IMAGINE A KITTEN, VERY CURIOUS BUT EASILY FRIGHTENED: That was the Seventy-ninth Legislature. It poked around school finance, pawed at tax reform, heard loud shouts of “No!”, fled to Mama, curled up, and went to sleep. Lawmakers did a lot of exploring, learned a lot about the world, even grew up a little, but in the end they obeyed their instincts and took refuge in the safety of cultural issues. As a result, this legislature will be remembered not for what it did but for what it didn’t do: fix the biggest problems facing the state.
The session did see a few accomplishments—reforms of workers’ compensation and Child Protective Services, as well as a state budget that undid much of the damage caused by the $10 billion revenue shortfall in 2003. Many other big issues, though, failed to get resolved and ended in frantic eleventh-hour negotiations that proved to be too little, too late. A major reason for the lack of success was the worst antipathy between the House and the Senate in memory, fed by the hostility between their presiding officers, Speaker Tom Craddick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
When time ran out on May 30, the biggest political question in the state—Can the Republicans govern?—continued to have the unsatisfying answer, “Not yet.” Rank-and-file members dreaded having to vote for new taxes, even if the revenue was earmarked for reducing property taxes and fixing the school finance mess. In the House, particularly, there was a sizable number of members who were tempted to desert their leadership on some issues—moderate Republicans who would have liked to have seen more GOP support for public schools, conservative Democrats who would have liked to have voted for sales taxes—but couldn’t, for fear of getting opponents in the 2006 primary. Partisan feelings weren’t as heated as they were in 2003, but party lines were just as hard to cross.
In compiling our list of the Best and Worst Legislators, we relied, as usual, on our observations of the Legislature at work, in committees and in floor debate, as well as our interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists, and staff. We gave the most weight to events that took place in public and are part of the permanent record of the session. We did not impose our personal views about legislation, with one exception: Texas Monthly has a 32-year history of believing that the future of this state depends upon its public schools and the Legislature’s support of them.
Our objective is to produce a list that reflects a consensus of the Capitol community, though we recognize that universal agreement is impossible. In choosing Best Legislators, we look for members who put public policy ahead of partisan politics, who make major contributions to the big issues of the session, and who work and play well with others. The surest way to end up on the Worst list is to do public harm, either through bad legislation or bad behavior.
One more thing: please, no cracks about how hard it is to find ten folks for the Best list. It’s no joke. Nor is there anything funny about how easy it is to find ten Worsts. Especially this year.
THE BEST: Senator Steve Ogden
SUBMERGED FOR months at a time, working in cramped quarters with diverse personalities, tending a finicky machine that could blow sky-high: That was Ogden’s job as chief engineer of a nuclear submarine after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy—and also this session as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. From his basement office, he commanded the committee in crafting the session’s greatest success: a $140 billion state budget that restored drastic cuts in education and social services from two years ago and—surprise, surprise—sent buckets of money to Texas A&M.
Ogden’s military bearing and training are both his greatest strength and greatest vulnerability. Unflappable in a storm (as when Republican colleagues had “heartburn”—a voguish term for political fear—over a school finance plan that had been thrust upon them by Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst), he did what he had to do to protect the state’s budget, even if it meant falling on his sword by supporting a motion to cut off debate, a no-no in the Senate. Ogden took the heat—and lots of it—although the episode could have been avoided had the Senate begun work on the bill earlier, to allow vetting of members’ proposed changes.
But there appear to be no lasting repercussions. His fellow senators regard him as a leader, even if he is a work in progress. He still has flashes of impatience, cutting off testimony at committee hearings with “Okay. Just tell us what you need.” He’s a very good senator who rises above ideology on issues other than abortion, but the Senate needs him to be a great senator in the mold of a recent finance chairman, Bill Ratliff. That kind of leadership can’t be taught, even at Annapolis.
Rookies of the Year
Rafael Anchia (D, Dallas) The Tulane-educated lawyer had big shoes to fill as the successor to perennial Best Legislator Steve Wolens and got off to a promising start as a force in floor debate. His finest moment came during the fight over school vouchers, when he criticized the proposal’s sponsor, Kent Grusendorf, of Arlington, for forcing vouchers on urban school districts while exempting his own suburban district. “Let’s say both you and I had bad backs,” Anchía said, “and I have an elixir that says, ‘This will cure your back.’ I’m going to have you drink the elixir without even trying it [myself], because I’d prefer you to have the risk rather than me.” When the House got through voting, the risk was all Grusendorf’s.
John Otto (R, Dayton) Just when it seemed that the leadership’s tax bill was headed for certain defeat in the House, because neither Republicans nor Democrats understood what it did, Otto saved the day with his lucid explanations and cool demeanor. When the longtime certified public accountant began fielding questions, an influential Democrat, Vilma Luna, of Corpus Christi, challenged him: “Excuse me. Are you telling me that a freshman member of the House is going to explain this to me?” But when Otto was through, an impressed Luna said, “You didn’t do so bad as a freshman.” No rookie in recent years has had such an impact on a session.
The Bucky Award
Named for Bucky Dent, a former New York Yankees infielder who, in 1978, emerged from obscurity to hit a historic home run, this award honors the lawmaker whose single act made the biggest contribution to the session. It goes to Republican Will Hartnett, of Dallas, whose outstanding legal work settled a potentially explosive election challenge by GOP heavyweight Talmadge Heflin and restored a little civility to the House of Representatives.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, which joined forces to support a bill requiring written or videotaped consent by drivers before law officers can conduct searches at traffic stops.
Best New Additions to the Legislative Lexicon
sausage n: bad legislation; originally part of a joke: “Two things you should never see being made are sausage and legislation.” Now used generally to refer to major bills of dubious merit.
Kool-Aid n: the metaphorical drink served by the leadership to facilitate the consumption of sausage by recalcitrant lawmakers: “Craddick makes them drink the Kool-Aid.”
Rob Eissler, (R, The Woodlands): “If the cloning bill passes, I’ll be beside myself.”
Senator Kim Brimer (R, Fort Worth), for resolving the Senate deadlock over taxes
Carter Casteel (R, New Braunfels), a rare GOP champion for teachers
Warren Chisum (R, Pampa), for his best-in-show debating skills
Scott Hochberg (D, Houston), for his expert opposition to GOP education policy
Lois Kolkhorst (R, Brenham), an emerging leader in the country-gal mold
Vilma Luna (D, Corpus Christi), the go-to lawmaker for health care advocates
Brian McCall (R, Plano), a model of propriety and hard work
Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D, El Paso), the conscience of the Senate (which doesn’t want one)
Senator Todd Staples (R, Palestine), whose senatorial skills match his statewide ambitions
Senator Royce West (D, Dallas), for successfully defending the top 10 percent rule in college admissions
The third time wasn’t the charm. The state’s three top leaders began wrestling with how to fund the public schools in 2003. After two regular sessions of the Legislature and a special session in between, Robin Hood still lives, school finance still relies too heavily on property taxes, and public education still awaits meaningful reform. As surely everyone knows by now, Governor Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick are not exactly best buds. The session’s failure is to a large degree their failure to get along, and that is why they deserve a dishonorable mention.
Perry was AWOL for most of the session. He finally engaged in school finance on the last weekend, moving House and Senate negotiators closer, but he couldn’t close the deal. If he had been willing to address the funding problems of public schools instead of their critics’ concerns, he might have been able to break the logjam.
No one wanted to end the school finance stalemate more than Dewhurst, and no one worked harder to accomplish it. But his top-down management style got in the way. Had he heeded warnings from senators who had misgivings about his idea for a statewide property tax, he might have avoided the near fiasco that forced the Senate to scramble for a tax plan late in the calendar. But the truth is that even had the Senate come out with a plan weeks earlier, Dewhurst would have had a hard time selling it to Craddick.
The Speaker wanted to wait until after the Supreme Court decides (probably this fall) whether the current school finance scheme is constitutional, and he usually gets what he wants, especially when all it takes is intransigence—his special gift. He barely mustered the votes to pass a tax bill that cut property taxes and raised new revenue and is keenly aware he might not be able to do so again—unless lawmakers have to pass a bill to keep the court from closing the schools.
Oh, well. There’s always the fourth time.
The concept of “furniture” originated in the early years of the Legislature to describe members who were no more consequential than their desks, chairs, inkwells, and spittoons—the equivalent of backbenchers in Parliament. Today the term is only mildly pejorative; the sin lies not in being furniture but in failing to recognize it. Here is the furniture list for the Seventy-ninth Legislature:
[ New Furniture ]
Charles “Doc” Anderson (R, Waco)
Roy Blake Jr. (R, Nacogdoches)
[ Used Furniture ]
Betty Brown (R, Athens)
Scott Campbell (R, San Angelo)
Jesse Jones (D, Dallas)
Chente Quintanilla (D, El Paso)
Debbie Riddle (R, Houston)
Senator Craig Estes (R, Wichita Falls)