June 5, 2015
Texas Session Stars Had Heavy-Duty Impact
in Assortment of Unique Ways at Statehouse
Best Texas Freshmen Legislators in 2015
The 84th regular session will not be going down in history as anything resembling a transcendental event that put Texas on a guaranteed path to a prosperous future. In a state that faces the very real possibility of running out of water in our grandchildren's lifetimes as a result of uncontrollable population growth, the Texas Legislature seemed much more concerned this year about cutting taxes and making sure that Texans who feel the need to be armed will no longer have to hide their heat.
With all due respect to first-term Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's assessment of the 2015 biennial gathering as the best session ever, everyone who was involved in it knows that's probably stretching it a bit. But the session that ended this week may have been unprecedented in terms of wild contradictions and neurotic behavior in general.
Republicans who control both chambers spent most of the past five months running in fear of themselves and a tea party outside the building that ended up losing more fights than it won. The most influential Republican at the Capitol this year was arguably Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative activist who always seems to come out stronger when biennial revolts that he leads against GOP House Speaker Joe Straus fail overwhelmingly. GOP lawmakers couldn't get their hands on enough kool-aid at times while their Democratic counterparts appeared to be half-drunk on punch that had been with anti-depressants or Xanax or something else that sapped the fight from them. Legislators were eager to slash taxes for businesses whose pitches for stronger public schools as an economic development magnate seemed to fall flat. Republicans from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and other major urban meccas decided they knew a lot more about controlling the border than local officials who live and work on the Rio Grande - and the opinions had a new breed of gun advocates expressed with violence-laced threats carried a lot more weight at the statehouse than the collective expertise of law enforcement.
Legislators stripped a pro-liberty amendment from an open carry bill on the grounds of opposition from police whose feelings on the legislation in general had been ignored. But Democrats in the House inspired the most head-scratching when they were minutes away from squeezing the trigger on a campus carry bill they'd been killing for hours before rolling over in a bizarre move that remains a mystery as far as the true motivations behind it. The campus carry bill's supporters pitched the proposal on the grounds that it will make it possible for college students who are 21 or older the ability to protect themselves in a way that underclassmen won't be allowed to do. But the Senate had been a surreal scene of brotherly and sisterly love for months in a chamber where Democrats didn't go ballistic as expected when Republicans disarmed them at the start of the session by junking the two-thirds rule. Patrick, who'd vowed to relegate the Democrats to relative irrelevance, seemed to get along surprisingly well with them instead.
Patrick - a former senator who'd hitched his star to the tea party wave when he unseated a longtime incumbent in a GOP primary runoff last year - had the indisputable distinction of being the most flexible legislative participant with an overnight flip-flop on open carry before a sharp turn in the opposite direction on Governor Greg Abbott's prized pre-kindergarten initiative. Abbott, a rookie Republican leader who had a near-perfect session as far his signature priorities were concerned, had the strangest lapse of all when he ordered the state military to monitor the Green Berets, Navy Seals and other elite warriors to make sure a training exercise here this summer wasn't part of a federal takeover plot.
But a Legislature that seemed to have lost it more than a few times couldn't have had ended on such a peaceful note without any obvious need for a summer special session if it hadn't had its fair share of heroes and stars. The lawmakers who are ranked in the top ten on the Capitol Inside Best of the Legislature list for 2015 are predictable choices in most cases with a surprise or two in the mix.
GOP State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound may be the most obvious all star as the author of the two-year state budget and the record tax cuts that are built into it. But Nelson had been a first-team selection on three of the five previous Capitol Inside all-pro teams and no worse than honorable mention on the other two. Republican Jonathan Stickland of Bedford - in dramatically sharp contrast - will be the all-time most controversial choice for the best session list without the slightest shadow of doubt. But Stickland - a tea party renegade who's either hated or loved in the eyes of GOP colleagues - stood out more than any legislator on either chamber ever has in the state's illustrious past.
Compelling cases for top 10 recognition could be made for some of 20 state lawmakers who made honorable mention this year. GOP State Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe had a stellar debut in the upper chamber as the author of a hunting and fishing bill of rights that will be on the ballot this fall and bills that will have dramatic effects on future school finance and redistricting court battles and property tax hikes at the local level. Republican State Rep. Four Price of Amarillo demonstrated why he keeps coming up in future speaker race speculation with the lead roles that he had on sunset, state agency consolidation and other major legislation. Republican State Senator Brian Birdwell of Granbury scored a double-whammy as the chief sponsor in the east wing on the campus carry and border security bills - and Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin may have had his best session ever as the first lawmaker to push a homestead exemption that cleared the Legislature as a major component of the tax cut collection. State Rep. Tan Parker, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, did a marvelous job of whipping up support for major bills and the speaker's re-election victory on opening day. GOP State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth had a historic contribution this year at a statehouse where fellow tea party lawmakers found it tough to pass many bills when she conceived a bill that will allow the limited use of marijuana oil for medicinal purposes. State Rep. David Simpson, a Tyler Republican who appears geared for a Senate bid next year, reinforced his reputation as the Legislature's most independent member and the most courageous as well when a sponsored a full-scale marijuana legalization measure that exceeded all expectations when a House committee approved it this spring. Simpson will look like a visionary someday if and when pot is legal in Texas like it probably will be eventually.
While Democrats haven't had the luxury of sponsoring many major pieces of legislation at a Capitol where the GOP has controlled both chambers for more than 12 years, the minority party trio from Houston that includes State Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sylvester Turner and State Senator John Whitmire as well have been among the cream of the crop here in every session that's been staged in Austin throughout the past decade or longer.
Democrat State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon of San Antonio, a 19-year House veteran who's been battling an illness that would have sidelined almost anyone else, has been honored here the cumulative body of work that she topped off this year as the sponsor of a measure that will sharply reduce the potential for wrongful convictions that have destroyed all too many lives in Texas. McClendon may have been the best of all considering the circumstances that she had to overcome to pass the measure that will create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission in the wake of a fight that she'd been waging for years.
The lawmakers on the best list are selected in highly subjective fashion that revolves first and foremost on impact. That's really what it's all about when the circus comes to town for 140-day runs in odd-numbered years.