Instead we got an Eighty-second Legislature dominated by those very political ambitions, in particular the aspirations of two men: Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. Perry's anticipated presidential run meant there could be nothing that remotely resembled a tax increase, so the margins tax fix was dead on arrival. Instead, the opening weeks were spent fretting over red meat for the conservative base: chasing elusive instances of voter fraud and mandating medically unnecessary procedures for women seeking abortions. After Speaker Joe Straus let the Republican supermajority in the House pass a truly draconian budget, the pressure was on Dewhurst—who is aiming at either the U.S. Senate or the governor's chair, if Perry moves on—to do the same. The hounding from the tea party and other conservative groups was relentless, thanks in part to the increased presence of social media.
In the end, Dewhurst caved. Amid the parsing and posturing from the leadership, it was a tough session for the men and women with the rolled-up sleeves. "It was like a classroom with no teacher and no principal," as one veteran legislator put it. And unfortunately, no summer vacation either, as lawmakers were dragged back for a special session.
With this, our twentieth effort at compiling a Best and Worst list, we faced a difficult task: How do you select the ten best legislators when the worst seemed to prevail at every turn? It was not a session for big ideas—the budget battle and, to a lesser extent, redistricting sucked the air out of almost every other debate. But there was important work being done in quiet corners of the Capitol, in the meeting rooms where members who strive for good government and fairness work hard to bring competing interests to the table and hammer out thoughtful public policy. On the budget, we have tried to recognize the members who made the best of a bad situation. And the worst? As usual, they picked themselves.
DAN BRANCH R–Dallas
After his childhood friend Joe Straus became Speaker, in 2009, Dan Branch could have had any assignment he wanted. Most members would have wanted a chairmanship of one of the power committees—Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Calendars. Branch chose Higher Education. That's the essence of Branch—he doesn't care about status; he cares about making a difference. He believes that Tier I research universities are the future of the state, and he wants to be in a position where he can help more institutions achieve this status.
This was an unusual session for Higher Ed, a committee that normally does not generate a lot of noise. Most of Branch's agenda was useful tweaking: requiring students seeking Texas Grant scholarships to demonstrate academic prowess, providing new money for universities with Tier I ambitions, tying funding for state universities more directly to graduation rates. Then, into these calm waters sailed Governor Perry, flying the reform flag and blasting away at the state's flagship universities with his "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," a controversial package of ideas produced by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Suddenly the seas were choppy. A steady hand was needed, someone who could turn Perry's criticisms of higher ed in a positive direction. Straus promptly named Branch co-chairman (with Senator Judith Zaffirini) of an oversight committee for higher ed.
Branch will never be one of the more popular members. His role is that of a man apart, like a senator in the House. He represents Highland Park, one of the wealthiest areas in the state, and, like Straus, he is just too smart, successful, and straitlaced to be one of the boys. Political savants have long believed that he harbors ambitions for higher office, presumably attorney general. In the meantime, his new assignment might have some fringe benefits: Co-chair of the higher ed oversight committee is not a bad position from which to build a constituency of influential alums—and, maybe, find a way to get the governor to take some good advice.
SENATOR ROBERT DUNCAN R–Lubbock
Legislatures can't function without members like Robert Duncan. "He has become the fixer," one colleague said of the soft-spoken attorney from Lubbock, who seems to find himself doing more than his share of the Senate's heavy lifting every session. This time around Duncan spent months negotiating "loser pays," a controversial bill backed by perennial lobby heavy hitter Texans for Lawsuit Reform that forces plaintiffs to pay the other side's legal fees if a judge determines that a lawsuit is frivolous. Duncan has always been sympathetic to tort reformers, but in recent years he has pushed back against overreaching by TLR, showing an independent streak that has caused his stature to grow at the Capitol. As filed, loser pays was so hostile to plaintiffs that it was possible to actually win a suit and still have to pay the defendant's legal fees. Negotiations came to a head in mid-May with seven straight days of talks, at the end of which Duncan reached a compromise that constituted a minor miracle: A terrible bill had been pounded into a consensus document agreed to by both TLR and its archenemy, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. "Nobody but Duncan could have done that," said one participant in the negotiations.
What did Duncan do for an encore? He stepped in to jump-start the stalled negotiations on reforming the state's regulation of hurricane insurance, an issue that had the same two combatants, TLR and the TTLA, embroiled in another death match. Dallas senator John Carona, a master negotiator himself, was stuck, despite months of diligently plugging away at a compromise. Duncan couldn't rescue the deal before the clock ran out, but watch for him to play a key role when the issue comes back up during the special session.
The secret to Duncan's success is that people genuinely like him. He can occasionally sound like a professor on the Senate floor, but he doesn't demagogue, and he takes pains to never embarrass another member. As a result, when he speaks, members of both parties listen. When freshman senator Brian Birdwell tried to hike college tuition for DREAM Act students—undocumented kids who grew up in the U.S., excelled in school, and are trying to earn a green card by finishing college—Duncan rose in opposition. "This amendment doesn't solve any problems," Duncan said. "It's symbolic, and I think the symbol is not one that we'd be proud of." Birdwell, happy enough to debate the Democrats who opposed his measure, had no stomach for taking on Duncan. He withdrew his amendment and sat down.
CHARLIE GEREN R–Fort Worth
His position in the house—chair of the Administration Committee—sounds like the job description of a hapless Cold War apparatchik in the Kremlin bureaucracy, but don't be fooled: Charlie Geren is the glue that holds the Straus team together. Anything that happens in the House must go through his committee—every travel voucher, every request for a parking place, every office expense—with the result that Geren accumulates useful knowledge about members. He is the person whom Straus counts on to put out brush fires and keep his inner circle intact, the kind of guy who, if you asked him what he did all day, would reply, "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."
So what does he do all day? The answer is, everything. He's the floor manager who whispers in Straus's ear, keeps up with what committee chairs are doing, and offers advice to members who are trying to pass bills. It doesn't hurt that Geren has a personality as expansive as the Capitol dome. During freshman orientation, in early December, he bonded with the newcomers, many of whom brought with them to Austin deep anxieties about Straus, and it was under Geren's affable tutelage that many of these anxieties were relieved.
Just because Geren is friendly doesn't mean that he isn't a force to be reckoned with. When he was named to the joint committee charged with writing the school finance bill, some questioned whether he knew anything about school finance. "Well," a legislator told us, "he doesn't. But he knows something about negotiating." Geren is the proprietor of a well-known Fort Worth barbecue joint (the plastic cups display the words "Life is too short to live in Dallas"), and he has smoked many an opponent with his rhetoric. His latest victim was a constitutional amendment intended to protect religious freedom. Geren argued that it would do the opposite. "I believe in four things in this life," he said. "God, Texas, our Constitution, and football. I will not set one against the other, because no matter what happens, we all lose." As usual, Geren didn't.
WILL HARTNETT R–Dallas
What's black and brown and looks good on a lawyer? Two Dobermans. What happens when a lawyer becomes a godfather? He makes you an offer you can't understand.
Everybody likes lawyer jokes. The trouble with Will Hartnett is that he's giving lawyers a good name and spoiling the fun. Hartnett is a quiet, unassuming sort who goes about his business, session after session, with little fanfare, passing bills on such scintillating subjects as notices of lis pendens and power of attorney. Then along comes a situation where the House needs a sharp legal mind who can rise above politics and carry out the law with impartiality and integrity. When that occurs, Hartnett is first on the list of candidates.
Such a situation arose on November 2, 2010. When the results of the legislative race for District 48, in Travis County, were posted, only 16 votes, out of more than 50,000 cast, separated Democrat Donna Howard and Republican Dan Neil. A recount and an election contest were likely to follow. Speaker Straus named Hartnett to be the master of discovery, the member who would oversee the process. He had handled similar contests in other sessions but never one with such partisan overtones. Democrats wondered if Howard could get a fair deal from a House with a Republican supermajority. According to the rules, Hartnett would make his decision and forward it to a nine-member bipartisan committee; the committee could either accept his decision or send it to the House floor for a vote. When Hartnett determined that Howard had won by a mere 4 votes, the committee accepted his ruling by a 9–0 decision. His reputation for fairness and professionalism averted the specter of a partisan fight on the floor of the House.
Later in the session, Hartnett introduced an unusual piece of legislation, especially for a session in which any issue having to do with immigration or citizenship was potentially explosive. It was a resolution urging the federal government to grant a conditional green card to noncitizens who arrived in this country before the age of sixteen and have earned a high school diploma in the United States, to allow them to enlist in the armed forces and be granted citizenship after four years of service. In a bipartisan tribute to Hartnett, Democrats and Republicans fanned out across the House floor, collecting signatures in support of the resolution. It passed by a vote of 149 to 0.
JIM KEFFER R–Eastland
A primer for how to make the Ten Best list might read something like this: First, pick an important issue and introduce a bill that addresses it in a pragmatic way. Second, take on a giant industry, like oil and gas. Third, earn the praise, unusual for a Republican, of the Sierra Club, the Texas League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Last, have your legislation highlighted—in the New York Times, no less—for changing the debate on an issue of national importance.
Jim Keffer's bill deals with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, a process in which oil companies inject a cocktail of chemicals under high pressure into energy-rich formations in order to make extraction more efficient. The process has become controversial in recent years, largely because formations like the Barnett Shale, in North Texas, underlie populated areas, creating concerns among residents about contamination of groundwater. Keffer's bill requires companies to disclose the chemicals being used in each well—over some industry objections—while providing a method for addressing companies' claims that their mix of ingredients should be considered a trade secret.
Complex bills like this one, especially those that involve entire industries, are extremely difficult to pass. Keffer's was no exception. Several companies (among them Devon and Halliburton) fought the bill, and in the end the mice nibbled enough of the cheese that the environmental groups were lukewarm about the final product. Nevertheless, the EDF's Scott Anderson was effusive in his praise of Keffer: "At the beginning of the session, the majority of the industry opposed the very concept of mandatory disclosure. Keffer stood up to them. He never wavered in his commitment to cover all chemicals."
Quiet and serious, with an almost invisible mustache and scholarly glasses, Keffer could step right into a cinematic role as headmaster at a boys' prep school. He typifies the kinds of members who once dominated the House, canny, practical-minded rural legislators (often from West Texas) who served under the speakerships of Billy Clayton, Pete Laney, and Tom Craddick. Some had an R after their names, some had a D, but all had an intuitive feel for politics that came from growing up in the country. Those days are almost gone now, but you'll never convince Keffer that we weren't better off with the kinds of politicians they brought to prominence than with the grim, inflexible ideologues who have come to replace them.
SENATOR STEVE OGDEN R–Bryan
On May 3, as the Senate debated whether or not to bring to the floor the most important and divisive piece of legislation of the session, the budget, Democrats rose one after the other to speak in protest. It is customary at such times to begin by praising the chair of the committee that has produced the bill, but considering how angry the Democrats were about the budget, you might have assumed that their paeans would be hollow. In fact, they seemed remarkably sincere, which tells you everything you need to know about Finance chair Steve Ogden. After a tribute from Democratic senator Mario Gallegos, Ogden gave a wan smile. "What I really need is a couple of votes," he responded. Added to the nineteen Republicans, this would have been enough to get the budget to the floor. No such luck. Instead, the lieutenant governor trampled Senate tradition by allowing the budget to be considered on a "House Bill Day," when only a simple majority vote was needed, and passed it on a party-line vote, which hadn't happened in decades.
The sequence of events captured the ambiguity of Ogden's session. The starched former submarine officer, now an oil and gas producer, labored mightily to create a budget that both Republicans and Democrats could support, but try as he might, he couldn't do it. Some would say that this was Ogden's fault. Others might say, more plausibly, that the opposition party was never going to vote for such a lean budget; still others would point the finger at Dewhurst for his flip-flop on using the Rainy Day Fund. Pick your poison. But no one would say that Ogden didn't try.
All session long, the strongest call for leadership on the budget remained Ogden's opening-day speech upon becoming president pro tempore, when he goaded his colleagues to fix the school finance system and the business margins tax. As Finance chair, he drove the Senate to produce a budget that, while lean, was far more generous than that of the House, whose leaders caved in to the governor and the tea party elements of the Republican caucus.
Is the final budget a good one? No, it's horrible. Its ruinous effects will be felt for years. But it could have been worse, and the main reason it wasn't was Ogden. When the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker were showing no leadership, Ogden was doing what he always does: finding a way to stretch every dollar, making the best of a bad situation.
MIKE VILLARREAL D–San Antonio
It was next to impossible for a Democrat to be effective in a House with a Republican supermajority, but Mike Villarreal, a wonkish Aggie with a Harvard graduate degree in public policy studies, found a way. Early in the session, he proposed an amendment to the House rules that required the Legislative Budget Board, the fiscal gurus of the Capitol, to prepare a report on the economic effect of the House appropriations bill. As a rule, nobody reads such reports, but this one was different. Villarreal had planted a nasty time bomb with a delayed fuse. When the LBB released its findings, in March, the projected numbers were front-page news: an estimated 335,000 jobs lost due to the cuts in the House bill, a projected decline in the gross state product of $19 billion, and a drop in personal income of $17.2 billion. Kablooey.
This became Villarreal's trademark: If he couldn't get the votes to pass his own bills, he could at least call attention to other people's bad legislation. Next up, a dark corner of the tax code that provided natural gas producers with a little-known tax break called a high-cost gas exemption. As was the case with the LBB report, Villarreal's research provided information that was previously unknown by most members, staffers, and lobbyists in the Capitol. His most telling revelation: The value of the tax break since 2004—some $7.4 billion in lost revenue—was more than enough to fund the shortfall in public education.
Very few members bother to do this kind of research, which is often thankless. You have to be wonky (check), driven (check), and you have to care (check). Most of all, you have to believe that you can find something important that people will actually act on, even if you're a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican legislature. You have to start somewhere.
SENATOR JOHN WHITMIRE D–Houston
In an early meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, John Whitmire waited until one of the state's budget analysts was done reciting a list of proposed cuts to programs that served kids with disabilities and then said, "I enjoy the math, but it's not putting a face on the decisions that we have to make." As the weeks passed, Whitmire's effort to "put a face on the cuts" became one of the few effectively compassionate themes in an otherwise brutal session. After 28 years in the Capitol's east wing (and 10 in the House before that), Whitmire treats the floor of the Senate like his living room, holding court from his desk in the rear of the chamber, where members from both parties gather to cut up and chew the fat. He grumbles off-mike in committee meetings like an old bachelor talking to his television. Still, when the dean talks, people listen. Republicans know he is not an ideologue; when he gets angry, the anger is real, not calculated. And they know he is somebody with whom they can make deals.
That's why Finance chair Ogden let Whitmire write the public-safety section of the Senate budget, even after he'd voted no on the health and human services portion. Despite the enormous shortfall, Whitmire, the Senate's expert on criminal justice, managed to wrangle enough money to continue his progressive prison-diversion programs, which have helped stabilize the decades-long growth in the state's prison population. For the first time in modern Texas history, the state will actually be closing a prison rather than building new ones. In a session where the budget fight overshadowed most major reform initiatives, Whitmire (along with his counterpart in the House, Jerry Madden) quietly completed his overhaul of the Texas Youth Commission, a task many years in the making. Four years after a sexual abuse scandal shocked the state, the number of kids held in state lockups has declined by more than half. Whitmire is independent, sometimes to a fault, and this had led to some legendary clashes with the leadership over the years. But that is a source of strength, according to the dean. "There's nothing they can do to me that they haven't already done," he said.
SENATOR JUDITH ZAFFIRINI D–Laredo
They say politics is the art of compromise, but nothing brings people to the table like a little bloodletting, which reminds everyone why compromise is usually a good alternative. This is why it's useful to have a veteran brawler like Judith Zaffirini on your side. All session long she waged a two-front war against two of the most powerful men in the Capitol—Rick Perry and Steve Ogden—and somehow managed to remain standing. Ogden named Flower Mound Republican Jane Nelson the chair of his subcommittee on Medicaid, but it was clear from the start that Zaffirini was the key player on the panel—charged with finding billions in cuts to the costly program—because of her encyclopedic knowledge of the health and human services budget and her ability to line up the Democratic votes Ogden desperately wanted. After personally consulting with each of the agency heads, Zaffirini presented Ogden with a bottom-line funding level she could live with in a list of critical programs. Z, as she is known, got some of what she wanted—softening many of the most painful cuts—but balked when Ogden let Nelson steer the lion's share of the money to other priorities. Ogden could have patched things up, regardless of who was in the wrong, but stubbornly refused. Zaffirini, known for her long memory when it comes to slights and insults, became a steely-eyed "no" on the budget from that moment on, and other Democrats followed her lead, dimming Ogden's prospects for a bipartisan budget.
Ogden retaliated by cutting Zaffirini out of the budget-writing loop on her other passion, higher education. But Zaffirini, who chairs the Senate's Higher Ed Committee and counts University of Texas System chancellor and Laredo native Francisco Cigarroa among her friends, refused to be sidelined. She led the successful push back against Perry's plan, hatched by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to limit research spending and make faculty compensation contingent on controversial productivity measures. She shared inside information with reporters—about the hiring of TPPF's Rick O'Donnell as a highly paid but short-lived special assistant to the UT System Board of Regents, for example—and prodded Dewhurst into naming her to a newly formed legislative oversight committee for higher ed reforms, effectively reasserting the Legislature's control over the state's institutions of higher learning.
As the session wound down, she enjoyed a last laugh of sorts in her war with Ogden too. When Perry demanded that the Senate pass a bill tying higher ed funding to graduation rates before he would sign off on a budget deal, Ogden had to get the bill out of committee in a hurry. You can guess which Senate committee it was in. "Dewhurst came to me on the floor and said, 'Now, you're going to pass out HB 9, right?'?" Zaffirini said, smiling. She passed it, all right, but not before the bill was amended to her liking.
JOHN ZERWAS R–Richmond
As corny as it sounds, John Zerwas is the closest thing the Legislature has to a saint. His job this session, as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the health care section of the budget, was to listen, in meeting after meeting, to the testimony of people who depend on services facing deep cuts. A typical hearing found the room filled with supplicants in wheelchairs, clad in ponchos as a symbolic plea for lawmakers to use the Rainy Day Fund.
They had come to the right place. Zerwas was one of the few House Republicans who unequivocally supported using the fund to cover shortfalls in health care spending, despite criticism from self-anointed fiscal watchdog Michael Quinn Sullivan. "I think that most of my colleagues are hearing the same thing that I'm hearing from my constituents," Zerwas told the Fort Bend Herald, "and this is, it's raining out there and this is money we have specifically saved for this purpose. We expect the lawmakers up here to put it to the highest and best use that they can. And I don't think the highest and best use is sitting in a savings account when we have the amount of needs out there that are not going to be met otherwise."
Health care debates are particularly challenging because they tend to inflame the passions of the true believers on the far right, but here Zerwas's training as a physician serves him well. He never engages in ideological battles, never panics. He just argues cause and effect, as a man of science is trained to do. If we don't raise provider rates, Members, then doctors and nurses will not be able to afford to treat patients. What separates Zerwas from other members is that he uses his time on the House floor to speak from his medical experience. His purpose is to educate, and in a session as hellish as this one, that was grounds for beatification.
BULL OF THE BRAZOS
TREY MARTINEZ FISCHER D–San Antonio
Acronyms are commonplace in the Capitol; they refer to agencies, funding strategies, and state programs. This session, however, the most dreaded acronyms were TMF and POO. If you wanted to alarm a Republican, you could just utter these fearsome letters, which stand, respectively, for "Trey Martinez Fischer," the San Antonio Democrat known for his combativeness, and "point of order," the parliamentary tactic with which he waged war on the majority. TMF did not come to the Legislature to play nice. Heavily outnumbered, he and his Democratic allies spent most of the session poring over bills, looking for technical flaws they could bring to the Speaker's attention. Every POO meant another huddle at Straus's desk and hours spent arguing over the rules—hours during which the Republicans could not pass their agenda.
Well-timed POOs were the Democrats' only credible weapon this session, and TMF fired them off brutally, ceaselessly, and without mercy. Unfortunately, he didn't know when to stand down. His antics eventually imploded the House. During a bitter weekend in May, setback after setback finally drove Republicans to flex their majority might and employ a rarely used procedural maneuver that shut off all debate on a contentious tort reform bill. After this, the Dems were effectively powerless. Enraged, TMF used a closing speech to turn the front mike around—an unheard-of impropriety—and scold Straus directly.
What are we to do with such a man? The Bull of the Brazos Award, named for former Bryan lawmaker William T. "Bill" Moore, honors those members for whom "the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize." Although some of TMF's critics may suggest that the "statesman" portion of his résumé is somewhat thinner than the "scoundrel" section, they will have to concede that without TMF the Democrats would have had no champion at all. He fully deserves the accolade given to the nineteenth-century Irish patriot/villain Daniel O'Connell: "The only way to deal with such a man is to hang him up and erect a statue to him under the gallows."
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
DAN HUBERTY R–Houston
If there were such elections, he would have won freshman class president by a landslide. The former president of the Humble ISD, Dan Huberty is self-assured, diligent, and willing and able to tackle tough issues. In a session fraught with partisanship, he made a point of working across the aisle, joining forces with Democrat René Oliveira to co-author a school exemption amendment to the divisive sanctuary cities bill. Huberty gives veteran members hope that someday the era of Washington-style partisan gridlock in the Texas House will come to an end.
LEO BERMAN R–Tyler
You have to give him credit. For most legislators, making the Ten Worst list is the result of an endurance run over 140 days of a regular session. Not so for Leo Berman. Weeks before the Eighty-second Legislature even convened, Berman got a huge jump on the field when he appeared on CNN to debate Anderson Cooper about the validity of a certain Hawaiian hospital document. Berman, you see, is a birther, someone who believes that Barack Obama was not born in America—and therefore should not be eligible to serve as president. He came to CNN's attention because he filed House Bill 295, prohibiting the Texas Secretary of State from certifying the name of a candidate for president or vice president unless the candidate has produced his or her original birth certificate. If Berman's bill had passed, President Obama would not have been able to run for office in Texas in 2012 unless he produced the certificate. But of course it didn't pass; this was only the latest in a long run of hopeless, embarrassing pieces of legislation from Berman over the years that do little more than draw snorts and derision from the national press corps—and phone calls from cable news producers.
On CNN, Berman's courtly behavior was impeccable (he is, it must be said, a decent sort). His arguments, alas, were not. He indirectly accused the governor of Hawaii of lying and demanded to see the certificate. Five months later, he got his chance when the White House released a copy of the original long-form birth certificate. And guess what? Berman still didn't believe it. "It will take someone like a Donald Trump to really determine whether the president has pulled the greatest swindle, the greatest hoax, in the history of the United States," he declared.
This is Berman's distinguishing characteristic: Once an idea is in his head, it's embedded. There's no reasoning with him, on birtherism or anything else. Consider the vote for House Speaker on the first day of the session. The anti-Straus forces didn't want to look like sore losers, so both Warren Chisum and Ken Paxton withdrew from the race, and the plan was to let Straus be elected by acclamation. This was carefully explained to Berman, but to no avail. When the motion was made, Berman couldn't help himself: His right hand shot skyward in defiance.
DENNIS BONNEN R–Angleton
The Eighty-second Legislature was a mad, mad, mad, mad world for Dennis Bonnen, and no one was madder than Bonnen himself. Perhaps it was his committee assignments. It was said that he wanted to be chairman of Calendars, and he didn't get it. The chairmanship of the Sunset Committee was offered but he didn't want it and remained vice chair. The rest of his assignments were good: chairman of the Select Committee on Voter Identification and Voter Fraud and seats on Transportation and Higher Education. Few members had such a diverse portfolio, and yet Bonnen continued to play the enfant terrible of the House. He wanted to put the University Interscholastic League under the scrutiny of the Sunset process; when it didn't happen, he erupted into a rant of accusations that a Democrat was blocking him. During the session, he offered virtually no help to Glenn Hegar, his Senate cohort in overseeing Sunset, leaving Hegar to do all the heavy lifting. Similarly, he punted on the bills in his voter fraud committee and had them re-referred to the Elections Committee. He was also a frequent no-show on Higher Ed.
This was not the Dennis Bonnen members had known in past sessions, the man so intrigued by politics that he'd begun his public service as a House sergeant at arms. This year he drifted petulantly through the chamber; his biggest contribution was presiding from the lectern in Joe Straus's stead. Any hope that he would elevate his behavior evaporated in the closing days with a series of peevish maneuvers. First he tried to stick an amendment on a pollution bill that, to quote an opponent, "basically gave immunity to an [industrial facility] for damaging someone's property." The amendment was so awful that the bill's backers were forced to disavow it. A couple of days later, Bonnen followed up this performance with a churlish question from the back mike regarding the whereabouts of the Speaker and his chief of staff—never mind that everyone knew that negotiations involving the House leadership were going on all over the Capitol. Finally, as the last minutes for passing bills were ticking away on the night before sine die, he made a motion to suspend the midnight deadline for passing bills and consider every remaining bill on the calendar, a rare and frowned-upon procedure. Luckily the motion did not pass. And with that, Bonnen blew out of the Eighty-second Legislature just as he had blown in, mad, mad, mad, mad.
WAYNE CHRISTIAN R–Center
It's not easy to make the Ten Worst list in back-to-back sessions, so let's all take our hats off to Wayne Christian. He wanted it; he worked hard for it; he earned it.
Christian is the former head of the Texas Conservative Coalition in the House, and he envisions himself the enforcer of conservative orthodoxy. Last summer he hatched a nefarious scheme that enabled him to become the chairman of the platform committee at the Republican state convention; his intention was to include the agenda of the TCC as part of the platform and punish fellow Republicans who didn't vote as he wished. Fortunately, state party chairman Steve Munisteri foiled Christian's plan, leaving him with little to do but plot symbolic acts of culture war terrorism. When the session began, he had a number of these rhetorical IEDs ready to go. There was, for example, his amendment requiring universities to ensure that 10 percent of their courses provide instruction in Western civilization. Boom! Black and Hispanic Democrats crowded the back mike, inquiring whether African American studies or Mexican American studies would be included in Western civilization. It was clear that Christian relished the heat of battle. He was driving the Democrats crazy! How about another amendment? This one required any university that spent funds on a gender and sexuality center "focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues" to spend a like amount on a "traditional and family values center." Boom!
When he wasn't pursuing the culture wars, Christian was doing his best to fracture the Republican delegation. There were his emails to the constituents of other members of the TCC, blasting fellow lawmakers for supposed lapses in conservative judgment. And his "Legislative Updates," posted each week on YouTube, in which he accused leading House Republicans of being phony fiscal hawks. All of which brought to mind a bit of ancient wisdom that we would have thought was familiar to Representative Christian: "Any man may easily do harm," wrote Plato, "but not every man can do good to another."
DAVID DEWHURST R–Houston
As president of the Senate, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst presides over a chamber with 19 Republican senators and 12 Democrats, but he likes to remind reporters—lest they forget how important the presiding officer really is—that there are actually 32 people on the Senate floor. Most of his colleagues, regardless of party, will tell you that things would have run better this session with only 31. Still, Dewhurst is technically correct, and it is in that spirit that we take the unusual step of including the president of the Senate on our list of Worst Legislators. Dewhurst took a difficult situation and made it worse. His Finance chair, Steve Ogden, worked for months to build consensus among his fellow Republican senators to use the Rainy Day Fund to at least partially address the enormous shortfall in the 2012–2013 budget, despite growing pressure from Governor Perry's office not to tap the fund. Dewhurst signed off on the move in a private meeting, and Ogden finally got his budget out of committee and onto the floor.
Then Dewhurst pulled the rug out. "It was a little bit of a surprise to me," he told reporters five days after the committee voted to use the fund. A steady drumbeat of criticism from Michael Quinn Sullivan, it seems, had Dewhurst thinking about the implications for his possible run for the U.S. Senate next year. Confronted by an outraged Republican caucus, Dewhurst retreated, issuing a letter admitting that he had in fact agreed to the deal. "He still didn't seem to understand the severity of what he had done," said one Republican senator. In the days after Dewhurst's flip-flop, the Senate descended into chaos. Conservative senators, already nervous about being labeled spendthrifts, were now unsure of Dewhurst's support. They abandoned the budget deal, and Ogden was forced to pick up the pieces. In the end, the Rainy Day Fund came out of the mix. "We got rolled by Perry," as one Republican senator put it.
The episode was classic Dewhurst: not sure where he should be on any given issue, not very deft at getting there. Even when the lite guv tried to do the right thing this session, his instincts were poor—as in the airport screener "groping" sideshow that erupted in the last week of the session. Alarmed by an eleventh-hour warning from the Transportation Security Administration that flights in Texas might have to be canceled if the state tried to prosecute TSA screeners for inappropriate touching, Dewhurst decided that the bill, sponsored by conservative standard-bearer Dan Patrick, was a bad idea. So far so good. But, according to senators on the floor at the time, rather than directly confront Patrick, Dewhurst quietly asked Austin Democrat Kirk Watson to line up "no" votes—while Patrick was busy laying out the bill. When the bill went down, Dewhurst clumsily tried to place the blame on Watson, but an angry Patrick—whose own instincts rarely let him down—saw through the subterfuge and immediately went on the attack. Two days later, after questioning whether Dewhurst had what it took to stand up to the federal government, Patrick announced his own U.S. Senate exploratory committee. Ladies and gentlemen, the lieutenant governor, rolled again.
SENATOR TROY FRASER R–Horseshoe Bay
Troy Fraser's opponents complain that the hulking Hill Country Republican likes to throw his weight around, but having him on your side of an issue can be dangerous too. Take solar energy. Last session, as chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee, Fraser tried and failed to pass a bill promoting the state's budding solar industry. Bumped down this session to the Natural Resources Committee, Fraser insisted on keeping utility regulation in his domain, giving him another shot at the solar incentives bill. He did not make the most of it. Fraser nudged aside a proposal from Kirk Watson in favor of his own measure, which called for a fee on utility bills to support a solar panel rebate program. But Fraser couldn't—or wouldn't—generate enough consensus to get the bill out of his own committee. "That's classic Fraser," said one Capitol insider. "Insisting on controlling the play, then failing to make any play at all."
"When he gets interested in something, he's actually quite sharp," one lobbyist said. "But his field of interest is pretty narrow." How narrow? Fraser's Natural Resources Committee handles all pollution bills. His counterpart in the House, Jim Keffer, negotiated all session long with the natural gas industry on legislation to regulate fracking, and the bill Keffer finally passed out of the House generated considerable media attention. But Fraser must have been watching a different channel. "We're two weeks away from the end of the session," he complained when the bill hit his committee, "and I found out about it three days ago." We could go on, but we'll stop there. Doesn't that pretty much say it all?
SENATOR JANE NELSON R–Flower Mound
Jane Nelson spotted something she didn't like at a March 14 meeting of the subcommittee she chaired on Medicaid, the state's health insurance program for poor children, pregnant women, the disabled, and nursing home residents. In light of the enormous budget shortfall, she had been asked to find cost-saving opportunities in the program, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the state's entire annual budget. "This contact lens benefit drives me absolutely crazy!" she said. "I have two schoolteacher daughters, and neither one of them have contact lenses covered. Is there some medical reason why a person would have to have contact lenses over eyeglasses?" Well, yes: Only people who have had cataract surgery qualify, an agency representative told Nelson, and the savings from cutting the benefit would be minimal. "I see that, but that one drives me crazy," Nelson replied. It was one of many moments this session that crystallized why Nelson was such a poor choice to oversee this part of the state's budget: There is a knowledge gap, which—given the will—is perhaps correctable, but there is also a compassion gap, which is perhaps not.
Cutting billions from Medicaid was one of two thankless tasks doled out by Senate Finance chair Steve Ogden; the other—cutting $4 billion from public education—was given to Plano Republican Florence Shapiro. The two committees were a study in contrast, with Shapiro's running relatively smoothly and Nelson's veering all over the highway. Republicans Bob Deuell and Kevin Eltife found themselves reaching across the aisle to join social services stalwarts Judith Zaffirini and John Whitmire in putting the brakes on shortsighted cuts, as Nelson, who has emerged as a kind of party whip for the Senate's right wing, rolled her eyes and grew more and more frustrated. "Let's put a face on the taxpayer" was her memorable response when Whitmire urged his colleagues to "put a face on the cuts"—as though low-income Texans are somehow exempt from paying the same regressive sales tax everyone else pays.
Nelson's bill to expand Medicaid managed care will help close the gap somewhat, if it passes in the special session. But in the end, the budget largely punted on Medicaid, shorting caseload growth by roughly $4.8 billion—which we will have to pay, most likely from the Rainy Day Fund, in 2013—and assigning phantom savings to riders requesting waivers from Washington that are unlikely to be granted. The only real effort to address the underlying cost drivers in Medicaid were found in a package of reforms that could gradually move us in the direction of rewarding doctors not for the number of procedures they perform but for keeping patients healthy. Nelson's name is on those bills, but everyone knows the ideas in them are Dewhurst's, as was the political muscle that got them out of the Senate. Nelson's name is also on the Interstate Health Care Compact bill, a vain effort to wrest control of the state's Medicaid program from the federal government. More of a poke in the eye at Washington than a sincere effort at reform, the bill isn't worth the considerable time the Legislature has already devoted to it. Nelson didn't think that one up either, but the spirit of the bill is 100 percent Jane.
A legislative accident waiting for a place to happen. Larry Phillips desperately wants to be a respected player in the big game, but even after five sessions, he has yet to figure out that respect can't be manipulated; it has to be earned. His first impulse in any situation is to try to demonstrate that he's a big shot, which is a sure sign that he isn't. He got off to a bad start last fall, becoming embroiled in controversy concerning perceived threats made on behalf of the incumbent Joe Straus during the Speaker's race. Phillips denied involvement, and a probe by the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee proved inconclusive, but the episode still hung like a cloud over the beginning of the session.
Meanwhile, Phillips was busy doing the sorts of things that win you a nomination for the Worst list: heckling colleagues from his perch near the back mike with witticisms like "You're wrong!" Or tacking bad amendments onto innocent bills. We see a glimmer of hope in Phillips. He has talent and moxie. The missing ingredient is work ethic. Somewhere along the line, he appears to have come to the conclusion that because he is a committee chairman (Transportation), he doesn't have to do his homework and he doesn't have to be able to give a clear description of what his bills do. Consequently, members don't trust him. This was evident during debate on the TxDOT sunset bill, when he painfully tried to explain why his proposal to expand the role of the state infrastructure bank was a good idea. At the very least, he should have been aware that many members are suspicious of anything TxDOT wants. The only way to succeed was to make a strong case for the bank, but his inability to articulate the policy issues doomed his efforts. A slow learner, he tried to tack an amendment onto an unrelated bill to help deer breeders, despite a previous agreement by stakeholders to forgo changes to the bill. He failed again. The lesson is straight from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared.
BURT SOLOMONS R–Carrollton
Burt Solomons is the House's leading expert on the rules. He chairs the Redistricting Committee. He shepherded the controversial sanctuary cities bill to passage. He's one of the "cardinals" who constitute the Straus leadership team. So what is he doing on the Worst list? The answer is that Solomons's propensity to be a bully raged out of control this session, like a grass fire in August that no one could put out.
Here is a documented tale of Solomons at work. The House redistricting map has been completed. The time has come for Solomons to meet with members and win their approval of the new districts. He ushers into the room a fellow Republican, a supporter of Speaker Straus's. "You have ten minutes to sign," Solomons thunders, "or I'll draw your district for you." The member protests that Solomons has removed several key areas and institutions from his district. Solomons is unmoved. It takes an appeal to the Speaker's office to get the member's district put back together.
Here's another story. Solomons has worked for several sessions on legislation to curb the abuses of homeowners' associations. His Senate sponsor, Royce West, has negotiated with builders, management companies, and other stakeholders to get an agreed-on bill. This is quite a feat. What does Solomons do? He makes major changes to West's version, changes that none of the stakeholders have seen and for which there has been no public testimony, input, or discussion. What's his explanation? The Quorum Report, which covered the committee meeting at which Solomons made the changes, quoted him as saying, "I conducted unilateral negotiations: I negotiated with myself." Phil King, an old adversary, puts an end to the saga by offering a complete floor substitute, killing Solomons's bill.
The truth is, no one likes to see a member as able as Solomons fall from grace. The decision to put him on the Worst list was a difficult one. We thought about bringing him into the discussion, but in the end, we decided to follow Burt's lead. We negotiated with ourselves.
SENATOR JEFF WENTWORTH R–San Antonio
Jeff Wentworth never wanted to come back this session, and many of his colleagues wish he hadn't. Wentworth wanted instead to be named chancellor of the Texas State University System, but he lost out last summer to then state representative Brian McCall. His decidedly unstatesman-like letter of protest to the Texas State board of regents—he was "personally offended" that a "Johnny-come-lately opportunist" was chosen over him—offered a hint of the type of legislator we would see this session: not the respected independent thinker of past years but a more obstinate, irascible, and angry version of ?his former self.
Deprived of his committee chairmanship—Dewhurst gave it to somebody else when Wentworth told him, somewhat too hopefully, that he'd be moving on—Wentworth had nothing to occupy his attention this session, aside from a strange obsession with allowing college students to carry concealed handguns on campus. "Campus carry," as it became known, was opposed by most university administrators and would have affected only a small minority of students anyway, since you have to be 21 to get a concealed handgun permit. But Wentworth, who was on the UT campus during the Charles Whitman shootings, clung to the bill as if it were his life's work. After a failed attempt to get the bill to the floor—two of his yes votes flipped on him unexpectedly—he tried for weeks to bring it back up, even refusing to pause for 24 hours so that Senator Wendy Davis, who opposed the bill, could leave town to see her daughter graduate from college. (In a display of the collegiality the Senate is supposed to be known for, Senator Kevin Eltife offered to change his vote temporarily so Davis could leave.)
Unable to get the bill to the floor, Wentworth tacked it onto Judith Zaffirini's major higher education reform bill, forcing her to temporarily pull it down rather than see his amendment become law. Wentworth then hijacked one of Senator Steve Ogden's fiscal matters bills, a painstakingly crafted compromise weeks in the making that had to pass in order for the budget to balance. When the House declared Wentworth's amendment non-germane, Ogden was obliged to ask his conservative colleagues, all big supporters of the Second Amendment, to vote to strip it off—in essence, to make an anti-gun vote.
Even Wentworth recognized how tiresome his crusade had grown by the end of the session. "I never would have taken up so much of the Senate's time if I had been allowed to bring it up the first time," Wentworth told the press table. Yes, and if the board of regents had just given him that job, we wouldn't have taken up your time with this sad story.
BILL ZEDLER R–Arlington
You sometimes have to wonder what keeps a guy like Bill Zedler going. The 67-year-old health care consultant made a name for himself in 2001 by organizing against the opening of a Hooters restaurant near his southwest Arlington neighborhood. Zedler lost that battle but won himself a spot in the Legislature, where he accomplished very little before being ousted in 2008. He returned to the House this year to find a Republican supermajority poised to impose its will on the state. Surely this was his year to shine.
And yet somehow Zedler managed to pass only three bills. It seems his agenda remained too kooky even for this Legislature. His bill prohibiting discrimination against creationists on college campuses never got a hearing, though it did gin up the requisite "crazy Texans" story in the national press. His bill preventing judges from considering "foreign and international laws" in their jurisprudence might have prompted another round of chuckling, if anybody had understood just what exactly he was talking about: making extra, extra sure that Islamic sharia law did not become the law of the land in Texas. Ditto his two bills taking on the Texas Medical Board, against which Zedler has launched a quixotic campaign on behalf of doctors he claims have been wrongly investigated. (Perhaps "quixotic" is too generous; the Texas Tribune reported that Zedler used his authority as a legislator to obtain disciplinary files on two doctors who happened to be contributors to his campaign.)
When the House was meeting, Zedler spent much of his time at his desk talking on his Bluetooth or heckling whichever Democrat was at the front mike, smiling his odd little mortician's smile. You'd think that someone who launched his political career in a group called Decency for Arlington would try a little harder to spread some of that decency in Austin. Even his effort to get in on the fun of the free-for-all that was the House budget debate—371 amendments were prefiled—was largely joyless. On a night when almost anything went, Zedler managed to define "too far": How about moving $550,000 from a program for students with disabilities and putting it toward property tax relief? In a word, no.