In explaining how no one person in the Legislature deserves credit for passage of the big school finance and property tax plan this year, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick inadvertently summed up the problem we at Texas Monthly had in choosing the Best and Worst Legislators:
“This was a session of no individual standing out or standing up.”
If every legislative session has its own personality, its own flavor, then the 86th Legislature of 2019 was less juicy brisket and more rice cake—dull, tasteless, and allegedly good for you.
Sure, lawmakers reformed the way public schools are financed while reining in the growth of property taxes, but it was perhaps less filling than advertised. Because lawmakers paid for the $11.5 billion package with a current budget surplus, they will have to find new funds again in the next legislative session. The whole thing could unravel if the economy goes south.
A normal legislative session is a three-tiered cake. At the top, there’s a banner issue set by leadership—ranging from heavyweight budget packages to pot-stirring items like where transgender teenagers can pee.
In the next tier down are secondary, but still major issues such as reform of the child welfare system or highway construction, legislation that often takes several committees and multiple bills to pass.
This is often where individual legislators can make a name for themselves. At the bottom tier lies everything else—technocratic matters, mini-crusades, district-specific issues, and vendor bills. In this session, school finance reform and cutting property taxes dominated the top of the pyramid, and there was plenty of minor stuff, but almost nothing in the middle. That means fewer legislators got to slime or shine.
This Legislature was also greatly influenced by political anxiety. The fact that Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the House in 2018 frightened the hell out of the Republicans.
To undermine Democrats in 2020, Republican leaders spent a lot of political capital forcing votes on largely symbolic but potent wedge issues: The born-alive abortion bill.
A proposed constitutional amendment against ever adopting an income tax. “Saving” Chick-fil-A.
Ultimately, these third-tier maneuvers were about positioning the Republicans for the 2020 election, because whichever party is in charge of the 87th Legislature will control the legislative and congressional redistricting scheduled for 2021—and presumably dominate our politics through the next census in 2030.
All of this combined to make for a fairly lackluster legislative session.
We try to be nonpartisan when we choose the Best and Worst. For Best, we choose those legislators who worked in the public interest, particularly if they did so under difficult circumstances or out of the limelight.
The venal, self-serving, or hateful comprise the Worst. We assemble our list by observation and by interviewing advocates, lobbyists, citizens, our fellow journalists, and the legislators themselves.
This year, we took extra consideration to avoid the trap of only listening to, or thinking like, insiders. We hope our list is meaningful not just to those who toil under the Pink Dome, but to the millions of Texans with an interest in their state government.
This year, the two members on nearly everyone’s Best list were Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Representative Joe Moody for their ability to create an unusual level of harmony and bipartisanship in the House.
Close to universal for Worst was Patrick, who is widely regarded as a hindrance to anything that doesn’t fit within his narrow, small-minded agenda.
A persistent rumor—which he denied—that he was about to take a job in the Trump administration led more than one lobbyist to tell us that they were hoping and praying that Lieutenant Dan would soon be gone from the Capitol for good.
Governor Greg Abbott remained a cipher. In contrast to a string of dynamic governors going back to the seventies, whose priorities were writ large, Abbott’s agenda, as well as his legacy, is still unclear.
Perhaps he wants to be the governor who sorta, kinda cut taxes? But unlike the two previous sessions, at least he was engaged this time. He deserves credit for helping get the school finance and property tax package across the finish line. As such, we are bestowing him with a new designation, Most Improved.
In a legislative session where the leadership was determined to keep conservative culture war issues from hijacking a mainstream agenda, individual achievement was difficult to discern.
In choosing the Best legislators this year, we received recommendations to put the state’s budget writers—Senator Jane Nelson and Representative John Zerwas—on the Best list.
But when you’ve got a $9 billion budget surplus plus $15 billion in the Rainy Day Fund, how hard is it to spend a windfall that makes Mega Millions look like a prize in a cereal box?
State senator Dawn Buckingham received cheers in the Senate when she passed the beer-to-go law, but is liberating booze Best-worthy?
Senator Kel Seliger delivered an impassioned speech against Patrick’s tyranny, but then surrendered to him the procedural vote needed to move one of the lite guv’s property tax bill. And the Senate’s Democratic members mostly continued to act like Eeyore at his birthday party: “Oh, woe, there’s nothing we can do.”
Over in newbie Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s mostly sedated House, perennial troublemaker Jonathan Stickland promised to mature as a legislator, but nonetheless proved correct one of his Republican colleagues, who told the Dallas Morning News, “No one has talked more and done less.” Rather than honor him with a “Worst” designation, we created a new category for him this year: Cockroach.
Even in such a largely unmemorable legislative session, we at Texas Monthly are determined to put a spotlight on the Best of the best and hold up to scrutiny the Worst of the rest. So here is our report for 2019.
We’ll let you Cowboys and Cowgals read the full story over at Texas Monthly but we’ve selected 3 of the best below for y’all to chew on….
The Best: Representative Tom Oliverson
The rising costs and staggering inefficiencies of the American health care system constitute a tax on both people’s pocketbooks and well-being. This is obvious to anyone who’s had a mind-bending, possibly bankruptcy-inducing, experience with an insurance company, hospital, or clinic. In a less dysfunctional political environment, Republicans and Democrats would be competing to see who could make this broken system cheaper and better.
But Republicans have generally been content with the perception that health care reform is an issue for Democrats. In the last decade, the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature has done little of substance other than squeezing the state’s Medicaid program. Perhaps the 86th Legislature’s biggest public health story, at least by volume of national media attention, came when Representative Jonathan Stickland (see “The Cockroach”) described vaccines as “sorcery.”
So it was a pleasant surprise to see Tom Oliverson, an anesthesiologist from Cypress and the vice chair of the House Committee on Insurance, practicing good medicine this session.
Unlike some of the House’s other physicians—Republicans John Zerwas and J. D. Sheffield, for example—Oliverson is firmly on the right wing of his party. But he happily works with people from across the ideological spectrum, including moderate Republicans and Democrats like San Antonio’s Trey Martinez Fischer. He’s often described as a polite and earnest man with a voracious appetite for learning about health care policy. The doctors trust him and so do consumer advocates, an important factor in forging consensus.
Oliverson helped pass several bills that should make the state a better place to be sick, including legislation to mandate arbitration in the case of “surprise” medical bills, a bill to force freestanding emergency rooms to clearly disclose what insurance plans they accept, and a measure to bring transparency to the opaque practices of pharmacy benefit managers, middlemen who help drive up drug costs. When Senator Kelly Hancock insisted that his version of the surprise-medical-billing ban be the one to move forward, Oliverson was instrumental in defusing the standoff.
But it was Oliverson’s drug-price-transparency plan that was the most unforeseen success. Under his bill, pharmaceutical companies that raise the price of drugs past a certain threshold will have to turn over information about the increase to state authorities, a requirement advocates hope will pressure the companies to think twice about jacking up prices in the first place. Oliverson originally set the tripwire for disclosure at a 50 percent price increase a year. Anything more strict, he believed, wouldn’t get through the House and would draw the opposition of Big Pharma, which had endorsed his proposal.
The House pleasantly surprised him, however, voting on the floor to ratchet down the rate to 10 percent—a change that Oliverson came to embrace. At that point the industry panicked and turned on him, demanding that he scrap the bill. But the lobby was too late. Oliverson held firm, and eventually the legislation passed with a 15 percent cap. Drug price shocks have taken up space in the national discourse for years, and now, thanks in part to Oliverson, Texas has one of the strongest transparency laws in the country. Who’da thunk it?
The Worst: Senator Angela Paxton
Conflict of interest isn’t so much a problem to be avoided in the Texas Legislature as it is something to get away with and profit from. But even within the dubious traditions of the institution, Angela Paxton stands out for sheer audaciousness, particularly as a first-term senator.
Paxton is a Christian academy math teacher and conservative activist who earned minor fame for a song she wrote and performed in homage to her husband, a little ditty that includes the lyric: “I’m a pistol-packin’ mama / and my husband sues Obama.” That husband is Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, the state’s law-averse lawman, who has been under indictment on a state securities fraud charge stemming from his private law practice and who, when in the Legislature, had conflict-of-interest problems following him around like Pig-Pen’s dust cloud.
Her husband’s track record notwithstanding, after her election win last year, it seemed like Angela Paxton was going to be one more Christian conservative with a tea party bent serving in a chamber controlled by like-minded lawmakers. And as a freshman, she generally got good marks for working closely with veteran senators as she sought to understand the arcane rules of the chamber.
But then she shocked the conscience of the Senate—no easy thing to do—by filing legislation relating to “the creation of a regulatory sandbox program administered by the attorney general for certain financial products and services.” Benign as that may sound, it would have given her husband the power to rewrite the very set of financial security regulations that he is accused of violating. Though the law wouldn’t have been retroactive, it could have given him another plank in his legal defense. In a more enlightened lawmaking body, Paxton might have been expected to abstain from any matter pertaining to her husband’s workplace. Instead, she acted with all the subtlety and grace of a Sicilian crime family.
When called out for her deeds, Paxton did her best pearl-clutching act, claiming that the bill had “literally nothing to do” with her husband’s criminal charges. The whole thing was a reminder why there are laws against nepotism. While senators ultimately forgave her for the legislation—particularly since it died a much-deserved death in committee—they were amused that the legislation aimed at helping her husband only drew attention to his ongoing legal woes.
The good news for Angela and Ken Paxton is they don’t face voters again until 2022. The bad news for Texas is that this pistol-packin’ mama and her husband don’t face voters again until 2022.
The Dead: Furniture
The term “furniture” became a legislative term that described members who, by virtue of their indifference or ineffectiveness, were indistinguishable from their desks, chairs, and spittoons. It is now used casually and more generally to identify the most inconsequential members.
- Senator Bob Hall, R-Rockwall
- Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo
- Senator Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville
- Representative Jessica Farrar, D-Houston