June 15, 2011

Top Ten Legislators

Honorable Mention

 

Steve Ogden
Texas Senate
Bryan Republican

MVP - Senate
When fellow Republicans were marching in lockstep to the intimidating beat of the tea party drum, Steve Ogden gave new meaning to the term independent conservative this year with one of the gutsiest and most introspective performances ever by a state lawmaker in Texas. Ogden - the upper chamber's chief budget architect as the Senate Finance Committee chairman - had the uncommon courage to admit that policies he'd helped shape in the past were a significant contributing factor to the worst state budget crisis in two dozen years. That gave him more credibility when he attempted to resolve it through a delicate balance that eschewed the Legislature's traditional band-aid approach without breaching the bounds of the no-new-taxes gospel to which Republicans had re-dedicated themselves in the wake of a wave election. Ogden tackled the current problem with an eye on the future as he devised a spending plan for public schools that mitigated the pain of the meat cleaver cuts that the House had adopted without the Rainy Day Fund bailout that Governor Rick Perry and the GOP supermajority across the rotunda refused to support. Ogden took a big step beyond the call of his immediate duties when he proposed a dismantling of the business margins tax with a constitutional amendment that would have opened the gates for corporate income taxes on a broad scale basis that would have been harder to escape through organizational schemes. Ogden knew the sweeping changes in business taxation had little chance of passing at a time when GOP legislators were resigned to balancing the new budget with deep spending reductions. But he initiated the dialogue on a subject that's critical to the state's future financial viability in a proactive way that seemed foreign to the Legislature's stopgap mentality and penchant for punting whenever possible on the tougher questions that it encounters. Ogden put the state's long-term health ahead of instant gratification and partisan convenience while other Republicans were bowing to unprecedented outside pressure. But Ogden has been one of the Legislature's most pragmatic leaders since taking over as the point person on the budget in the Senate six years ago - and he readjusted his expectations to coincide with the will of the majority so he could do the best with the limited resources available. Ogden's performance was all the more impressive when considering that his last term as the Senate's budget leader was supposed to be his last. Ogden had announced after the session in 2009 that he would not be running for re-election to the job he won initially in 1996 after a six-year House stint. But Ogden cancelled his retirement plans when it became obvious that his expertise and experience would be needed at the Capitol more than ever. Ogden has never appeared to be in the business of politics for the power and glory it affords to those who excel in it. But it wouldn't be stretching it to say that no one in the current crop of state lawmakers in Texas has ever done it better.

 

Jim Pitts
Texas House
Waxahachie Republican

MVP - House
Jim Pitts arguably had the most challenging job at the Capitol this year - charged with the task of drafting a state budget that could pass a House with its first GOP supermajority without irreparable damages to the state's system of public education. But the 18-year House veteran who's chaired the Appropriations Committee during three of the last four regular sessions reaffirmed his reputation as the king of high-wire juggling on the strength of the best performance possible with the meager hand he'd been dealt. Pitts adjusted his objectives to a landscape that had shifted dramatically and produced a budget that was a true sign of the times with deep reductions in spending that allowed a record number of fellow Republicans in the House to uphold their vows to oppose new and higher taxes no matter how deep the budget hole grew. But Pitts used the committee process to push the envelope to see how far he could go without triggering an uprising in a chamber where conservatives had rung in 2011 by attempting to oust the speaker who'd delegated more power to him than any other state representative for the second consecutive session. Pitts sought to minimize the pain of cuts that were inevitable by pressing initially for the use of more Rainy Day Fund reserve money than Governor Rick Perry or the House as a whole seemed to favor. But after negotiating a compromise with the governor on a Rainy Day Fund infusion to close a significant gap in the current budget, Pitts deferred to the will of the House the way Speaker Joe Straus had promised to do and drew the line on additional spending from the state savings account. Pitts stressed the need for a budget with bipartisan support even though he knew that was highly unlikely under the tea party's watchful and threatening eye in the aftermath of a conservative avalanche at the polls last year. But it was the right thing to do in an ideal world - and that would be Pitts' starting point at each critical juncture before taking whatever reality afforded. Pitts had to adapt - and he did so with predictable grace and the non-threatening kind of leadership to which the lower chamber has grown accustomed with him at the helm of the budget process. Pitts didn't blink until he was ready - and the House didn't seem to get run over by the Senate like it often has in the negotiating process on the paramount issue that the Legislature faces every two years. Pitts hasn't had the job security as the House's lead budget writer that Senate counterpart Steve Ogden enjoys. Pitts scored the appropriations post initially in 2005 with an appointment from then-Speaker Tom Craddick at a time when the job had opened unexpectedly after his budget-writing predecessor was ousted at the polls the previous year. But Pitts was booted as budget chair in early 2007 after having the audacity to challenge Craddick in the race for House speaker at the start of the session that year. Instead of attempting to get the job back through absolution and forgiveness, Pitts rallied behind Straus when he ousted Craddick from the speaker's office in early 2009. While Pitts has been a lock for appropriations chairman with Straus at the House helm, he demonstrated more than ever this year that he's more than qualified for the chamber's second most powerful position aside from the speaker himself.

 

Wendy Davis
Texas Senate
Fort Worth Democrat
Wendy Davis had been a member of the Legislature for two years and 139 days before she became an overnight sensation with a filibuster that torpedoed the Republicans' school finance plan and prompted a special session. As a Democrat in a Legislature with a record number of Republicans, the former Fort Worth City Council member hadn't had a chance to have any real impact beyond the statements she sought to make during debate on the floor of a chamber where she'd been increasingly aggressive since she entered it. Davis had passed a mishmash of legislation on issues ranging from veterans assistance to sexual assault training and evidence preservation to tax increment financing for development in areas that had been deteriorating. But Davis and the Senate's 12 Democrats had been on the outside looking in for the most part on major policy development and strategy - and the two-thirds rule had been their only reliable weapon when Republicans didn't waive it when necessary like they'd done to pass a new two-year state budget without an infusion of emergency money from the Rainy Day Fund. But when the opportunity to make a significant mark on the most important issue of them all presented itself, Davis seized on it with a vengeance and talked the school funding package to death in a way that dramatically magnified the fact that it would slash $4 billion from public schools across the state. Governor Rick Perry called Davis as a show horse when he summoned lawmakers into special session to repair the damage she'd done as a one-woman wrecking crew. Some Davis critics speculated that she'd lashed out in a fit of sour grapes over the thrashing she'd suffered during redistricting - and Republicans on both sides of the rotunda decried the procedural assassination as a foolhardy move that would come back to haunt the Democrats. By giving Perry a reason to call a special session, Davis had breathed new life into high-priority GOP initiatives that had failed to pass in regular session like a prohibition on sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. But while those assertions would prove to be true, Republicans turned out to be dead wrong when they contended that Davis had sold the farm and received nothing in return for it. A political unknown outside of Cowtown heading into the regular session's final weekend, Davis entered the special session as a folk hero among Democrats and a potential gubernatorial or U.S. Senate contender. She'd given grassroots Democrats new cause to believe at a time - and they returned the favor by affording her superstar treatment that no Democratic officeholder has enjoyed since Ann Richards waltzed into the spotlight more than 20 years earlier. But the Davis filibuster ended up having a more immediate than even her biggest fans could have imagined when the House in special session added an amendment that would increase the flow of rainy day funds into the school finance system if and when the surplus starts to swell again as expected.

 

Robert Duncan
Texas Senate
Lubbock Republican
The Texas Senate's go-to guy was all over the map as usual - passing major legislation, negotiating compromises that hadn't seemed possible and killing more bills than any of his colleagues on either side of the rotunda this year. As the leader of a special panel that embarked on a search for new revenues that wouldn't fit the technical definition of taxes, Robert Duncan bought time for a Senate that wanted to minimize the pain of deep budget cuts while strengthening its pitch for more Rainy Day Fund money as a ticket out of the fiscal morass. He pulled off a delicate balancing act as the sponsor of legislation that became the enabling vehicle effectively for a budget that Republicans balanced with spending reductions without new or higher taxes. When the measure was hijacked in conference committee and transformed into a school finance plan that Democrats torpedoed with a filibuster on the regular session's last weekend, Duncan had it back on track in no time as the centerpiece bill of the ensuing special session that its initial demise triggered. Duncan, the chairman of the powerful State Affairs Committee, co-authored major property rights legislation and spearheaded a move to reform the Employees Retirement System and sponsored another measure that made key changes to the state's system of regulating groundwater. In a Legislature that's enacted some of the most far-reaching civil justice reforms in the nation in the past decade, Duncan refused to bow to tort reform advocates while forcing them to negotiate a compromise with trial lawyers on a loser pays bill that Governor Rick Perry had pronounced to be one of his highest priorities. After drawing the wrath of the Texans for Lawsuit Reform two years ago as the Senate sponsor of an asbestos-related bill that trial lawyers supported, Duncan demonstrated this time around that he wouldn't roll over for anyone. Duncan occupied a familiar seat on the conference committee that hammered out a two-year state budget in the midst of an unprecedented money shortage - and he came close to passing a judicial system overhaul that's been a pet peeve and a lingering frustration from which he's refused to back down. Long regarded as one of the Senate's most moderate Republican members, Duncan approached the challenges on his plate with a pragmatic and steady approach that recognized what was achievable within the confines of the most conservative Legislature of modern times. Duncan is believed to be a likely candidate for lieutenant governor in 2013 if Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst runs for the U.S. Senate as expected next year and wins. And Duncan has evolved into the current Senate's version of Bill Ratliff, the last state senator to be elevated by his peers to the chamber's presiding officer post.

 

Kevin Eltife
Texas Senate
Tyler Republican
The former East Texas mayor is one of the most popular legislators ever inside and outside the brass rail that rings the Senate floor - and he's demonstrated a natural ability to use that likeability to his advantage and to be increasingly effective as a result of it. While Eltife passed his fair share of bills this year, you won't find his name on the marquee legislation that's emerged from the east wing in 2011. But his fingerprints are everywhere as one of the Senate's most successful consensus builders behind the scenes where the yeomen's work is done in a chamber where the floor proceedings are largely just for show and the outcomes predetermined. Eltife goes out of his way to have good relations with top staff members who work for his colleagues - and that gives him an edge when it comes to having maximum information and knowing how to best use it. A number of Republican senators consider Eltife to be their best friend on the floor - and Democrats like the guy because he's an independent moderate who's seemed immune to partisan intimidation and eager to help everyone succeed regardless of party affiliation. But Eltife is not just a good guy - he's a good government guy who believes that the Capitol belongs to the people - and he backs up his words on that subject with action. Eltife for example took a dramatic turn from business as usual as the Senate Administration Committee chairman when he opened up the panel's meetings on the local calendar to the public in a chamber where that had always been done behind closed doors. Instead of migrating to backrooms that used to be filled with smoke before smoking was banned under the dome, Eltife equipped the hearings with tape recorders and microphones so the world could watch as senators weighed the flow of local legislation from that point in the process to the floor for debate. Eltife imposed a rule that forced senators on the committee to be in full public view whenever they knocked off a bill - and while the jury's still out on whether his colleagues liked the accountability and transparency approach - everyone with an interest in the calendar who wasn't a senator seemed to love it. When Lieutenant Governor left the chamber temporarily, he handed the gavel to Eltife more than any other senator because he could rest assured that the ship wouldn't sink or implode with the East Texan manning the chair. Eltife used his downhome charm and humor to break the ice when the tension grew thick and tempers were starting to flare - and his timing always seemed to be perfect. Eltife, who entered the upper chamber in early 2004, seemed to fill a void that Ken Armbrister left when he resigned from the Senate and ended going to work as Governor Rick Perry's legislative director. While Armbrister had served as a Democrat, he'd been the chamber's least partisan member and its most efficient operator in terms of building bridges behind the scenes. You could say that now about Eltife even though he carries an R by his name.

 

Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
Texas Senate
McAllen Democrat
Chuy Hinojosa faced one of the toughest decisions of a long legislative career when his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature's upper chamber s banded in opposition to the barebones state budget that Republicans were pushing at the Capitol this spring. As the vice-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hinojosa had to decide whether to join the party picket line or to keep working with the majority party in hopes of dulling the pain that was spread throughout a spending plan that he deplored. Hinojosa took the hard and lonely road when he opted to play instead of bailing - and while he ran the risk of alienating Democrats everywhere including those who dominate his South Texas homeland - he gave the Democrats their only seat on the Senate side at the negotiating table as a reluctant but willing budget conferee. Hinojosa understood that his impact could be minimal at best in the wake of a tea party-fueled wave that produced a record number of Republican legislators. But he vowed to do his dead-level best to keep the Republicans from lowering the budget knife any deeper than they'd planned in critical programs from education to health care to public safety - and he felt a subsequent obligation to vote for the conference committee report on the spending package that he'd helped shape. But Hinojosa wasn't about to go along with the Republicans on other hot-button issues including a sanctuary cities prohibition that he couldn't stop but found a way to stall when he persuaded a Senate committee to replace the language on illegal immigration with a border security plan that some senators thought had snagged across the rotunda. During 16 years in the House and the past eight in the Senate, Hinojosa has been one of the Legislature's most passionate defenders of programs for the everyday Texan and the burgeoning population of Hispanics in the area he represents and across the state as a whole. But Hinojosa also took the lead on issues that transcend partisan boundaries like the Texas Department of Transportation sunset legislation that he authored and shepherded through the upper chamber. Hinojosa kept an eye out for local needs as well - teaming with a House Republican from his area at one point to pass a resolution authorizing a study that could lead to make ports from Corpus Christi to Brownsville destination docks for cruise ships. On the most critical night of the regular session, Hinojosa tried but failed to convince fellow Democrats that a filibuster on school finance would come back to haunt them all by giving Republicans a second shot at the sanctuary cities and other bills the minority party had managed to kill in the first go-round. But the bottom line was that he tried without shying from the potential consequences of actions that were no easy call in a very difficult session.

 

Sid Miller
Texas House
Stephenville Republican
As a former bull rider and reigning world calf roping champion, Sid Miller is the real deal when it comes to the kind of grit, fearlessness and competitive spirit that it takes to be a real cowboy. The hat that he wears to the Capitol each day when the Legislature's in session isn't just for show - it's a part of him - and he's probably more comfortable in the blue jeans and bolo tie that he might sport on any given day than the suits that he dons on others. When fights break out west of the rotunda, he's the first guy you want to have on your side if you hope to have any hope of winning. Just ask Joe Straus, who won an initial term as House speaker two years ago despite the fact that Miller was in the opposite corner as a Tom Craddick loyalist. Straus will tell you that it would have been tough to win a second at the start of this year if Miller hadn't switched horses and come riding to the rescue at a time when conservatives were trying to throw him out. But Miller didn't just endorse the incumbent House leader - he went to his defense time and time again in a way that sapped the steam out of the argument that the San Antonio Republican wasn't conservative enough to lead the lower chamber in the wake of a electoral wave that produced the first GOP supermajority in the west wing. Miller was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Homeland Security & Public Safety - a perch from which he wielded major influence on a long list of subjects including border security. But Miller emerged as the designated point person on key elements in the conservative agenda - including his role as the House author of the legislation that will require women to have sonograms before they can obtain an abortion in Texas. Abortion had been a hot-button topic with the GOP base long before illegal immigration and voter identification were in vogue - and Miller's maneuvering produced a bill that was significantly tougher than the Senate measure that the most high-profile conservative on that side of the building had guided through the upper chamber. Miller, who'd served as the Agriculture & Livestock Committee chairman under Craddick, used a creative approach to tackle a huge problem in the farm and ranch world when he pushed through legislation that will allow landowners to charge hunters for rides on helicopters from which they will be able to take aim at feral hogs that have been destroying their crops and ripping down fences increasingly as a result of overpopulation. Miller passed bills on a diverse range of issues including identity theft, agriculture-related tax exemptions, consolidation of primary election precincts and the state's system for weights and measures. The House leadership team expressed its gratitude again when a congressional seat was carved out for Miller on the U.S. House map that's on track to pass in special session.

 

John Otto
Texas House
Dayton Republican
With John Otto, you get exactly what you see. He's a certified public accountant who doesn't seem to have a political bone in his body. But Otto is a maestro when it comes to applying the language of business to the art of politics - especially when the state where he's an elected representative is sinking in a sea of red ink. Otto - the House's top internal money mechanic since he entered the chamber six years ago - found his expertise in unprecedented demand in 2011 as a lawmaker who seemed tailor made for fiscal crisis management at a time when the budget hole had never been deeper. While the major savings would be found in the big-ticket categories of education and health and human services, Otto's chief role was to find the smaller chunks of potential savings that were significant when added together but not as conspicuous and detectable in general government, the judiciary and public safety as the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Articles I, IV and V. With Otto in such a role and on call to share his expertise when budget writers hit snags in the high-dollar departments of public schools, higher education, Medicaid and other HHS programs, House leaders and legislators were less inclined to panic at times when the budget deficit monster appeared ready to devour them. And Otto delivered as expected in a way that helped the Legislature minimize cuts in key areas that were inevitable as long as his colleagues were determined to keep the lid on taxes. But Otto's non-political persona and non-threatening leadership style made him the perfect choice to take the lead on legislation designed to level the playing field for business taxation by forcing Internet retailers like Amazon.com to collect sales taxes from customers in Texas and to remit them to the state. The sponsor's job on the online tax measure presented a major added challenge by virtue of the fact that Governor Rick Perry opposed it as a tool that would ostensibly undo the screws on his highly-publicized push to make Texas the envy of the nation in terms of economic development, job growth and low taxes. Otto didn't shy away from the confrontation that the bill promised - and he wouldn't blink as the House approved the measure by an overwhelming margin and the Senate did the same before sending it to Perry's desk without changes. Otto thought the showdown with the executive branch might end there after the governor approached him and asked for more information on the subject in the waning stages of the regular session. Otto failed to sell Perry on a measure, which the governor vetoed the day after the regular session ended in late May. In the minds of supporters, the Otto bill was simply clarifying the tax code for the sake of fairness despite its portrayal by the opposition as a tax increase. Undaunted and unbowed, Otto incorporated the online sales tax proposal into the sweeping fiscal legislation that's been known in the special session as Senate Bill 1. With SB 1 in conference committee, Perry could take another swat with his veto pen at the Internet sales tax provision. But the governor would be taking the entire budget down if he does. Otto was plenty busy below the radar as well, passing bills that will streamline the Teacher Retirement System investment authority, give Texas A&M University more influence in higher education investments and create a pilot program for appealing appraisal review decisions to the state.

 

Senfronia Thompson
Texas House
Houston Democrat
It doesn't matter that Senfronia Thompson is generally viewed as an inner-city liberal who represents a district dominated by Hispanics and African-Americans like herself in a House that's ruled now by white suburban Republicans. Thompson's status as a Democrat is largely irrelevant in a chamber where Republicans have their first supermajority. Thompson has become one of the Legislature's perennially most effective members partly as a result of her experience as the House's second-longest serving member. That in turn has given her a wealth of institutional knowledge, which coupled with a seemingly boundless energy, makes it possible for her to pass more than two dozen bills as the author and 15 more as House sponsor the way she's done this year. As the Local & Consent Calendars Committee chair, Thompson has immense power as the legislator who oversees the flow of legislation that's more crucial to the re-election hopes of her colleagues than the sides that they take on the major issues facing the state. She's closer to Republican Speaker Joe Straus than any other Democrat in the Capitol's west wing - and while she still votes with fellow Democrats on party line votes - partisan affiliation and politics takes a backseat to everything it seems as far as she is concerned. But Thompson arguably is the best state legislator in Texas because she truly cares about the process and how it affects everyone and because has the wisdom, the unyielding respect of her colleagues, unparalleled passion and the God-given talent and brains that it takes to succeed in one of the most competitive arenas on the planet. Thompson's puppy mill bill, which will give the state the authority to regulate dog and cat breeding operations, was a prime example of the 39-year House veteran at the top of her game. After building support in the face of intense industry opposition, Thompson willed the measure through a field of landmines and vowed along the way that she would pass the legislation no matter how hard its critics tried to stop it. The puppy mill bill didn't need a Republican sponsor like most important pieces of legislation do now as long as Thompson was in charge of it. The same applied to a human trafficking crackdown that Thompson shepherded through the lower chamber. Thompson is much more than just a committee chair and a bill sponsor - having earned the reputation as the conscience of the House thanks to the evangelical zeal in her oratory and the guts that it takes to call out her colleagues and outside forces when she believes they've done wrong. Thompson, for example, led a bipartisan chorus of protests from House females when she felt that the opponents of an insurance regulatory measure that she was sponsoring had degraded women as part of attempts to kill the bill. "Men, if you don't stand up for us today, don't you walk in this chamber tomorrow," Thompson declared, sparking a highly rare standing ovation.

 

John Zerwas
Texas House
Houston Republican
You could search Texas history all day and it would be hard to find a state lawmaker who's not a committee chair with the kind of sparkling reviews that have been lavished on Dr. John Zerwas for his performance at the Capitol this year. The third-term representative who represents three counties on the edge of the Houston area was tapped to lead the Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services at a time when those programs appeared to be on the verge of draconian devastation amid the worst state budget crisis in two dozen years. While there would be no elixir for the budget-cutting fever, Zerwas helped his colleagues understand the potential consequences and repercussions that an unbridled chopping block approach could bring to the areas of the budget that fell into his jurisdiction and expertise. That had a mitigating effect on the budget ax on Article II in the short term. But Zerwas tackled his job with one eye on immediate concerns and one on the future with a proactive mentality that he hopes will save the state money down the road without adversely effecting the health care delivery system in the state. It was a bold approach that didn't come without risks in a Legislature that's preferred the instant gratification of band-aids over cures that come with no guarantees. Zerwas' biggest single splash arguably came last week as the sponsor of legislation that the House approved in special session in a move that's designed to have almost $500 million by privatizing Medicaid managed care in South Texas. The measure that was authored by State Senator Jane Nelson would create a Texas Institute of Health Care Quality and Efficiency that would link reimbursements for medical professions to the outcomes of the care and treatment they provide. Democrats fought the measure on the grounds that it would reduce state spending on children's health insurance, boost co-payments for Medicaid patients and run the risk of cutting payments to doctors who'd be inclined to refuse to take Medicaid patients as a result. Critics contended that the Medicaid privatization plan would compound the pain from a reduction in hospital reimbursements that the Legislature had already endorsed this year. But Zerwas, a relatively low-key lawmaker who reasons with his colleagues instead of pressing, browbeating or trying to scare them, persuaded the House to embrace the novel approach in a vote that approved it along party lines. Zerwas, an anesthesiologist, wasn't distracted this time around by the need to save lives like he'd done two years ago when a House colleague suffered a near fatal heart attack on an elevator during a late night meeting in the lower chamber. But Zerwas had one of the most successful sessions in recent memory largely as a result of his ability to gain the trust of fellow lawmakers whose political futures could live or die on the votes they cast in the most extreme budget conditions that the Legislature has faced since 1987. He accomplished that with relative ease on the strength of his expertise, his commitment and the courage and will that it took to lead the fight in an arena where an increasing number of lives are on the line each day.

 

Honorable Mention

Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, Texas House

Dan Branch, R-Dallas, Texas House

John Carona, R-Dallas, Texas Senate

Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, Texas House

Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Texas House

Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, Texas House

Patricia Harless, R-Houston, Texas House

Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, Texas House

Donna Howard, D-Austin, Texas House

Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, Texas House

Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, Texas Senate

Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, Texas House

Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, Texas House

Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, Texas House

Royce West, D-Dallas, Texas Senate

 

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