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 LEGISLATORS
Dianne Delisi, R Temple
SHE IS THE MOST underrated member of the Legislature, due to her low-key style and the mind-numbing vocabulary that is designed to shield health care policy, the area in which she performs her good works, from ordinary human understanding.
A case in point: She passed a bill whose description read, “relating to the Medicaid managed care delivery system.” Perhaps if the title had been more stimulating—say, “relating to stopping the greedy HMOs and their even greedier lobbyist from putting in the fix with the bureaucracy so that the health plans make profits while local hospitals get the shaft”—more folks might have realized that she was taking on the governor, whose chief of staff happens to be her own daughter-in-law, in an effort to prevent a catastrophic loss of federal matching funds for big urban hospitals ($50 million for Dallas’s Parkland alone) that serve Medicaid patients. Maybe she would be better off if she tooted her own horn a little instead of reading in a bland monotone (“Integrated care management better aligns risk and incentives,” blah, blah, snore) and sharing credit with her Public Health Committee members. But don’t be fooled: What you see of Delisi is only 10 percent of what’s there. The rest, as with an iceberg, is submerged.
She passed two other major bills this session, one preserving funding for trauma centers and the other trying to shift Medicaid care from emergency rooms to clinics and homes. But the way she runs her committee is just as important as her legislation. “It was like the old days,” says Garnet Coleman, a partisan Houston Democrat who has long been active in health care. “There were no R’s and no D’s. Just good public policy.”
Sen. Robert Duncan, R Lubbock
WHEN HE LEARNED last year about a hazardous waste company’s plan to expand its nuclear dump in West Texas, Duncan forced a state agency to delay its okay of the project. Risking political fallout from the company’s influential investors, he championed legislation requiring hefty state fees and closer government scrutiny, only to see it killed at the last minute—and this was only the first of his brushes with radioactivity this session. From helping hammer out a compromise on asbestos litigation to negotiating the final education budget and revamping the ailing Teacher Retirement System, Duncan immersed himself in issues whose common traits were complexity, volatility, and their potentially lethal impact on his political career.
He’s the rare senator who masters both the big ideas and the details. When Senate debate gets mired in controversy over the language in a bill, keep your eye on the huddle that forms around him, a sure sign that other senators are looking to him for a technical fix that will resolve the problem. Says an admiring colleague: “He’s the best lawyer in the Senate.”
Notwithstanding his skills, he tends to frustrate other members and lobbyists who want a quick, final agreement. Mild-mannered and methodical, he sometimes makes decisions at the pace of an oak growing out of rock. Just when you think you’ve got a deal worked out, a frequent complaint goes, Duncan finds one more thing to discuss. Clearly in the Senate’s top tier, he has stood for several sessions on the brink of joining the ranks of role-model legislators whose wisdom and propriety serve as a beacon to others. He’s not there yet, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.
Dan Gattis, R Georgetown
A LOT OF HOUSE MEMBERS—and at least one reporter—showed up on the morning of March 22 expecting to see a bitter floor fight. Conspicuous on the calendar of bills to be considered that day was one dealing with tort reform, a matter about which neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to compromise. The purpose of the bill was to prevent plaintiff’s lawyers from using a flimsy pretext to file suit in a friendly court when most of the circumstances of the case occurred elsewhere. Surely the House was about to blow up, as it had in 2003.
Not this time. “All of you should be very worried about this bill,” Gattis told his colleagues, “as it is supported by both the Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.” The lion and the lamb had lain down together. Asked afterward how he had brought the warring parties to the table, Gattis said, “What the trial lawyers asked for made sense. There was no reason not to do it.”
The hope is that Gattis will be the role model for the knee-jerk GOP freshman class of 2003, heavy in numbers but light in talent and prone to slavish devotion to the party line. His stature was cemented by a Craddick appointment to serve as one of the House’s five budget negotiators in ironing out differences with the Senate. Assigned to the area of health care, Gattis went beyond the usual House negotiating position—“Hell no!”—to argue for using scarce dollars to help the “oldest, sickest, and poorest.” The result was an additional $118 million to reduce waiting lists for community care services for the elderly. If only the rest of the Class of ’03 would follow his example.
Charlie Geren, R Fort Worth
THIS IS GEREN’S second experience with a Texas Monthly best list. In 2003 his restaurant the Railhead Smokehouse was selected as one of the top fifty barbecue joints in the state. There’s more of a connection to politics than you might think: In one of the key battles of the session, Geren carved up and reduced to mush a sweeping proposal for school vouchers backed by Governor Rick Perry, Speaker Craddick, and billionaire conservative panjandrum James Leininger.
An anti-voucher coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans had the votes to defeat the proposal until those three went to work. Word spread on the House floor that reluctant Republicans were being threatened with career-ending political retaliation. By the time the debate began, the vote count was deadlocked. Twice Craddick cast a rare vote from the podium to defeat amendments that would have scuttled the bill. But opponents had exposed a weakness in the bill: The bill sponsors of the pro-voucher forces had not included their own school districts, Arlington and Irving, in the plan. If vouchers are good for our schools, their opponents kept asking, why aren’t they good for yours?
The stage was set for Geren’s lethal amendment. “[It] removes Fort Worth ISD and replaces it with Arlington ISD,” he told the House. “It takes Dallas out and puts Irving in…All I did was swap the districts so the authors of the bill could participate in the bill.” The genius of the amendment was that it allowed the anti-voucher Republicans to vote for it without voting against vouchers. This and a second Geren amendment fatally wounded the voucher plan. It took guts to stand up to raw power, but a professional barbecuer can stand the heat and not get out of the kitchen.
Fred Hill, R Richardson
THIS IS A DAVID and Goliath story, and never was there an unlikelier David. For sixteen years, Hill toiled in relative obscurity, occasionally rising to rail against drunk drivers and trial lawyers but otherwise being content to avoid the spotlight and vote an unblemished conservative record. When Craddick became Speaker in 2003, Hill’s reward was a second-tier committee chairmanship (Local Government Ways and Means), where, it appeared, he would quietly serve out his days.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Hill did his homework and decided that the top two objectives of fiscal conservatives—placing caps (strict limits) on increases in property appraisals and local government revenue increases—were bad ideas. Early in the session, he reflected on the coming fight. “What we do here won’t affect me,” he said in an interview, “but it will affect my grandchildren. After Proposition 13, California went from having one of the top five school systems to the bottom, and the loss of local revenue brought about the centralization of government. I don’t care if this defeats me for reelection. This is the worst public policy since I’ve been here.”
And off he went to do battle with not one Goliath but two: the governor and the Speaker. Craddick did everything he could to stop Hill. He took both issues away from Hill’s committee and sent them to friendlier venues. He suppressed a report Hill had written about why caps are a bad idea. But Hill assembled an unbreakable coalition of urban liberals and local-control conservatives that defeated appraisal caps and effectively gutted revenue caps. Just before the crucial vote, he took the floor to rally his troops: “The time to kill a snake is when you’ve got the hoe in your hand.” Or, he might have added, try a slingshot.
Sen. Steve Ogden, R Bryan
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.
Jim Pitts, R Waxahachie
AS WAS ONCE SAID of Theodore Roosevelt, he struck the note that the chorus awaited. In the wake of the partisan warfare that decimated House traditions in 2003, the first year of Republican rule, members on both sides of the aisle yearned for a more benign approach to lawmaking. When Pitts, the successor to vanquished bully Talmadge Heflin as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, promised to oversee the writing of a bipartisan state budget—and made good on his pledge—he doused the fires of political payback that had consumed the Capitol last session.
His chief asset was an aw-shucks personality that made him one of the guys, rather than some august personage. He spoke with a nasal twang that wrung two syllables out of words like “ten” and could get downright corny, as when he opened debate on the budget bill Goldilocks-style: “Some Texans will think we’re not spending enough. Some Texans will think we’re spending too much. The Appropriations Committee believes that this budget is juuuust right.” And it was: The draconian budget cuts of 2003 were reversed, and 94 cents out of every dollar spent went to the state’s three top priorities: education, health, and public safety.
Pitts’s job wasn’t easy. Even in the last days of the session, final approval of the budget was imperiled by an unholy coalition of fiscal conservatives with no heart and Democrats with no stake in the process. But personality occasionally trumps partisanship and ideology, and enough members wanted to see Pitts succeed that the budget passed easily. Afterward, a colleague rose to give the chairman a public tribute: “He can tell you, as he has done me, to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.”
Mike Villarreal, D San Antonio
HIS CHOSEN ROUTE to legislative heights was bipartisanship, the north face of political ascents, and the treacherous slopes he encountered were not easy to negotiate. Shunned by partisan Democrats and distrusted by partisan Republicans, he nonetheless found a way to be a major force in tax issues. No Democrat did more to distance himself from the great blob of lawmakers from both parties who go through a session without distinction.
Villarreal led the floor fight against two attempts by Governor Perry and fiscal conservatives to restrict the ability of local governments to raise money. The first battle occurred over a plan to limit increases in property tax appraisals. Proponents planned to offer compromises that might make their proposal more attractive, a tactic Villarreal likened to putting “lipstick on a pig.” His counterattack was a clever parliamentary ploy that enabled him, in effect, to slaughter the pig before the other side could apply the lipstick. The next day, another Villarreal amendment gutted an attempt to allow voters to roll back the amount of revenue local governments could raise.
An Aggie with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, Villarreal is one of the few lawmakers capable of delving into the complexities of tax issues. He labored on the Ways and Means Committee to reform the franchise tax, but his efforts ultimately came to naught, as did the tax bill itself. In the end, he voted against the bill he had helped write, because it increased “taxes for the poor and working class while giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Texans”—alienating Republicans without mollifying Democrats. It’s cold and lonely up there on the north face. Maybe next session he’ll get some company.
Sen. John Whitmire, D Houston
THE LEGISLATURE IS famous for being tough on crime. Every session brings bills that would turn misdemeanors (such as burglary of a car) into felonies and hike maximum sentences (to 99 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, for instance, instead of the current 20). Who could object to such efforts to protect the public? Whitmire, that’s who. Faced with more than a hundred bills that lengthened prison sentences, Whitmire announced that all such legislation was dead in his Senate Criminal Justice Committee. It was one of the major decisions of the session, and it stuck.
Whitmire is no bleeding heart. Rather, he understands the consequences of longer sentences: (1) Less space is available for future offenders, so that (2) the prison system will soon reach its capacity of 154,500, after which (3) prison officials are going to have to start leasing cell space in county jails and private prisons, until (4) those fill up in a year or two. And then, says Whitmire, (5) “[Texas] absolutely cannot afford what that’s going to cost.” No lawmaker saved Texas taxpayers more money this session.
That he was able to accomplish anything at all was a triumph of personal fortitude. Branded a turncoat by Democratic senators in 2003 after he abandoned their boycott of the special session on congressional redistricting, he worked to win back the trust of his colleagues, who came to see that his return to Austin kept the Republicans from obliterating Senate traditions that preserve the right of the minority to block legislation. Whitmire also ensured that Democrats would continue to have a seat at the table—and he made the most of it.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D Laredo
TO REBUT THE CHARGE that the Ten Best list is simply a popularity contest, we present Exhibit A. Imperious with her colleagues, brutal to her staff, cool to lobbyists, Zaffirini arrives before dawn to pursue her goals of improving health care for the poor and enhancing higher education opportunities with the relentlessness of a robot; session after session, she is at the top of the list of lawmakers who do the most good. This spring she restored funding for the Children’s Health Insurance and Medicaid programs in the Senate budget. When state health czar Albert Hawkins’s plan to use HMOs to lower Medicaid costs put millions of dollars in federal funding for urban hospitals at risk, she joined forces with Republican representative Dianne Delisi, of Temple, to find a workable alternative over the objections of the governor’s office.
Zaffirini’s iron resolve could wear out even the late Bob Bullock, who once advised senators: “Save yourself a lot of heartache. Just give her whatever she wants.” Says a colleague: “She’s as good as she is maddening—and she is really good.” When asked to roast Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst at an event in his honor, she arrived armed with a notebook of color-coded research. She brings equal intensity to solving complex state issues and amassing perks, such as her own 24-hour parking space, complete with a Reserved sign. Does she ever drop her steely exterior? Sure, when it suits her purpose. At a marathon meeting with House health budget negotiators, Republican representative Dan Gattis, of Georgetown, conceded a point with the magic words, “We’ll go with the Senate.” A beaming Zaffirini gushed, “You look just like Tom Cruise when you say that.”
THE WORST LEGISLATORS
Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D Austin
“HE WASN’T AS BAD as usual.” That’s the faint praise with which one of Barrientos’s colleagues damned him this session. The phrase “as bad as usual” sums up all the deficiencies Barrientos brings to the Senate: his lighter-than-air legislative program, his inability to forge relationships that might make him more effective, his unfortunate penchant for taking credit for the work of others.
It’s because of the last shortcoming that he can’t get off the hook. Lest anyone think that Austin’s hometown senator is responsible for the pay raise given to state employees, be advised that the real elbow grease and number crunching on the Senate Finance Committee was performed by Tommy Williams, of the Woodlands, a fiscal conservative who advocates a lean but well-paid public workforce and knows how to make it happen. Meanwhile, instead of using his seat on Finance to influence the budget, Barrientos puttered about with bills regulating state employee parking and naming a turnpike for Willie Nelson.
Not even the rumor that former Austin mayor Kirk Watson may challenge Barrientos in the 2006 Democratic primary inspired a better performance. Late in the session, a controversial bill headed to the Senate floor requiring cities to reimburse property owners for value lost due to regulation. Lobbyists opposing the bill amassed pledges from a majority of senators to kill it. Since the bill was aimed at Austin’s Save Our Springs ordinance, Barrientos demanded that he be allowed to lead the fight. Suddenly, the opposition lost so many supporters that they could no longer be sure of defeating the bill. But there’s no justice. In the end, Barrientos employed a parliamentary motion to kill it and took full credit—as usual.
Dwayne Bohac, R Houston
HE HAD ONE OF THE session’s biggest assignments: Pass a proposal capping increases of property tax appraisals at 5 percent per year. A priority item in Governor Perry’s legislative program, it required a constitutional amendment, so Bohac needed a supermajority of at least 100 of his 150 colleagues, a figure he couldn’t reach without some Democratic support. This was a huge opportunity for an ambitious member in just his second term.
But Bohac took time out to play a penny-ante game, proposing a bill to name U.S. 290 in Harris County in memory of Ronald Reagan. Democrats lined up to protest the intersection of highways and politics. “Do we have any freeways in Harris County named after any president from Texas?” asked one. Amendments were offered to name the highway after Dwight D. Eisenhower, LBJ, Lady Bird, Stephen F. Austin, or George H. W. Bush. Someone wondered why Bohac didn’t honor the current president Bush. “[He] is still with us,” Bohac said, “so history is to some degree still out on his success as a president.” Uh-oh. No White House Christmas card for you, buddy.
Such pandering bills are common among back-of-the-pack legislators. The problem is that Bohac wants to be front of the pack but doesn’t understand that it takes gravitas. Instead of infuriating Democrats and embarrassing Republicans—fourteen of whom declined to participate in the amendments battle by registering as “present, not voting”—he should have been rounding up votes for the bill of his life, which would soon be on the House floor. He desperately needed the support of the very members he was alienating. And he didn’t get it, in more ways than one: Three weeks later, appraisal caps went down in a resounding defeat.
Mary Denny, R Aubrey
SHE GOT MARRIED on the House floor in early May, so congratulations are in order. Unfortunately, we’ve picked out a gift that wasn’t on her bridal registry: a spot on the Worst list. Sorry, no exchanges or returns.
When she took over as chair of the Elections Committee, two things became clear: First, the committee would not be the placid backwater it had been in the past, and second, she was a pawn for a partisan agenda. Early in the session Denny filed a bill “to investigate criminal conduct related to political funds and campaigns.” The statement disguised the bill’s practical effect, which was to prevent such investigations: Any prosecutor would first have to submit his evidence to the see-no-evil Texas Ethics Commission. Was this a shot at Travis County DA Ronnie Earle, who had been probing possible campaign finance violations by, among others, Speaker Craddick? “My only motivation was to get [prosecutors] some help,” Denny said innocently. Thanks, but no thanks. Then she entombed the major ethics bill of the session, a bipartisan effort to clear up the legal ambiguities that had led to Earle’s investigation.
The bill that sealed Denny’s fate required voters to show a photo ID in addition to a voter registration card if they wanted their ballots to be counted. Democrats objected that the elderly would be disenfranchised; Republicans countered that they were trying to prevent fraud. The bill died in the Senate, only to have Denny resurrect it with a parliamentary maneuver, despite what Democrats said was her pledge not to do so. The flap over the violation of trust killed the bill again, leaving little doubt about whether her performance was for better or for worse.
Al Edwards, D Houston
“SEND A GREAT MESSAGE,” Edwards urged his colleagues as they prepared to vote on his bill banning sexually suggestive dance routines by high school cheerleaders, and the message went forth to the world loud and clear: “We’re a bunch of idiots down here.” Lest anyone miss the point, The Daily Show aired a segment called “No Child’s Sweet Behind,” in which Edwards spoke solemnly of the dangers inherent in “moving your privacy,” including “the herpes or catching AIDS.” [Cue laughter]. Correspondent Bob Wiltfong ground his own booty in Edwards’s face, and cheerleaders from Austin’s McCallum High School performed routines clad in large garbage bags that covered their not-terribly-sexy uniforms. Only one thing could have been more embarrassing to the Legislature: airing the two-hour debate over the bill itself.
Publicity seeking and self-aggrandizement are nothing new for Edwards; he once proposed cutting off the fingers of convicted drug dealers. His ego is monumental, and, sad to say, that’s not just a figure of speech. The one program he has championed over the years is state funding for a statue, to be located on the Capitol grounds, celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery. Guess whose likeness “the lawgiver” in the statue will bear? Startled spectators at a House Appropriations Committee meeting learned of Edwards’s perfidy when a furious colleague tried to shame him by offering a proposal to prohibit state funds from being used to depict a likeness of a member of the Legislature. But Edwards is beyond shaming. He long ago lost any sense of remorse that could inhibit his pursuit of self-glorification at the expense of the institution that must suffer his presence.
Sen. Mario Gallegos, D Houston
IMAGINE THAT YOU’VE been the subject of humiliating headlines involving tawdry personal conduct—a seventeen-year affair with a stripper who claims you mooched thousands of dollars from her and subjected her to emotional and physical abuse, including spankings. Wouldn’t common sense dictate that you work to redeem yourself?
Common Gallegos may be, but sense he hath not. The scandal followed him to the Capitol when his former mistress challenged whether he lived in his district, forcing his fellow senators to rule on his residency. Unfortunately, they ruled in his favor. He soon demonstrated the more mundane shortcomings he has displayed over a ten-year career. Obtuseness was on display during a discussion of a bill on the issuance of birth certificates to parents of stillborn children, which had been carefully crafted to avoid raising right-to-life hackles. Gallegos got the bright idea to expand the bill to include viable fetuses, injecting the very issue others had tried to avoid. Cluelessness reared its head when he tried to attack a proposal requiring workers to prove that their on-the-job injuries weren’t caused by drug or alcohol use in order to collect compensation. His point seemed to be that truckers have a right to barrel down the interstate snookered on Robitussin.
Few mysteries resist solution more than the meaning of a Gallegos amendment. His attempt to set standards for employees in the Child Protective Services agency produced puzzled looks: Did the amendment raise or lower current standards? After hemming and hawing, Gallegos finally pronounced, “What I’m trying to get is somebody who knows what the hell is going on.” So are we all, Senator.
Kent Grusendorf, R Arlington
THE WRONG MAN at the right time. Charged with writing a new school finance bill, Grusendorf was the John Bolton of the Texas Legislature—a man at war with the institution (public schools) and the people (educators) he was supposed to work with. No lawmaker had it in his power to do so much good, nor, thank goodness, accomplished so little.
Grusendorf produced a bill that had no support—zip, zilch—from Texas educators. Indeed, they had no input in crafting it; the bill reflected a report by an ideological think tank in California. Some ideas had merit—greater financial accountability for school districts, for example—but school finance is all about money, and here the bill was full of shams: $3 billion in “new” money for schools, which the bill did not raise; a teacher pay increase, which the bill did not fund; more money for bilingual education, which the bill allowed school districts to use for any purpose; mandates to local districts, which ate up 87 percent of the promised $3 billion. The bill was so bad that it perished in the session’s closing hours.
But its elegy had been pronounced months earlier, when Bob Griggs, a former superintendent turned Republican lawmaker, urged his House colleagues to vote against it. “This bill is just plain old junk food…It provides that sugar rush immediately, but the funding falls apart after a very short period of time. It just has no substance…I find it really ironic that we’re talking about improving nutrition in our schools when we’re willing to feed our school finance system the fiscal equivalent of a candy bar.” Given the way Grusendorf dropped the ball, let’s call it a Butterfinger.
Sen. Chris Harrıs, R Arlington
HERE’S A METAPHYSICAL issue to contemplate: Is Harris worse when he’s predictable—which is to say, a bully? Or is he worse when he’s unpredictable—which is to say, a cheat?
His temper tantrums are epic. During a key hearing on the workers’ compensation reform bill, Harris grew irate over the number of amendments his colleagues were offering, as if the legislative process was an imposition on him personally, and demanded, fruitlessly, that the committee adjourn—an action that would have sent out-of-town witnesses home without the opportunity to testify. At another meeting, he assailed a Legislative Budget Board staffer for her agency’s failure to file certain reports; to no one’s regret, he took a powder without hearing her explanation, which happened to be that she was following the proper procedure. “You got lucky. He had to go start his own committee,” joshed one senator. Said another: “I have to go. I sit on his committee. Say a prayer for us.”
His abuse of people was exceeded only by his abuse of process. Harris’s job as chairman of the Administration Committee was to oversee a calendar of bills that had been certified as noncontroversial, meaning they would be sent to the Senate floor for automatic approval. Like the church treasurer who skims the collection plate, Harris committed an unpardonable sin by slipping three of his own bills onto the calendar, even though they were not eligible—and he got caught. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst took possession of the bills and locked them in a credenza. In a Senate caucus, Harris offered to resign as chairman, but they chose to forgive him. Maybe they belong on the Worst list.
Terry Keel, R Austin
FOR ALL SAD WORDS of tongue and pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ What might have been for Keel was the placement of his name high on the list of Best Legislators. His impeccable handling of the debate over the House rules should be mandatory viewing for any lawmaker who is about to take a major piece of legislation to the floor. His longtime criticism of independent drug task forces that operate without oversight bore fruit in a bill that he co-sponsored to rein them in.
As much good as he did, though, Keel did even more harm. In the waning hours in which bills could be passed, he twice invoked the rules he knew so well to kill major legislation. One bill contained the first judicial pay raise in nine years. The second was a fiscal cleanup bill that could have brought in at least $16 million and possibly up to $400 million. Wanton acts of bill-killing for personal reasons will land a perpetrator on the Worst list every time—and it was personal. In a speech to the House, Keel announced his intention to raise a point of order against the pay raise bill—effectively killing it—and cited bad-faith negotiating on a related issue by two senators (who denied the charge), calling it “an insult not only to [himself] but to the entire House of Representatives.” Later, when the cleanup bill came up for final approval, Keel was back at the microphone to ask, “Who’s your Senate sponsor?” When the answer proved to be one of the senators Keel was mad at (as he well knew), he killed that bill too. To those who say he was justified because of Senate skullduggery, the answer is simple: Tell it to the judges.
Phil King, R Weatherford
EVEN NOW, IT’S HARD to believe how badly he bungled it. A trusted Craddick lieutenant who was no stranger to major legislation, his assignment was to pass a telecommunications package that would determine how Texas would get wired for the twenty-first century. Most legislators were with him, as were the governor, the lieutenant governor, and, of course, the Speaker. What could possibly go wrong? The answer, unfortunately for Phil King, was Phil King.
His goal was to free telephone companies, like SBC, from state regulations. He also wanted to allow them to provide video over phone lines and compete with cable operators. But King fretted that Troy Fraser, his Senate counterpart in crafting telecom policy, would kill his bills, so he decided that Machiavellian tactics were called for. Instead of passing his bills through the House, he decided to tack them onto other legislation, like a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter in hopes that the chipmunks won’t find them. One thing the Capitol is full of is chipmunks, and the bills that were vehicles for King’s approach died, fatally infected by the parasitic legislation they were carrying.
The last chance was for King to do what he should have been doing all along, which was negotiate with Fraser, no easy task in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, negotiation is not among King’s strong points. He is a zealot, a true believer in his own rightness; he championed, unsuccessfully, bills restricting stem cell research and making public how many judges (and sometimes which ones) had authorized abortions for young girls—and when the call went out for a compromise, there was nobody home.
Robert Talton, R Pasadena
SO MUCH LUNACY, so little space. When Talton approaches a microphone, you can bet that eyes will roll and tongues will wag. Take his crusade to bar gay couples from becoming foster parents. When Talton tried to tack his prohibition onto a bill reforming the Child Protective Services agency, the House was plunged into a debate on the origin of homosexuality. “It’s a learned behavior,” Talton insisted, leading one colleague to ask, “What’s the reason, then, why [some] people…who come from heterosexual families…are homosexual?” When Jane Nelson, the Senate sponsor of CPS reform, pronounced Talton’s amendment dead, he wrote her that he felt called by God to make conservatives uphold their principles.
Ever vigilant, Talton discovered a dangerous threat to the American way of life: the International Baccalaureate diploma program offered by many of Texas’s best high schools. A fellow Republican proposed a simple bill to ensure that students who completed the rigorous high school curriculum received 24 hours of college credit from state universities. But you can’t fool a man who knows a black helicopter when he sees one. “Does this program promote any internationalism?” Talton asked. “Does it have anything to do with the United Nations or UNESCO?…I’ve got a note here from their Web site where they talk about internationalism—and that’s what’s bothersome to me—instead of traditional American values.…Were you aware that the International Baccalaureate diploma was created in English”—and here comes the clincher— “and French by teachers at the International School of Geneva? Now are you telling me that it doesn’t preach internationalism?” But there’s no telling Robert Talton anything.
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.
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)
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.”