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People’s Friend/People’s Foe Awards

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All this week, we’ll be unveiling The Texas Observer’s second biennial People’s Friend and People’s Foe awards. Each day this week we’ll add new faces to our 2011 list. This isn’t a best/worst lawmaker list. This ain’t about process. We’re focused on who did what and why they did it. These awards spotlight the folks who, in our view, did the most damage to—and tried to do the most good for—the people of Texas during the Legislature’s biennial 140 days of mischief. In such a dispiriting session, we’re happy to honor the lawmakers who did what they could to limit the damage. And we’re ever-eager to skewer, one last time, those who did the most to make the 82nd Legislature so horribly unforgettable.

PEOPLE’S FRIEND

Clear Conscience Award

Rep. Mike Villarreal

VillarrealIn April, as teachers received pink slips and nursing homes considered shutting down, legislators debated the merits of a tax exemption for mega-yacht owners. Arriving late to the Ways and Means Committee hearing, Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat, said what was on just about everyone’s minds. “I feel like I just walked through the twilight zone. Is that what we’re talking about—a tax break for mega-yacht owners?” he asked, incredulous. “Have you considered turning this into an omnibus bill, and including limousines and fur coats and other luxury items? Because you know, we haven’t cut education enough this session, and there apparently aren’t enough nursing homes on the verge [of closing]. What else can we do to bleed the state?”

Inspiring a sense of shame was Villarreal’s greatest contribution this session. Every time Republicans insisted that deep budget cuts were the only way out of the $23 billion budget shortfall, he reminded them otherwise. With persistence and budget acumen, he showed how Democrats could be effective amid a Republican supermajority—not only by calling out “fiscal conservatives” on their hypocrisy, but also by promoting progressive options to a slash-and- burn budget.

As vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee, Villarreal convened a hearing that forced reluctant legislators to consider closing a tax loophole for the booming natural-gas industry that costs the state $1.2 billion a year in lost revenue. “Prioritizing $1 billion for the natural gas industry while cutting state support for schoolchildren by $4 billion is a mistake,” he told the Houston Chronicle after the hearing.

While Republican state leaders touted their job-creation record, Texans woke up in March to headlines saying the Legislative Budget Board had found that the proposed House budget would eliminate more than 300,000 private- and public-sector jobs. The LBB report would have remained secret if Villarreal hadn’t used a clever legislative maneuver to require the board to analyze potential job losses. “We can’t grow the Texas economy with a budget that destroys jobs, hurts neighborhood schools and makes college more expensive,” Villarreal said. “If Republicans were willing to fix the $10 billion budget hole they created in 2006 and tap the Rainy Day Fund, we could save these jobs and save our schools.”

Villarreal constantly reminded his fellow lawmakers that the state doesn’t need to balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it, and that even yacht owners need to pay their fair share.

 

People’s Foe

How-Low-Can-You-Go Award

Gov. Rick Perry

PerryIt’s almost too easy to caricature Rick Perry. A blow-dried blowhard who’ll do anything to get re-elected. A coyote-shootin’ yahoo whose solution to the drought is Days of Prayer for Rain. A CEO-governor who turns tricks for campaign contributors from his $10,000-a month rent-a-mansion.

Texas’ longest-serving governor might be all those things, but he is above all a savvy survivor. This session, he abandoned any pretense of moderation and tacked hard to the right, delighting his Tea Party fans. When Perry declared the Rainy Day Fund untouchable despite a $23 billion budget shortfall, he encouraged the austerity nuts in the House and all but assured a savage, irresponsible budget. More than any single politician, the governor deserves blame for the hell the budget cuts will unleash on Texans. Adding insult to injury, Perry forced us to watch him weep crocodile tears for the victims of his extreme politics. “As Texans,” he said in his inaugural address, “we always take care of the least among us. We will protect them, support them and empower them, but cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process.”

That was the only time the governor would acknowledge the “least among us” as he pressed for a draconian budget. Instead, Perry made just about everyone in the state fair game. His string of “emergency” legislative items—voter ID, sanctuary cities, sonograms for women seeking abortions, tort reform—were about as pressing as a manicure in a hurricane. They did achieve what the governor wanted, distracting citizens from the budget crisis.

The Legislature is perfectly capable of demeaning itself. But Perry is not one to let others stoop lower.

 

People’s Friend

Shut Up and Listen Award

Rep. Jim Keffer

KefferIn an ocean of drama, Jim Keffer rarely makes waves. Most of the time, the Eastland Republican stays out of the spotlight, avoiding feuds and focusing on the Energy Committee he chairs. This session, Keffer was the one member who could get up from time to time, take the microphone and make his colleagues pay attention.

Such was the case when Republican Rep. Wayne Christian tried to slash $20 million from the System Benefit Fund, which uses a fee on utility bills to help the poor and elderly pay their electric bills. Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston was irate at the idea; the fund was already taking a major cut of $60 million. Despite vigorous back-and-forth between Christian and Turner, the floor was buzzing with other conversations and members playing solitaire and Angry Birds on their iPads. You know, the people’s business. Keffer grabbed the back mike from Turner. “We all have a vested interest,” he told the members. The card games stopped, and the lawmakers listened. Without Keffer’s intervention, another $20 million would likely have been siphoned from the poor and elderly. Instead, House members voted down the measure.

When House leaders began furious, last-minute negotiations behind the scenes on a school finance plan, Keffer was outspoken—and persuasive—about members’ needing time to understand the proposals. His main legislative achievement of the session, which relied on his talent for bringing parties together, was modest but important—a bill that requires companies to tell the public what chemicals they are using to “frack” natural gas and oil wells. 

In a chamber full of Tea Party legislators fresh from campaigning and new to governing, Keffer was one of the only leaders to signal that partisanship and ideology aren’t everything. Maybe next session, he’ll take an apprentice.

 

People’s Foe

Shameless Conflict of Interest Award

Rep. Gary Elkins

ElkinsOne of the most jaw-dropping debates of the 82nd Legislature started with Gary Elkins proclaiming on the House floor that he was the father of payday lending in Texas. Payday lenders are often equated with modern-day loan sharking, charging interest rates as high as 1,000 A.P.R. “Full disclosure, I am in the CSO [credit service organizations] business,” the Houston Republican told fellow lawmakers.

Elkins owns 12 payday-lending stores in Texas. He won a case in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed payday lenders to operate virtually unregulated under a loophole in Texas law. He explained that he was an expert on the payday industry. He insisted that the two payday-industry reform bills before the House, offered by fellow Republican Rep. Vicki Truitt of Southlake, were “overkill.” Said Elkins: “I don’t like government regulation at all. They are [sic] an impediment to business.”

Truitt’s two reform bills would hardly have impeded Elkins’ payday business. One bill, House Bill 2592, required that payday lenders provide more fee disclosures, while HB 2594 required that payday storefronts be licensed. Nevertheless, Elkins offered several amendments to weaken HB 2592. When HB 2594 came up, Elkins tried to kill it with a floor amendment. “You are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Elkins told Truitt. “The only people complaining are consumer groups that are paid. Payday lending is the cause they’ve brought up because we live in a paternalistic society. Consumers are informed. They’ve already analyzed the exact costs of doing business.”

Truitt had heard enough. “Yesterday you represented yourself as a struggling small businessman trying to protect [yourself) from excessive government,” she told Elkins. “Isn’t it true you have 12 very successful payday loan companies across the state?”

“I do have 12 locations, and I don’t do title loans,” Elkins replied.

Elkins seemed to miss the fact that he was violating his oath of office. The Texas Constitution requires legislators to exempt themselves from voting on issues that directly affect their livelihood. Elkins seemed proud of his role as an “expert” attempting to kill legislation that affected his business. “You know I respect you greatly,” Truitt said. “But I have to say, I’m a little surprised that you would so blatently use your elected office to defend your personal business interests to the detriment of Texas.” Shortly after, Elkins amendment to kill Truitt’s bill was defeated.

 

people’s friend

Moderation in the Face of Radicalism Award

Sen. Steve Ogden

OgdenLet’s dispense with this right from the start: Steve Ogden helped author the deepest budget cuts Texas has ever seen. But without Ogden, it would have been much, much worse.

As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the Bryan Republican was a precious voice of moderation in a Legislature gone crazy. On the session’s first day, he chose the most high-profile moment possible—his speech accepting nomination as president pro-tem of the Senate—to call for higher taxes. Unlike fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry, Ogden was candid about the state’s fiscal mess. He encouraged legislators to fix the state’s structural deficit by reforming the business tax to bring in more revenue. “None of us were elected to raise taxes on anyone,” Ogden said. “But the [business] tax is different.” Ogden was one of the few lawmakers of either party to call for higher taxes to close the state’s structural deficit. As a senator, he couldn’t do much about it, though, because the Texas Constitution mandates that tax bills originate in the House.

In early April, when the House passed what can charitably be described as a flinty-hearted spending plan that contained $23 billion in cuts, several House members remarked, “Thank God for the Senate.” Perhaps they really meant, “Thank God for Steve Ogden,” to whom they looked for a more responsible solution. Ogden  made clear early on that the Senate would produce a budget that spent considerably more on key education and health care programs than the House. He pushed for using the state’s Rainy Day Fund, though Senate conservatives prevented that. He brought refreshing honesty and openness to the budget process.

In the end, the Senate’s higher spending levels helped moderate the deep cuts pushed by the House. As a result, fewer schools will close, and most nursing homes will remain open. We shudder to think what the budget might have looked like had a more ideologically rigid Republican served in Ogden’s place.

 

People’s Foe

Huff-and-Puff Award

Sen. Mario Gallegos

GallegosIn this year of a House Republican supermajority, there was only one place where a Democrat could truly make a difference: the Senate, where 12 Democrats had just enough votes to block bills. To take advantage of that fragile hold on power, the Senate Democrats needed to show savvy. Too bad Mario Gallegos, the Houston Democrat who represents one of the state’s poorest districts, did the opposite. In a year when he could have helped soften the blow from the state’s huge budget cuts, Gallegos frittered away his influence on cheap theatrics and personal vendettas.

During one memorable committee hearing, Gallegos picked a fight with Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier over a bill that would allow students to attend a Harvard University-run program. The Houston delegation was on board—except Gallegos, who launched into a tirade over whether Grier had notified school-board trustees about the bill before he testified.

Grier said that he relied on either the district’s legislative liaison or the school board chair, Paula Harris, to notify trustees of such matters. “So you’re pawning it off on Ms. Harris?” Gallegos demanded.

“I’m not pawning it off on anyone, senator,” Grier responded.

That’s when Gallegos went ballistic: “No, no! Come on! If we’re going to get straight, let’s get straight. I don’t want no rhetoric! Here’s a panel that’s supposed to know the answers! I’m asking questions, and I want answers. You’re not giving nothing but rhetoric and doubletalk!” The tirade ended when committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a former teacher herself, reprimanded Gallegos like an unruly schoolboy.

Then there was the Hot Check Show. While other Democrats spoke, often movingly, about budget cuts that would hurt their constituents, Gallegos summed it all up as nothing more than a giant hot check. To illustrate this profound insight, the senator produced an Ed McMahon-style, oversized check, stamped with “insufficient funds” in red ink. Gallegos paraded the check in front of the TV cameras, making sure they got a good angle. Other senators ignored their distinguished colleague from Houston.

Throughout the session, Gallegos complained—often on the Senate floor—about being “left out of the loop” or having little influence on the budget debate. This would have been easy enough to remedy. All Gallegos needed to do was make this session more about his constituents and less about himself.

people’s friend

Lord’s Work Award

Sen. Judith Zaffirini

ZaffiriniLaredo Democrat Judith Zaffirini is the only member of the Texas Senate who perpetually looks like she’s studying for the bar exam. On most days, she enters the Senate chamber toting at least three enormous black binders filled with policy details. During debates, she wields facts like knives. Few lawmakers in the Capitol fight for vulnerable Texans with Zaffirini’s skill and tenacity.

We suspect Zaffirini didn’t have much fun this session. With the state mired in a massive budget deficit, it was almost guaranteed that many of the social programs she holds dear would face devastating cuts. On top of that, the merry Republican mapmakers who redrew the state Senate districts did a number on Zaffirini’s district. She could end up representing not only Laredo, but a wide swath of South Central Texas, including a slice of East Austin. In this session, Zaffirini served on a key Senate subcommittee tasked with finding billions worth of savings (read: cuts) from Medicaid and other health care programs. Along with Republican Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler, she argued for minimizing cuts. As Zaffirini said again and again, people’s lives were at stake.

When the budget came to the Senate floor, Zaffirini spoke against the plan. She cracked open her policy binder and reeled off a disturbing list of cuts to key programs—from in-home care to group homes to nursing homes to Child Protective Services—that she said would harm the state. Zaffirini ended up voting against the budget, and who can blame her? We know that—had it not been for her work—those cuts likely would have been far deeper.

 

People’s Foe

Weak Handshake Award

House Speaker Joe Straus

StrausWith an unstable Republican supermajority and an unprecedented number of freshmen, the Texas House needed a rough-and-ready leader. Instead, it got Joe Straus, Republican from San Antonio and poster child for impeccable manners and excellent dentistry. Challenged before the session by Tea Partiers who considered him too moderate as speaker, Straus promised he would rule according to “the will of the House.” He’d want whatever a majority of members wanted—and what they wanted were severe cuts to government services and restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.

Straus sat back and facilitated one of the most radical right-wing chambers in state history. As the Republican caucus ran wild, Straus rarely ventured into the fray, allowing members to constantly one-up each other to see who could be more “conservative.” As the House passed the country’s most extreme pre-abortion sonogram bill, a hard-line version of voter ID and a sanctuary cities bill that would have endangered Latino civil rights, Straus kept to the sidelines. When the House floated a budget that would have destroyed the public-school system and closed hundreds of nursing homes, Straus declined to lead lawmakers toward a saner way of balancing the budget. By just saying there should be a limit to cuts or that cuts to programs like family planning would have unintended consequences (higher pregnancy and abortion rates), Straus could have helped his party be conservative but responsible. Instead, he let Gov. Rick Perry and radical interest groups intimidate members and push conservatives farther to the right. 

Ever genteel, Straus did flash some muscle toward the end of the session—to quash Democrats who threatened to kill some Republican bills. Trampling on years of tradition, he used parliamentary maneuvers to suspend the rules and cut off debates the Democrats were prolonging on purpose. Later, the handsome Vanderbilt graduate smiled and told the Observer he hoped things would settle down. He just wanted the Democrats, he said, to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Straus is one of the nicest guys at the Capitol. We just wonder where he’ll finish.

People’s friend

Righteous Indignation Award

Rep. Sylvester Turner

turnerIt wasn’t easy being a Democrat this session, but Sylvester Turner, the veteran Democrat from Houston, never whined or snoozed like some of his colleagues. “I am what I am,” he’s fond of saying.

A product of hardscrabble Acres Homes and Harvard Law, Turner is a rare creature in the Legislature: a compassionate fighter who gets things done, a serious man with a big sense of humor. He gives a hell of a speech to boot.

As a 12-term legislator and vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Turner was one of the few Democrats who could command the House’s attention.

He used his status and credibility strategically. When Rep. Wayne Christian tried to defund an aid program for the poor and elderly, Turner rallied moderate Republicans to help kill the amendment. “I do not think it is the right thing to do, it’s not the compassionate thing to do, and your cuts are getting in people’s way,” he told Christian.

At times Turner capitalized on fellow lawmakers’ high regard in quieter ways. He persuaded Rep. Phil King, a right-wing Republican from Weatherford, to drop a measure that would have made meetings secret at the Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industries. His greatest contribution was ensuring that the consequences of harsh Republican budget cuts couldn’t be ignored. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats or Republicans,” Turner roared in an impassioned speech before the House budget vote. “At the end of the day, we are either Texans and we go up together, or we’re Texans and we go down together. This budget is not worthy of the Texas House of Representatives.”

 

People’s foe

Misogynist Award

Sen. bob deuell

DeuellOn many issues, Bob Deuell talks like a mild-mannered, reasonable guy. But when it came to women’s health issues this session, the Republican from Greenville behaved like some kind of evil genius. He sprang a legislative trap on family planning advocates that was so diabolical, you would have thought Deuell had morphed into a James Bond-style super villain plotting the annihilation of Planned Parenthood.

Deuell authored a bill that would have renewed the Women’s Health Program, which uses Medicaid money to provide birth control and health screenings to nearly 100,000 low-income Texas women. Unless renewed, the program would expire in December.

There was a catch. Deuell included a provision that would ban Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics from participating in the program. Planned Parenthood and independent clinics serve more than 40 percent of
the program’s clients.

Deuell wasn’t done. Planned Parenthood officials objected to their exclusion, arguing it was unconstitutional to single the organization out. They threatened to challenge the provision in court. Here’s the fiendish part: Deuell’s bill included a “poison pill” section stating that if courts struck down the anti-Planned Parenthood section, the entire bill would be void. The Women’s Health Program would be eliminated.

This left family planning advocates in a no-win scenario: Accept a drastically scaled down Women’s Health Program in which tens of thousands of women would lose services or eliminate the program entirely. Lawmakers on the budget conference committee came to the rescue and snuck a provision into the final budget that renews the Women’s Health Program. Thankfully for the women of Texas, Deuell’s grand plans were thwarted in the nick of time.

 

People’s Friend

Guts and Nuts Award

Rep. David Simpson

SimpsonTo have guts, sometimes you gotta be a little nuts. If David Simpson proved a little nuts during his freshman session, he also showed plenty of guts. The Tea Party Republican from Longview is deeply religious. According to one newspaper account, he’s “laid hands” on ailing colleagues in an attempt to heal them. He’s a hard-liner on social issues like abortion, and an advocate of small government and low taxes. Simpson proved equally uncompromising when it came to following his conscience and taking on the powers that be—in both parties.

During the House budget debate, Simpson rankled conservatives with efforts to put more money into public schools, libraries and nursing homes—by taking it out of popular Republican programs like film-industry tax incentives and the Texas Enterprise Fund, the governor’s account for handing out corporate grants. When he moved to pull money out of the state’s Arts Commission and put it into nursing homes, fellow GOP-er Vicki Truitt of Southlake warned that Simpson could be “setting up a record vote that can be used against us in the primaries.”

Simpson remained unruffled. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said before his measure rather shockingly passed.

Simpson was the lone Republican to vote against the House budget—because, he said, he saw a “half-billion dollars going to corporate welfare instead of the weak among us.”

He wasn’t done. In an impressive maneuver, Simpson made enemies with one of the few remaining powerful Democrats, Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, when he almost killed a “no-brainer” bill that was set to sail through the House with other noncontroversial measures. In a dramatic moment, Simpson forced Thompson’s measure to come up for debate on the floor. It passed. Some veteran lawmakers spoke out against the freshman’s impertinence; others wondered aloud whether Simpson, after all his “mavericky” behavior, could rally support for his own bills. When the dust cleared, he was the lone Tea Party freshman who had challenged the system and dared to break from long-established norms at the Capitol. Heck, sometimes you need a little crazy.

 

People’s Foe

Jesus Wept Award

Rep. Wayne Christian

ChristianWhen we think of Wayne Christian, the far-right social conservative Republican from East Texas who calls himself “the only Christian in the House,” we think of a bumper sticker: “Jesus would Slap the Shit Out of You.” Christian spent this session doing what he usually does: dreaming up the most bigoted, homophobic and just plain mean-spirited ideas of anybody in the Legislature. One of his finest moments came when he offered up an amendment to the House budget bill requiring universities to create “family and traditional values centers” if they also have facilities for LGBT students. The amendment passed 110-24 because all that’s required to initiate a round of gay-bashing in the Lege is a bully to kick things off.

Next up for some of that Christian love: people of color. Christian asked the House to require universities to make 10 percent of their classes teach “Western Civilization.” The children, Uncle Wayne explained, “think that freedom started at the time of the civil rights movement.” One Democrat asked him, does Western civ include the history of, say, African Americans? Christian responded, “Would white history be included in African history?”

While Jesus counseled his followers to turn the other cheek, Christian asks fellow travelers in the Texas Conservative Coalition, which he heads, to turn on Republican colleagues who are insufficiently extreme. Last summer at the state GOP convention, Christian worked a requirement into the party platform mandating that the votes of Republican legislators be compared with the “conservative agenda” and forwarded to the state’s GOP executive committee. He wanted a litmus test for fellow Republicans. Not right-wing enough? Off with your head. Just like Jesus would do.