April 1, 2013
Bridge Building Proves Prime Ticket to Rise
on House and Senate Power Charts in 2013
Capitol Inside Editor
scene that unfolded last month in the back corner of the Texas House may have captured the essence of the chamber's newfound spirit of bipartisan fellowship and rapport better than the greatest writer could have done with a thousand words or more.
The cast in this particular episode included a handful of fairly young white men who were huddled around an older African-American gentleman who was sitting on the edge of desk, doing most of the talking and gesticulating vigorously with his eyeglasses in one hand. .
When liberal Democratic State Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston speaks in the west wing of the Capitol as we know it today, you can be assured that freshmen tea party Republicans are listening.
A corporate attorney who's served in the lower chamber for two dozen years, Turner has been wielding an ample amount of clout during the regular session in 2013 by virtue of his role as the vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Turner's sway is magnified by a related position that he holds as the leader of a budget panel subcommittee that oversees spending on public safety and criminal justice, the judiciary and state government in general. The institutional knowledge that comes with longevity - coupled with a gift of oratory that's unrivaled under the pink granite dome - makes it possible for Turner to maximize the influence that he's been afforded by Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and the key decision-makers on his leadership team.
But Turner ranks higher than any other Democrat on the Capitol Inside Texas House Power Rankings in the second half of the session this year in significant part because he's emerged as an unofficial mentor and good personal friend to a feisty group of first-term conservatives who'd been widely perceived as right-wing radicals before they arrived in Austin in January.
Turner vaulted from 23rd on the pre-session power chart to the seventh spot in the current House rankings - and the aforementioned discussion that he had with the GOP tea party rookies during the debate on the Public Utility Commission sunset bill is a prime case in point on why he made such a leap in such a short time. The 58-year-old Harvard law school graduate appealed to the freshmen conservatives for support on an amendment that would have prohibited the PUC from approving any more rate hikes for residential telephone customers. While this could be construed as big government in the eyes of many tea party voters, Turner sold it to the Republican freshmen as a proposal that would put the brakes on a regulatory action tantamount to a tax increase. Almost all of the GOP tea party contingent voted with Turner and all of the other House Democrats on a motion to table the amendment in question. The amendment failed - but Turner had successfully cemented some relationships with some people he'd never envisioned as legislative allies as a consequence of the experience.
The first five spots on the updated House power rankings haven't changed since the pre-session rankings were unveiled on New Years Day. Republican State Reps. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, Dan Branch of Dallas, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Jim Keffer of Eastland crown the new list. All five are top-tier players on the GOP speaker's leadership team as the leaders of the Appropriations Committee, Calendars Committee, Higher Education Committee, Administration Committee and Energy Resources Committee respectively.
The Senate power chart is topped off by State Senators Tommy Williams of The Woodlands and Robert Duncan of Lubbock - a pair of Republicans who led the list in January as the respective chairmen of the Finance Committee and State Affairs Committee. But GOP State Senators Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, John Carona of Dallas and Kevin Eltife of Tyler have moved higher on the power list east of the rotunda compared to their positions three months ago before the 83rd biennial gathering got under way.
Carona, who chairs the Business & Commerce Committee, jumped from 6th place to 4th on the Senate clout list largely as a result of the fact that he's already passed 54 pieces of legislation out of the upper chamber with almost two months to go in the regular session. Carona, a 17-year Senate veteran who served five years in the House, has shepherded bills on a smorgasbord of subjects including insurance, banking, occupational licensing, telecommunications, guns, education and taxes through the chamber successfully so far in 2013. But Carona's most intriguing role up to now has arguably been as a senator who forced craft brewers and wholesale beer distributors who'd been at each other's throats to negotiate an overnight compromise that he locked down with signatures on a formal-looking contract.
Nelson, the Health & Human Services Committee chair, has only filed four more bills and joint resolutions than the number that Carona has actually passed so far this year. But Nelson has posted an astonishing success rate - securing Senate approval for 31 measures - more than 53 percent of the total number that she's submitted for consideration in 2013. Carona - by comparison - has passed 42 percent of the legislation he's filed for review in the regular session.
Eltife - like Geren across the rotunda - has seemed to be in the middle of just about every issue that's produced fireworks to some degree during the session. The Senate Administration Committee chairman, Eltife won the necessary two-thirds support last week for a package of legislation that he's sponsoring on behalf of craft breweries and brewpubs. Eltife made headlines across the state last month when he persuaded his colleagues to endorse a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the number of terms the governor and other statewide officials could serve in the future.
State Senator Kel Seliger - an Amarillo Republican who's chairing the Higher Education Committee for the first time - has jumped a few notches up the Senate power chart himself thanks to a key role that he's had in a fierce confrontation between legislators and Governor Rick Perry appointees on the University of Texas System board of regents over the flagship campus' leadership. State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin has eased into the top ten on the Senate power list for the first time as a result of his position as the current chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Watson ranks third among Senate Democrats on the clout meter behind veteran State Senators John Whitmire of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who'd been ranked 16th on the House power list entering the regular session, has soared all the way to sixth as a result of an appointment as the chairman of a new Special Purpose Districts Committee that Straus created several weeks after picking him to be the new speaker pro tem. Bonnen already wielded substantial sway as the current chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission.
Republican State Reps. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen and Brandon Creighton of Conroe are ranked eighth and ninth on the updated House power chart while Democratic State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston rounds out the top ten. Aycock is in the midst of his debut session as the Public Education Committee chairman while Creighton leads a Select Committee on Federalism & Fiscal Responsibility in addition to his role as the House Republican Caucus chairman. Thompson, a 40-year House veteran who's second only to former Speaker Tom Craddick in seniority, chairs the Local & Consent Calendars Committee and has a critical role on the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee.
The licensing panel is one of the most powerful standing committees in the House where it's handling the beer industry measures and gambling legislation that has the potential to flair up before the session ends in late May. Republican State Rep. Wayne Smith of Bayton made a big lead up the House power list after an unexpected appointment two months ago as the chairman of the Licensing & Administrative Procedures Committee.
The power positions for individual lawmakers depends significantly on committee leadership assignments - and those on the House side are a function of how high a member ranks on the Straus leadership team. House members who serve on the Appropriations Committee are all but guaranteed slots in the top 65 while most if not all Calendars Committee members appear on the list as well.
All of the House members who are ranked among the top 65 on the updated power list have been state representatives for more than two full regular sessions. Separate power charts for sophomore and freshmen House members will be published in the coming days.