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.