Democrat, Brownsville, 44. Rene Oliveira ran the Ways and Means Committee like an accident looking for a place to happen. And he found it—on the House floor. He put himself on a collision course with Governor Bush over tax cuts, and the wreck was spectacular. Oliveira’s reputation and authority did not survive.
Oliveira never had a kind thing to say about the governor’s proposals for a tax credit for new research and development facilities and for cutting taxes on Internet services. He made a deal on the R&D bill to give companies an extra incentive to locate in impoverished areas (e.g., his district), agreed to sponsor the bill, and then sat on it. Instead, he pressed forward with his own package of sales-tax cuts, targeted to help low- and middle-income consumers, on such items as diapers, over-the-counter medicine, and school supplies and clothing. A second grader could have figured out that the final tax-cut package was destined to be half -yours-half-mine, but Oliveira wanted it all. He kept Bush’s program bottled up in committee and sent his own to the floor for approval. He never saw the Republican revolt coming, never worked the floor to line up Democratic votes, never got the license plate number of the truck that hit him.
No sooner had he announced his intention to have all tax cuts expire after two years than he was confronted by Tom Craddick of Midland, the former Ways and Means chairman who lost his job to Oliveira this year. “Why should we sunset a tax cut?” Craddick wanted to know. Oliveira’s answer was about position, not policy: “In the future, at least while I’m in charge of Ways and Means…we should in many instances be looking at whether or not these things should be renewed.” Craddick proceeded to demonstrate that Oliveira was no longer in charge. The House voted down his attempt to sunset tax cuts, gutted his effort to limit the tax cut on medicine to children and senior citizens, and greatly expanded a tax break for small businesses. Rather than let the Republicans take aim at yet another bill, the Democrats made the embarrassing decision to send it back to committee. Better to run away and live to fight another day.
Except it wasn’t. Late in the session, Oliveira brought the R&D bill to the floor at last, only to have Craddick discover that some areas of the state had been dropped from the bill. Angry members wanted to know what had happened; Oliveira couldn’t, or wouldn’t, offer a satisfactory explanation. The bill was killed on a point of order and ultimately became law as part of another package, sponsored by a Republican. Oliveira had suffered another accident on that most treacherous of legislative roadways: the learning curve.