.
The third-term Speaker was determined to achieve five things: fund the state water plan; restore money to education after the budget cuts of 2011; address concerns over high-stakes testing; increase transparency in state government; and find a reliable funding mechanism for transportation. Only the last of these failed to happen. Though at times Straus was criticized (as usual) for not exercising a stronger hand, he earned the loyalty of his members by letting them drive the train, so long as they remained on the track. It is one of the great ironies of Texas politics that at a moment when the House chamber is a roiling cauldron of tea partiers, ultraconservatives, and clueless freshmen determined to undo the sins of the Obama administration from their offices in the Capitol Extension, the body has as its leader one of the more genteel and thoughtful Speakers in recent memory. Straus’s greatest assets are his intelligence and his temperament. Time after time, when a crisis arose, he remained unflappable. When the bill to fund the water plan failed in late April—the first hiccup of the session—Straus and his lieutenants averted a meltdown. The House at work is not a thing of beauty, more Jackson Pollock than Claude Monet, but the final package passed, even though it came down to the wire. An hour after the gavel fell on the session, Straus reflected contentedly on the events of the past 140 days: “We did what we said we were going to do.”
THE BEST: Senator Leticia Van de Putte
Leticia Van de Putte arrived at the Capitol in January with a broken foot. She was confined at first to a motorized wheelchair and later stuck with a clunky walking boot, but neither seemed to slow her down. Van de Putte has been in the Senate since 1999, and she has tended to dedicate her energy to narrowly focused, conscientious actions. This session she passed several bills aimed at helping military families. One would allow service members and their spouses to qualify for expedited occupational licensing in the state, so they can resume their work without unnecessary delays. Another established a property tax exemption for certain disabled veterans and for the surviving spouses of those killed in action. Both bills were meaningful achievements for Texas’s military families, and both were classic Van de Putte: simple and successful, if not high-profile.
But this session she also flexed a little more muscle. Every day, as a good luck gesture, she would stop to touch a bronze bust of Bob Bullock, and apparently some of the former lieutenant governor’s legendary forcefulness rubbed off. Not only did she pass human trafficking legislation, but she played a key role in the Senate’s debate over HB 5, which sought to slash the number of standardized tests students are required to take and bulk up the minimum requirements for graduation. In Van de Putte’s view, the plan was still setting the bar too low and risked perpetuating the state’s long-standing equity issues. Her amendment to establish a higher “floor of rigor” did not pass, but by introducing it she instigated one of the session’s more substantive debates with her customary dignity and tenacity.
The session ended in tragedy for Van de Putte, when her infant grandson died unexpectedly in early May. The news was heartbreaking, and her grief understandably overshadowed much of her work. Still, she carried on, a diligent lawmaker intent on making incremental progress.
THE BEST: Senator Tommy Williams
The budget determines policy, so the budget chairs are critical to the success of any session. That was certainly true in the Lege this year. Tommy Williams, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, effectively ran the chamber for the first half of the session. It was his committee that drew up the plans for backfilling the 2011 budget and drafted the 2013 budget, which will set the state’s course for the next two years.
It’s probably fair to say that some people were skeptical of Williams. In 2009 he earned a spot on the Worst list for the political damage that came from carrying the contentious voter identification bill. But the new job brought out his best side; the chair of Senate Finance has to think like an economist rather than a partisan. The first draft of the budget presented in committee was relatively lean, but Williams knew exactly what he was doing. He expected the budget to exceed that baseline—to include more funding for schools and for mental health care—but he compelled the senators to build the case for those funds by sending them off into working groups. By the time the committee brought its budget to the floor, it had held more than forty public meetings and heard countless hours of witness testimony. The result was a final budget that passed in the Senate unanimously—a far cry from 2011’s slash-and-burn version, which united nearly all the chamber’s Democrats in opposition.
In the end, Williams’s critics served to highlight the wisdom of his dispassionate approach. Would the Legislature have authorized the cuts to public education in 2011, Wendy Davis asked him on the floor, if they had known that the state would end up with a surplus two years later? “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas,” he said, his accent pushing through the room like the broad side of an oar. But Williams was equally cold-eyed in the face of his own party’s fractured fringe. Perhaps more than anyone else, he deserves credit for the decision to withdraw almost $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for the water plan—assuming voters approve it—despite the tea party’s aversion to spending anything on anything. Maybe if the Lege had a few more cooler heads, Texas would have ended up with more funding for roads too.
THE WORST: Representative Lon Burnam
Three little words: No. Learning. Curve. In terms of raw intelligence, Lon Burnam sits at the top of the class. Sadly, he receives a failing grade when it comes to presenting his ideas in a way that will gain the support of his colleagues. At the start of the session, Burnam did yeoman’s work, explaining the impact that last session’s cuts to public education had had on local school districts and reporting on the failures of the state’s half-hearted attempt to restore the women’s health program. But Burnam, who is in his ninth term, can slip into a toxic mix of smugness and sarcasm that turns the voting board red faster than a proposal for a state income tax. Every time the subject of the budget came up, he appeared at the back mike to talk about only one thing: education, education, education. For all his acumen, he has never learned the art of persuasion.
Never was this flaw more evident than during the debate over an amendment to the appropriations bill to outline several provisions that had to be met if the state decided to expand Medicaid. Republican John Zerwas, a medical doctor from Richmond who is one of the House’s most well-liked members, consulted with Burnam on the amendment, which was similar to one introduced by Republicans in the Senate. In order to placate conservatives who were suspicious of Medicaid, it called for any expansion plan to be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislative Budget Board. But rather than let Zerwas, who might have been able to reassure his fellow Republicans, carry the ball, Burnam insisted on grabbing it himself and in the process botched the opportunity. The amendment passed, but it didn’t survive for long. Nervous Republicans made a motion to reconsider the vote, and Burnam pulled down the amendment. After all these years, he still lacks an instinctive understanding of his chamber’s moods—and that should be one of the first lessons a successful lawmaker learns.
THE WORST: Senator John Carona
In the first weeks of the session, John Carona played a cameo role in the Senate’s familiar opening rituals: an invocation, half a dozen ceremonial resolutions, and a motion to excuse him on “important business.” The problem was that, after his long absence, he eventually came back. And although Carona has served in the Lege since 1990—and earned a spot on the Best list twice—it was as if he had totally forgotten how the Senate works.
His ham-fisted effort to protect the tinfoil-hat brigade against the supposed intrusion of smart meters was one example, but the most clear-cut case came with the beer bills. Texas has a three-tiered beer industry, meant to keep manufacturers, wholesale distributors, and retailers separate. Many states with similar arrangements have made exceptions so that craft breweries, say, can sell pints to people who come by for a tour. Texas was poised to do the same, thanks to a bundle of bills authored by Kevin Eltife, a Republican senator from Tyler, that were based on a series of working-group discussions on the subject. Along came Carona with a bill that would require manufacturers to sell to all distributors at the same price, effectively fixing prices. When he introduced the bill in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, which he chairs, witnesses were incredulous, pointing out that it was anticompetitive and would likely result in higher beer prices. It was also surprising, because no one had ever raised the issue in the working groups. Even some wholesalers, whom the bill presumably benefited, were leery. Carona pressed on. Either include his bill in the aforementioned package, he warned, or he would push Eltife’s beer bills to the end of the calendar, where they would surely die of neglect. The gambit worked, and all the beer bills got through, although Carona’s committee members insisted on a compromise on the price-fixing point, at least: manufacturers should be free to set their prices as long as they aren’t trying to strong-arm the distributors or “otherwise coerce illegal behavior.” Pro tip for any future legislators who may be reading this: it’s good to unite disparate groups, but you’re not supposed to unite them against you.
THE WORST: Comptroller Susan Combs
Let’s start with two simple premises. First, the $5.4 billion in cuts to education made in 2011 not only damaged the public schools but also threatened the legislative process this session because of the bad blood and lingering suspicion created by the massive reductions. Second, were it not for the poor budget forecasting of Comptroller Susan Combs, those cuts would never have happened.
Here’s why: the comptroller’s job is to monitor the state’s revenue streams and tell legislators how much they’ll have to spend every biennium. And because the state has a pay-as-you-go requirement, the comptroller’s revenue estimate is an actual restriction; lawmakers can’t spend more money than she says they can. Last time around, Combs predicted we’d have $73.4 billion to spend in the 2012–2013 biennium. But in January of this year, she announced that the state could expect to finish the biennium with an $8.8 billion “ending balance” (that’s accountant-speak for “surplus”).
We’re sympathetic to the fact that the economy has been volatile for the past few years, which makes the comptroller’s job trickier than usual. But if you take a closer look at this year’s estimate, the latest numbers show that the state had $90.2 billion available in general revenue–related funds during the 2012–2013 biennium. That’s a lot more than the $73.4 billion Combs allowed. About 23 percent more, in fact.
In other words, that $8.8 billion suggests truly excessive caution—or, to be cynical, truly excessive partisanship. Let’s not forget that at the same time that Combs was making such a conservative prediction about the budget, she (along with other statewide Republicans) was all too eager to talk about the “Texas miracle” of economic growth and job creation. Let’s also not forget the victims: not just students whose schools were affected by the cuts and the 25,000 state employees who lost their jobs to layoffs but the worthy legislative priorities this session that were made immeasurably more complex by the struggles over restoring the education cuts. But the Lege, and the state, won’t have to worry about Combs’s fuzzy math in the future. As soon as the session ended, she announced that she wouldn’t run for reelection.
THE WORST: Representative Naomi Gonzalez
The first rule of serving in the House of Representatives is, don’t bring shame upon the House of Representatives. It’s a lesson Naomi Gonzalez learned the hard way. In the early-morning hours of March 14, the sophomore legislator was arrested for drunk driving after her BMW struck another vehicle, which in turn hit a bicyclist. Even worse, the police report depicted her as uncaring in the aftermath of the accident, with the officer writing, “Never once did Ms. Gonzalez ask how the other people involved in the crash were doing, but she cried about how she had worked so hard to get where she was.” Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, but it was later determined that her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. On her first day back in the House, Gonzalez gave an emotional personal privilege speech. “I want to be clear about this,” she said, her voice breaking. “I made a mistake, and I am deeply, deeply sorry for this.” She received a standing ovation from some Democrats, but many lawmakers felt the display was inappropriate, even unseemly. Similarly awkward scenes would be repeated later in the session, such as when Gonzalez gave a peculiar speech at the front mike arguing against an amendment on the lottery, seeming to apologize because she was supporting the interests of the Native American tribes she represents. Later, in a debate on an amendment by Republican David Simpson that would have diverted money from a program to help feed poor schoolchildren, she broke down entirely, describing her difficult childhood and her ailing mother. All of which made even her supporters wonder if it was more important for her to return home to address her personal problems than to stay in Austin. After a session like this one, that’s a decision the voters may make for her.
THE WORST: Senator Kelly Hancock
As the policy chairman of the House Republican Caucus in 2011, Kelly Hancock was one of the most powerful members of the lower chamber. But his transition to the Senate hasn’t been so smooth. Hancock began his campaign for the Senate by falling into the passionate embrace of the insurance industry, racking up donations from 22 companies and organizations. When the courtship was done, Hancock’s coffers had swelled by $111,916. Now, if he’d stopped there, he might have escaped unscathed. But Hancock was a thoughtful paramour who looked for ways to return the affections of his beloved. He authored a bill to eliminate a tiny agency called the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, whose purpose is to represent and support the public in insurance cases and controversies (to make matters worse, this was not long after the agency moved to block a massive rate increase by State Farm). Hancock’s justification for eliminating OPIC was that it would save the state money. Uh, no. A simple phone call would have shown that though OPIC takes $853,926 from general revenue, the agency actually contributes $2.34 million to the treasury. Hancock may have treated his donors well, but by carrying a bill to eliminate an important protection, he left the public feeling jilted. That’ll earn you a place on the Worst list every time.
THE WORST: Representative Harvey Hilderbran
So much ambition, so little talent. Harvey Hilderbran wanted to use this session to burnish his credentials in advance of a run for comptroller. Presumably, the skills he’s learned as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee would make him a natural fit for that post. Except it’s not exactly clear what skills he’s learned. Hilderbran botched a chance to shine in May, when he was presenting HB 500, a key tax cut bill. This was an easy layup—the legislation had the governor’s full support—but Hilderbran tripped over his own feet. He offered four consecutive amendments at the start of the floor debate, only to pull them all down. Alarmed Democrats, who were already suspicious, jumped all over him at the back mike, so Hilderbran offered another amendment. He tried in vain to explain that if he had offered this new amendment first, it would have answered everyone’s questions. Except he then pulled down that amendment too. Confused? So was the rest of the House, including Harvey Hilderbran.
And it didn’t stop there. Hilderbran also gained a reputation as a health nut because he likes to get exercise. His most strenuous activity comes from ducking out of the chamber whenever there’s a tough vote: on pensions, immigration reform, vouchers, ethics, you name it. In legislative parlance, this is known as “taking a walk.” When the vote came up to raise lawmaker pensions, the chair announced, “Excuse Mr. Hilderbran on account of important business.” That was followed by a chorus of boos from the floor. Though he certainly has excuses for some of those walks—everyone misses some votes—the impression was made and the damage was done.
THE WORST: Senator Joan Huffman
Intransigence, thy name is Joan Huffman. Consider, if you will, the evidence. She initially opposed one of the session’s most celebrated bills, the Michael Morton Act, named for a Williamson County man who served nearly 25 years after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Huffman’s concerns about the bill, which requires prosecutors to share evidence with a defendant’s legal team, endangered the bill’s prospects for passage. Then there was a measure to create an innocence commission to review the convictions of the 117 people who have been exonerated in Texas, which was supported by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and passed the House handily 115–28. What was Huffman’s opinion of the proposed legislation? “There’s nothing you can do to fix this bill for me,” she fumed as she closed out her ten-minute speech in a Criminal Justice Committee hearing. Huffman, the committee’s vice chair, had rattled off twenty pieces of legislation that, in her estimation, adequately reformed Texas’s criminal justice system, making the creation of the commission unnecessary. Cory Session, the brother of Tim Cole, the state’s first posthumous DNA exoneree, was especially incensed by Huffman’s remarks: “That’s your job—to figure out what went wrong in this state,” he said. “You don’t like it? Go find another.” (Session ultimately stormed out of the hearing room, calling Huffman a name for which he later apologized.)
Huffman’s monologue, which she began by saying, “ ’Cause I’m chair, I can take as much time as I want,” helped kill the bill in committee, making her guilty of Behavior Unbecoming a Senator. But the former prosecutor and district judge, who exerts a huge influence on her colleagues when it comes to criminal justice issues, received her own punishment for practicing such bad politics. The House sponsor of the innocence commission bill, Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon, talked to death several of Huffman’s bills on the local and consent calendar. Here’s a case where an eye for an eye made perfect sense.
THE WORST: Senator Dan Patrick
There are few types of lawmakers less helpful to the legislative process than bullies and ideologues. Unfortunately, Dan Patrick too often seemed to be both in his first session as the chair of the Senate Education Committee. The Houston radio host fell into a habit of lecturing his fellow legislators, interrupting witnesses, and accusing those who disagreed with him of simply not understanding his bills. In short, he ran his committee like he runs his talk show, where the only opinion that really matters is his own.
Consider an early exchange with Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. “I just want to be on the record that we have not stepped back in rigor,” Patrick told him during a hearing on his bill to drop the number of end-of-course exams from fifteen to five and overhaul graduation requirements. “Mr. Chairman,” Williams politely said, “allow me to respectfully disagree.” But before he could continue, Patrick pounced: “Well, excuse me, Commissioner, that’s what the bill is. How can you disagree?” This behavior might win radio listeners, but it doesn’t work in the Senate.
Patrick clearly dreams big and works hard, but his high regard for his own efforts and his flair for the overdramatic often backfired. As one Republican insider put it, “At some point the other members got tired of his ‘noble causes’ and Jimmy Swaggart tearful moments.” At the session’s outset, Patrick dubbed school choice—another of his major priorities—“the civil rights issue of our time.” Fine, but during a March committee hearing, he also tried to argue that keeping homeschooled and private school students from competing in the University Interscholastic League was tantamount to excluding blacks from such sporting events in the pre–civil rights era. Patrick did enjoy some victories this session, including the bipartisan passage of his charter school bill and the controversial decision to dismantle CSCOPE, the curriculum-management tool that he insisted had an anti-American bias and was “shrouded in secrecy.” But Patrick’s stance on transparency wasn’t consistent: he made the audacious—and ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to have Republican senator Kel Seliger’s “dark money” bill, which would have required politically involved 501(c)(4) nonprofits to disclose their donors, recalled from the House one day after he had voted for it.
Did Patrick learn any lessons from his behavior? Not at all—he’s considering a run for lieutenant governor in 2014, which means his demagoguing has only just begun.
THE WORST: Representative Ron Reynolds
Ron Reynolds was a legislator destined for obscurity—until he began making the wrong kind of headlines. In March the Montgomery County district attorney issued a warrant for Reynolds’s arrest on charges of barratry (commonly known as ambulance chasing). Investigators said he was involved in a kickback scheme with seven other lawyers to pay a felon to sign up new clients who had been involved in traffic accidents. This was not Reynolds’s first rodeo; he faced the same charges in Harris County in the summer of 2012, though they were dropped after the lead investigator got into some trouble of his own and was accused of tainting the evidence. And a year before that he found himself in hot water with the Ethics Commission for failing to file campaign finance disclosures. Indeed, he’d skipped out on more than $10,000 in fines before he was finally taken to court by the attorney general, which prompted the comptroller’s office to place a “warrant hold” on Reynolds’ state reimbursement checks to collect the money.
With all those pesky distractions, it’s no wonder that his legislative agenda was as thin as his principles. And while Reynolds maintains his innocence in his most recent case, there’s no doubt about the punishment for bringing dishonor to the Legislature: a spot on the Worst list. And we’re afraid there is no appeal for that.
THE WORST: Representative Van Taylor
Remember the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?Apparently it never found its way to Van Taylor’s bookshelf. Though no one doubts the decorated Marine platoon commander’s intelligence, he seems to have never learned how to play well with others. In debate after debate, Taylor elicited groans from the leaders of his own party when he approached the back microphone (and the front microphone, and the back mike again) to argue against using the Rainy Day Fund for water infrastructure, something both Perry and Straus supported. However, it was a lower-profile topic that set the stage for one of the most memorable moments of the session. Taylor was firmly against a bill by Democrat Ruth Jones McClendon that would authorize a pilot needle-exchange program for drug addicts. When McClendon introduced the measure, which was also supported by some key Republicans, Taylor rose in opposition. With a smugness reserved for the truly self-absorbed, he barraged her with condescending questions about why she wanted to give free needles to drug addicts. Though the measure ultimately went down 69–67, Taylor piled on by making a motion to reconsider and table it, a rarely used stratagem of parliamentary overkill that amounts to using napalm to get rid of gnats. The move was so egregious that the presiding officer refused to allow it. Payback came the next day. Taylor was trying to pass a bill related to concealed-handgun licenses when an angry group of Democratic women, led by McClendon, raised their own point of order and marched down the center aisle to present it to the Speaker. In no time the objection was sustained, the bill was killed, and bipartisan cheers echoed throughout the chamber.
BULL OF THE BRAZOS: Representative Sylvester Turner
Each session produces a lawmaker who blurs the line between saint and sinner. The late senator William T. Moore, an obstreperous conservative Democrat from Bryan known as the “Bull of the Brazos,” was such a man, and this year the award named in his honor belongs to Sylvester Turner.
There he was at the back mike, passionately making the case for more dollars for education. There he was railing against the idea of drug testing welfare recipients, his distinctive voice ringing out, “Let me just tell you, it’s hell to be poor. And it’s certainly hell to be poor in the state of Texas.”
But he also called the point of order that killed the first big bill of the session, which would have drawn down $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund to help finance the water plan. For the previous three months, the House had been coasting along in peace and harmony; after that, the session was thrown off course.
Then, as sine die approached, Turner nearly derailed the complex budget package. First, according to colleagues, he complained that he had not been named to one of the key conference committees and made a vague suggestion that it was because of race. Then he got into a fight with Senate Finance chair Tommy Williams over school funding. The budget—and the session—hung in the balance.
In the end, Turner agreed to phase out a pet project of his, the System Benefit Fund, prompting one Democrat to say that Turner had “shot the hostage.” With a deal finally in place, Republican Drew Darby called Turner “the conscience of the House of Representatives.” But the question remained: Had the deal happened because of Turner’s influence? Or in spite of it? Only the Bull of the Brazos knows.
Representative Mark Strama
In his final session, Strama (pictured above) made a thoughtful case that standardized testing is essential to measuring student success and that minority groups stand to gain the most from it.
Representative Drew Darby
Republican, San Angelo
In a memorable speech, he tried to educate Republican freshmen about the need for a permanent source of funding for highways, but, alas, the newbies didn’t get it.
Senator Kirk Watson
His stewardship of the Senate democratic caucus allowed his party to keep some bills off the floor that could have derailed the session.
Representative John Zerwas
He fought hard to find a “Texas solution” for medicaid expansion, despite opposition from his own party.
Representative Lois Kolkhorst
She joined with Rick Perry to oppose Medicaid expansion, then voted against the Speaker’s budget—a no-no for a committee chair.
Representative David Simpson
After missing a vote on the budget, he raced toward the Speaker’s rostrum and accused Speaker Straus of intentionally preventing him from registering his vote.
Representative Steve Toth
Republican, The Woodlands
He filed one of the nuttiest gun bills ever: to allow the state to ignore federal laws. The Calendars committee must have been napping the day it came to the floor.
The Freshman Class
The Eighty-third Legislature brought the biggest class of freshmen to the Capitol since the Sharpstown scandal, in the early seventies: 41 in the House, 5 in the Senate (plus an open seat). And as with any freshman class, you could pick out those most likely to succeed—as well as those most likely to end up having to repeat a grade. In the Senate, Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) won over his colleagues with his intelligence and integrity; he was the only freshman in the chamber who didn’t change his vote on a transparency bill after the special interests came calling. In the House, Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell) addressed the accountability system for public school students in grades three through eight. Too bad not everyone followed these members’ example. Senator Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) stumbled in early committee hearings and was never able to erase the impression that she was out of her depth, and Representative Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) spent too much time at the back mike going off half-cocked, railing against enemies, real and imagined.
Representative Roland Gutierrez
Democrat, San Antonio
Representative Stephanie Klick
Republican, Fort Worth
Representative George Lavender
Senator José Rodríguez
Democrat, El Paso
LEADERSHIP: Governor Rick Perry
What is next for Rick Perry? He is now in his third full term as governor, and it would surprise no one if he were to seek a fourth in 2014. His governing style has hardly changed during his years in office. There are very few issues Perry really cares about. One is accountability in education, which was a major point of confrontation in the regular session. Another is infrastructure: water, electric power, and transportation. These are major issues facing the state, and unfortunately, he doesn’t spend his political capital on them. He also doesn’t get a lot of love from lawmakers, who aren’t impressed by his penchant for expensive trips, large entourages, and excessive braggadocio. But Perry has never worried about appearances. Despite his embarrassing presidential run in 2011, it is highly likely that Perry will give it another shot. In the meantime, he must decide whether to risk one more race for governor. Doing so could lead him into a head-on collision with Attorney General Greg Abbott. The question Perry must ask himself is whether he has already made the mistake of staying too long. A lot of folks—Republicans included—would answer in the affirmative.
LEADERSHIP: Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst
David Dewhurst had some solid moments this session, most notably when he stuck by the Senate’s budget writers as various factions in the House tried to blow up the whole deal. Although he took some flak for keeping a low profile, the Senate ran pretty smoothly. But when he did make an appearance, it was all too often to talk about right-wing hobbyhorses like drug testing of welfare recipients. And the fact is that although Dewhurst has often been criticized for seeming wooden, he never sounds more awkward than when he’s offering an argument that, one suspects, he doesn’t fully embrace. A smart guy, our lieutenant governor, who for some reason seems to feel obligated to play dumb. Is it because he’s afraid of the tea party? Is he haunted by the Ghost of Primaries Past? Watching the Dew, you can’t help but wish he’d consider several things. One, the tea party is a small and amorphous splinter group. Two, Ted Cruz is a once-in-a-generation political phenomenon. And three, Dewhurst would be a better leader, if only he’d let his inner wonk overrule his political consultants.