The Texas Senate's most powerful members keep their eye on the prize as (from left) Todd Staples, Ken Armbrister, Royce West, David Dewhurst, Florence Shapiro and Robert Duncan try to stay focused on the challenges they will confront when the Texas Legislature convenes January 11, 2005.

 

December 30, 2004

Steve Ogden has new starring role as Senate's budget point man.

Republicans Dominate Second Annual Power Chart
While Democrats Are Delegated Measured Amount

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Texas Republicans learned some tough lessons about the perils of wielding power after making the state House their home two years ago. They learned what it's like trying to govern as the majority party with the opposition saying no every step of the way. They became well-versed in the fine print on quorums, two-thirds rules and creative points of order - and they discovered on the campaign trail a year later that the state budget knife can be a double-edge sword. Seven years after capturing a state Senate majority, Republicans took control of the lower chamber after a landslide election and quickly discovered that building a house takes more work and patience than burning one down.

With the countdown set to begin for the Texas Legislature's 79th regular session, it appears that the Republicans are better at political mathematics than either party seems to be at the more ego-boggling subject of public school finance. While true GOP loyalists don't have to like the Democrats, they learned that they need X percentage of them to keep the conservative GOP agenda on track in a Legislature where neither side has an ironclad supermajority to guarantee carte-blanche success. Now as the regular session approaches it looks like the R's have figured out how many Democrats it takes to beat the Democrats at the lawmaking game.

The answer is at least 13 in the House - as long as Republicans all stick together - and that's the how many Democrats have been afforded the amount of power necessary to land a spot among the 50 most influential Texas House members on Capitol Inside's Second Annual Texas Legislature Power Rankings going into the regular session less than two weeks from now. In a Senate that tends to be less partisan and more mindful of potential repercussions, it takes at least two Democrats to suspend the rules if that's what the Republican majority wants to do.

Judith Zaffirini has been a key player on state budget.

The Power Rankings are based on a scoring formula that's designed to assess the potential authority and sway that legislative leaders have delegated to individual members on the priority issues facing the state. The rankings are a calculated reflection of which legislators the leaders of the House and Senate think they can count on to get the job done when the pressure is on and the stakes are high. The list will be revised to show the impact that upcoming committee assignments and other role designations have on the Legislature's tower of power during the session that gets under way January 11.

With the House losing four of its 10 most influential members a year after the two most powerful state senators called it quits, legislative leaders have some regrouping to do as they decide on their lineups for a limited number of top leadership positions that will likely be filled after the session's second or third week.

While some key changes and a few surprises may be in store, the overall partisan balance of power that's concentrated in the top one-third of the House's 150 members isn't likely to change dramatically when members get their marching orders for the rest of a session that will unfold over 140 days after it kicks off a dozen days from now. Here's how it stands going in.

More than 70 percent of the state's most influential lawmakers have R's by their names. That's not bad considering that Republicans will only hold 58 percent of 150 House seats and 61 percent of the 31-member Senate when the session convenes. Barring overturned elections that three candidates are contesting, Republicans will account for 71 percent of the 52 most powerful Texas House members at the session's outset while they share a little more power in the Senate with only 69 percent of the most influential 13 members belonging to the GOP at this point in time.

The House top 50 (52 total due to a nine-way tie for 44th) currently features 37 Republicans and 15 Democrats compared to nine Republican senators and four Democrats who are ranked in the Senate's top 10, which actually has 13 members as a result of a four-way tie for 10th. House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst - the Legislature's two most powerful members by far - could change all that when they shuffle the decks again a few weeks from now.

 

The Formula

There are no how-to instruction manuals for the task of ranking power. It's not an exact science and hardly qualifies as art. The essential goal is to leave an impression of what the lieutenant governor and the speaker are thinking when they sit down to determine which members are best suited to take on certain responsibilities and who among them have what it takes to lead the others in the face of adversity and challenge.

Fred Hill's stock has been on the rise since Republicans took control.
  The Power Rankings determine a lawmaker's clout through an accumulation of points based on existing committee assignments, starring and supporting roles they've been given in the present and recent past and other assorted factors. Most of the points assigned to a typical member are tied to specific leadership positions or actions they've taken or other parts they've performed during the past two years since Republican took control. Points also are given for appointments to interim committees, agency governing boards such as the Legislative Council and outside leadership posts with organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures. The caucus chairs for the major political parties are worth additional points - and the leaders of the Hispanic, African-American and Conservative caucuses are scored for that as well. The power of appointments is one of the most effective powers that the presiding officers of the Legislature have in their arsenals. The lieutenant governor and the speaker also control the flow of legislation - and that gives both the ability to kill bills single-handedly if they should ever so choose. Last year, for example, Republicans found Democrats to be an insurmountable roadblock on congressional redistricting until Dewhurst temporarily took the two-thirds rule out of play long enough to get the new map to the Senate floor for debate.

The Big Two have the ability to reward and to punish with powers afforded by the membership or bestowed in state statutes or constitutional law. The Power Rankings aren't really designed to measure talent, effectiveness or institutional knowledge even though those qualities are evident in most of the members who end up with the most significant amounts of sway. What the rankings tell you is which members legislative leaders generally consider most qualified to get the job done and whether they're in good graces or the dog house when the power is divied up. In every political arena there inevitably are talented legislators sitting on the bench while some with lesser abilities and potential get valuable playing time. But then again the same goes for basketball and football, two other contact sports.

 

Is Leticia Van de Putte back in good graces after remap boycott?
Power Players

The House power list always begins with the speaker. State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee and the special school finance panel - is tied for second with State Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie who was bestowed with the coveted appointment as the new Appropriations Committee chair after State Rep. Talmadge Heflin fell 33 votes short of winning re-election to another term.

Heflin and two other Republican candidates are contesting the results of general elections they say they lost because the opponents were cheating. Heflin had a lock on the second spot in the Power Rankings before his improbable loss to Vietnamese-American Hubert Vo in November. Pitts wasn't even in the top ten when the rankings were published initially last year at this time. Grusendorf's vault from the sixth spot to a second-place tie reflects the critical nature of the school finance crisis and demands by a court to fix the funding system or have it shut down. Grusendorf is the man who hopes to have a plan to accomplish that sometime between now and next summer's end.

The ten most powerful House members are a mix of old names that appeared on the first list and new top 10 members such as Republican State Reps. John Smithee of Amarillo, Terry Keel of Austin, Brian McCall of Plano, Burt Solomons of Carrollton and Peggy Hamric of Houston. State Reps. Phil King of Weatherford and Vilma Luna of Corpus Christi share fourth place on the House power list this time around after being rated 4th and 8th respectively at the end of 2003. Republican State Reps. Fred Hill of Richardson and Mike Krusee of Round Rock are also ranked in the top ten for the second year in a row. The rankings only listed 10 House members a year ago. Luna's the only Democrat ranked among the ten most powerful House members on the new list. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, who's been speaker pro temp for the past two years, is locked in a tie for 13th with seven others including State Rep. Allan Ritter, a Nederland Democrat whose stock appears to have gone up markedly in the past year or two.

Power for House Democrats comes with a price in the new Republican era. Take the case of Sly Turner - a veteran House member who would be considered radically liberal by some GOP standards. Turner gave a keynote speech to Democrats at their state convention four years ago. But when he showed up to speak at his party's biennial state gathering in Houston this summer, he was greeted with scorn as a result of his decision to work within the new Republican system instead of joining caucus members who fought the GOP leadership tooth and nail. Turner, who's known for an evangelical speaking style, left the convention hall without giving the speech. Democrats have been less likely to criticize Ritter since he made the trip to Ardmore, Oklahoma last spring to protest the GOP's congressional redistricting puch. But instead of being attacked by Republicans on Ardmore like Democrats in other parts of the state, Ritter had to fend off a primary challenge by trial lawyers upset with his support for tort reform. One of Ritter's biggest supporters turned out to be Houston home builder Bob Perry, the number one contributor to Republican candidates in the state and the nation this year. Ritter, who'd sponsored a sweeping residential construction bill that Perry favored in 2003, started a political action committee to help other conservative Democrats with money from Perry. Former House member Ron Wilson wasn't as fortunate. After being ranked third on the power chart behind Craddick and Heflin last year, the veteran Houston Democrat fell victim to the wrath of Democratic party leaders in retaliation for his close ties to Craddick and support for the Republicans' remap plan.

Four of the 10 most powerful members on last year's list won't be around for roll call on opening day of the session next month - even though Heflin might be close as he awaits a hearing on his election contest. State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth has given up her seat in the House after an unsuccessful race for Congress this year while ex-House member Kenny Marchant is now known as a U.S. congressman-elect after breezing to victory in a district that was custom-made for him during redistricting last year. While those members left big shoes to fill, their departures gave the speaker an opportunity to reward others who'd been biding their time as understudies. That's one of the reasons speakers have so much power.

Three state House members received a boost up the power list from points they received for their roles in the three election contests that will greet lawmakers when they arrive in Austin next month. State Rep. Will Hartnett, a Dallas Republican, has been selected by Craddick to be "master of discovery" on the Select Committee on Election Contests. Keel as the election contest committee chairman shot up into a tie for 7th on the House power list. State Rep. Craig Eiland, a Galveston Democrat who's worked with members of the majority party on some issues and fought them on others, is the election contest panel's vice chair. Eiland is one of eight Killer D Democrats who are on the House power list after making the trip to Ardmore last year to bust a quorum on redistricting.

Big parts in redistricting and school finance were also worth substantial points on the power list this year. State Senator Todd Staples is a testament to that. Staples, a Palestine Republican, agreed to carry the new U.S. House map in 2003 after the original sponsor dropped out midway through the process in a summer special session. After stepping into a high-pressure role without warning, Staples performed admirably and has been a star on the Senate side ever since. Across the rotunda, King, the chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, saw his stock turn to gold as the Texas House sponsor of the new U.S. House map on which the GOP seized control of the state's congressional delegation this year.

Thanks to a promotion earlier this year to Senate Finance chairman, State Senator Steve Ogden is second behind Dewhurst on the Senate power list after being ranked sixth a year ago. State Senator Robert Duncan, who moved from the chair of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee to the head of the table in Senate State Affairs, is close behind in the third slot. Dewhurst tapped Ogden to replace ex-Senator Teel Bivins on the Finance panel after the Amarillo Republican was named Ambassador to Sweden. Duncan has taken over on State Affairs where Bill Ratliff left off when he resigned a year ago in the wake of the bitter fight over redistricting.

State Senator Ken Armbrister - a Victoria Democrat who's been known as Mr. Fix It in the upper chamber under the current lieutenant governors and the three Senate presidents before him - is ranked fourth this year while Republican State Senators Florence Shapiro of Plano and Jane Nelson of Flower Mound are tied with Staples for fifth. Shapiro is the Senate leader on public schools and colleges while Nelson is in charge of the critical health and human services field. Staples' many duties range from chairman of the Infrastructure Development and Security to interim worker's compensation committee leader to his work as a member of the school finance team. State Senators John Whitmire of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo are tied for spot number eight on the Senate power list while State Senators Chris Harris, Troy Fraser, Leticia Van de Putte and Jeff Wentworth share the 10th position. Van de Putte gambled some of her clout last year when she led Senate Democrats to Albuquerque, New Mexico for a month-long stay to protest GOP redistricting. She will find out soon - if she doesn't already know - what the consequences may be in terms of the power she's afforded or denied in a chamber controlled by Republicans.

The House power list includes only three of almost three dozen House members who are completing their freshmen terms. That could change when new assignments are fanned out after the session gets under way. State Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas is tied for 28th as a result of roles as the budget and oversight chairman for the Public Education Committee and a member of the Select House Public School Finance Committee. As a member of the school finance panel, Branch proposed a business payroll tax that was incorporated into a similar proposal then rolled into the plan that the committee approved in the spring special session. A possible statewide candidate in two years, Branch's high-profile local roles in past George W. Bush campaigns were worth points on the power chart this year. State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg of Wylie emerged on the list in a tie for 41st with boosts from appointments earlier this year to the chairs of both the House Public Health Committee and the Joint Nutrition & Health in Public Schools Committee. The Public Health chair opened up after State Rep. Jaime Capelo lost his bid for re-election in the primary election. Laubenberg was in position for the opening as the committee's vice chair, but that particular role could be short-lived as names such as State Reps. Dianne Delisi and John Davis are floated as possible contenders for the Public Health chair. Delisi is tied for 13th in the House power rankings while Davis is an up-and-comer who's rated 42nd currently but climbing quickly as the session nears. State Rep. Ken Paxton, a first-term Republican from McKinney, is tied for the final position on the House power list - thanks to vice-chairman roles on both the Ways and Means Committee and the General Investigating Committee. Paxton also scored points as one of several freshmen appointed to the Select House Public School Finance Committee.

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