As we head into the most critical legislative session in decades—maybe ever—the question is not just, Who are the people with the most clout at the Capitol? It’s also, What do they want?
The 20th edition of the “Best & Worst Legislators” story is complete. Yesterday we posted, on Twitter and on this blog, the names of the ten Best, the ten Worst, the Bull of the Brazos, and the Rookie of the Year. Today the write-ups for all of these 22 members are available online. The full story, including honorable and dishonorable mentions, furniture, and the very special features that mark the 20th edition of the story will be available in the magazine, which will begin reaching subscribers this weekend, and on our website next week. I have been involved in nineteen of the twenty previous articles, and I cannot recall a more difficult year when it came to selecting the members on both lists. This was a session without heroes. All the usual jokes about naming 5 Bests and 15 Worsts were on point, for a change. The budget dominated everything, with the result that there were few major bills. I count three: Truitt’s effort to regulate payday loans; Ritter’s attempt to get funding for the state water plan (one of several occasions on which Perry could have exercised leadership for the state’s future but did not); and Keffer’s bill regulating hydraulic fracturing in shale formations. The rest was noise. Particularly cacophonous was the governor’s “emergency” agenda, which consisted of nothing but red meat for Republicans. Republicans got to vote on abortion, immigration, voter fraud, tort reform, and, shades of the fifties, state’s rights. Democrats got to vote no a lot. Even the major Sunset bills didn’t seem to generate any interest. You could look out across the House floor during any debate and see few members engaged. The House Republican caucus was a curious organism. Its members preferred to vote as a block, as if they lived in fear that their age-old enemies, the Democrats, might perhaps be resuscitated to offer a scintilla of opposition. The group-think voting was reminiscent of the refrain sung by the “Monarch of the Sea” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore: “I grew so rich that I was sent/by a pocket borough into Parliament/I always voted at my party’s call/and never thought of thinking for myself at all.” The anemic Democratic caucus, meanwhile, mustered up occasional resistance, mostly with parliamentary maneuvers, but the D’s were so outnumbered, and so demoralized by their election rout, that they never seemed to have a leader or a plan. Not that it would have made any difference.
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden stands like Casey at the Bat, fully wanting to score. And nothing but a base hit, or a walk, perhaps, will get him to the floor. As this week ended with the scoreboard showing naught, Ogden admitted he lacked the stroke to bring his budget up for Senate debate. He described his position in baseball terms: The right foul line is the conservatives who want no additional money taken from the rainy day fund to balance the next two-year budget. The left foul line is the liberals who want to increase taxes to avoid deep cuts in public education. Neither side has the votes to prevail, Ogden said today. “I don’t have a bill between the foul lines yet, but we’re working on it.” The dilemma for senators on both sides is they hold the most power now because the vote to debate requires two thirds vote of those present, while a House-Senate conference committee report requires a simple majority to pass. But to pay for the Senate plan, 21 votes also are required to spend money from the rainy day fund. So both votes require a combination of Republican and Democratic senators. Ogden said those holding out for more spending should give up because the Senate bill is as good as it is going to get. And as bad as his proposed two-year budget would be for Texas, politically, it probably is the best that can be passed by the current Legislature. Other than a redistricting bill, there is nothing more political than the state budget. Deciding how to spend the taxpayers’ dollars may seem like a noble task of stewardship. But it is really about chasing campaign dollars and votes. And that is what derailed the Senate budget plan this week. First, look first at the inside fight of what senators called “twosies versus threesies,” Article II Medicaid versus Article III education. Senate Republicans decided to fund nursing homes and doctor’s reimbursements ahead of higher and public education. That erased the specter of nursing homes closing across Texas. It also cooled opposition from the health care industry, which pours about $7 million into legislative campaigns every cycle. But that meant less money for education, important to Democrats.
If you think of the two-year budget passed by the Texas House as a bankruptcy filing for the State of Texas, then the budget approved by the Senate Finance Committee yesterday is a reorganization plan that requires a substantial liquidation of assets. Finance Chairman Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) and other senators who supported the plan bragged on how the Senate budget contains $12 billion more than the House budget, but the $176.5 billion Senate version still cuts $11 billion from current state services. It’s sort of like Dish Network saving Blockbuster Video from going completely out of business in bankruptcy court. Even in saving Blockbuster, Dish still plans to close hundreds of stores, putting an untold number of people out of work. It may be good for business, but not for all the employees or customers.
From Bloomberg: Texas’s reserve fund may climb to 28 percent more than officially forecast by 2013 as energy prices rally, a gain that might help the second-most populous state avoid some spending cuts, a key senator said. The fund, fed by energy taxes and forecast by the state comptroller to reach $9.4 billion by the end of August 2013, may gain much more by then, Senate Finance Committee chairman Steve Ogden, a Bryan Republican, said yesterday. “That fund could easily rise to $12 billion,” Ogden said at a committee hearing. He based his estimate on revenue increases from taxes on oil and natural-gas production in the state as energy prices climb.... * * * * I reported something similar earlier this month (See "Oil's Well that Ends Well," posted April 14.) Sales tax receipts are up over the previous year, and the rig count is up by 26% to 30%, depending upon which reporting service you prefer. The sales tax numbers are particularly encouraging:
I wonder if this is going to be a repeat of the 1980 race, when Brazos County had a powerful state senator who was defeated by an upstart. Bill Moore, known as “The Bull of the Brazos,” was up for reelection that year. Moore was one of the most powerful…
A couple of questions: 1. Did Ogden get pressure from Brazos County leaders to run? There were indications that the folks in Bryan were none too happy at the prospect that the district would be represented by someone from Williamson County. Brazos County would be unlikely to get the seat…
An amazing development. Gattis has spoken openly of his desire to be president of the United States some day. Now he is out of politics, not even running for reelection to the House. It's a double whammy, a talented member gone and the dreadful Milton Rister as a possible successor. This is more fallout from Hutchison's decision not to resign her Senate seat. It is safe to conclude that Ogden would not run for the Senate again if he were not confident of retaining the chairmanship of Senate Finance. He can have that confidence only he knows that Dewhurst will remain as lite gov and not run for Hutchison's seat if and when she were to resign. Indeed, the purveyors of the conventional wisdom around the Capitol believe that she will serve out her term to the bitter end, December 31, 2012. So why did Gattis decide to drop out? This is one case when the "need to earn a living" and "spend more time with my family" is for real. Gattis was telling colleagues that the campaign had hurt his law practice. The district is huge, going all the way into upper East Texas. Gattis had a very active opponent in Ben Bius, of Walker County (Huntsville). The Bius camp contends that the real reason Gattis dropped out was that the race was not going well for him, that they had knocked on 15,000 doors in Williamson County, that they had been running radio spots for several weeks, that Gattis was having trouble raising money from business interests that didn't like his support for legislation backed by trial lawyers. They were getting ready to send out a mailer slamming Gattis for offering what they claim is a state "public option" for health insurance, HB 2470, which established the Texas Mutual Health Benefit Plan Company. The company's board of directors would be comprised of the Executive Director of the Employees Retirement System (ERS), the Executive Director of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), and seven members appointed by the Governor. The Executive Directors of ERS and TRS would be co-presiding officers of the board.
So, what’s he really running for and how can we tell? The best clue may be Steve Ogden’s decision not to seek reelection. Ogden has been chair of Senate Finance. The likelihood is that under a different lieutenant governor, he would not be chairman again. And there’s not much reason…
Senate Republicans continue to have conversations about what to do in the event that (a) Dewhurst resigns his office to run for the Senate, or (b) opts to run for lieutenant governor again. The GOP caucus has three factions. The lines are not set in stone, and, depending on the situation, members can move from one faction to the other and back again. First you have the radical right: Williams, Fraser, Patrick, Estes. This is the group that is most outspoken on the subject of having the caucus choose one candidate to succeed Dewhurst and voting as a unit to impose that candidate on the Democrats. Others who are ideologically compatible with this group--Nelson and Ogden, to name two--have their own ambitions and are not necessarily aligned with their ideological allies. The second identifiable group is the moderates: Averitt, Carona, Duncan, Eltife, Jackson, Seliger, Wentworth. Carona has been out front for this bunch, arguing that Republicans should keep their powder dry and not commit to anyone at this early stage of the game. He makes no secret that he would like to serve as interim lieutenant governor. The third group can best be described as the undecideds. They don't want to see a repeat of what happened in 2000 after then-lite gov Perry succeeded Bush as governor: a moderate R, Bill Ratliff, garnered enough Democratic support to get elected. Neither are they comfortable with the radicals who propose to run the Senate out of the Republican caucus, transforming the Senate into a body that operates along partisan lines. This group includes Deuell, Hegar, Huffmann, Harris, Nelson, Nichols, and Ogden. Nelson could emerge from this group as a contender for light gov. Ogden's future is uncertain. He has previously said that he would make an announcement this summer about whether he will seek another term; for the moment, Dan Gattis is campaigning vigorously in Brazos County to succeed him. If Dewhurst resigns, or does not file for reelection, Ogden would surely leave, as he could not count on being chairman of Finance under a different lite gov.