Last of the Legislative Mechanics

The Texas Observer talks with Senator Bill Ratliff


The media advisory was cryptic—Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Mt. Pleasant) will “formally announce his future plans for public office” in a press conference in the Senate chambers on November 20. Yet most of the inhabitants at the Capitol could guess what the legislative veteran was likely to say, if not the exact details. Rather than serve out his term to its end in 2006, Ratliff would retire, as it turned out, effective this January 10, the 15th anniversary of his arrival in the 31-member Senate.

During his tenure, the East Texas retired civil engineer was elected by his peers to serve as lieutenant governor from the end of 2000 to the beginning of 2003, crafted two state budgets as chair of the all-important Senate Finance Committee, wrote the current school finance system, and rewrote the funding formulas for higher education. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a nonpartisan, detail-oriented problem solver who embodied the independent spirit of East Texas. His colleagues at different moments dubbed him, “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” after the Jedi warrior/sage in Star Wars, “a boy-scout,” and “the conscience of the Senate.”

Perhaps his considerable accomplishments alone would have brought out the throng of local media that attended the press conference. When asked whether he was surprised at the number of reporters who filled the Senate chambers to hear him, Ratliff replied: “People [also] gather for a car wreck.”

With his usual keen intelligence, Ratliff’s quip had exposed what many in the press corps really wanted. They knew how unhappy the senator has been over the events of the 78th Legislature. How he had tried to stop redistricting; his impassioned speech to fellow senators that they didn’t need draconian cuts to produce a budget; and finally his disgust at the sanctions his fellow Republican senators imposed on their colleagues across the aisle. But despite the persistent questions of the heckling class on his state of mind, Ratliff emphatically made it clear he would not go out on a negative note.

As staffers choked back tears, the senator instead talked about how privileged he felt to have served. Ratliff thanked his constituents whom he has said, “spoiled him rotten” by trusting him to do what’s right. “That freedom has allowed me to vote my convictions and ignore the pressures of political partisanship or other special interests,” he said.

While Senator Ratliff certainly had his critics—his mastery of detail didn’t always leave room for others to contribute, and most recently his role in birthing a radical restructuring of the state’s civil justice system left much to be desired—no one questioned his motivations or his commitment. The senator is deeply passionate about the Texas Senate and its promise of thoughtful policy-making that benefits the entire state.

Ratliff believes the linchpin that has kept the Texas Senate effective and such a pleasure in which to serve is the “two-thirds tradition.” Sometimes mistakenly referred to as a rule, the tradition provides for a “blocker” bill, usually something inconsequential, that sits at the head of the legislative calendar. In order for the Senate to take up any bill, two-thirds, or 21 members, must agree to set aside the blocker bill. The tradition forces most senators to compromise in order to pass legislation. The current Lt. Governor, David Dewhurst, scuttled the two-thirds tradition in order to ram through congressional redistricting. Since then, a number of senators and the governor have advocated scrapping it altogether. Redistricting was just the most extreme indication of a dramatic shift in the Texas Legislature to a more ideologically driven body. It’s a sea change that greatly disturbs Ratliff.

A little less than a week before Senator Ratliff announced his retirement, he sat down for an interview in his Capitol office with The Texas Observer. The conversation ranged from what it was like working with the famously mercurial Bob Bullock—one of three lieutenant governors under whom Ratliff served—to his hopes for the institution he so dearly loves.

Texas Observer: Do you think your engineering background was important to your policy-making?

Bill Ratliff: I never considered myself a political animal but I’ve always thought of myself as a legislative mechanic. The engineering part of me makes me want to solve problems, take a complex problem and try to break it down into its pieces and put it back together in a way that makes sense.

I make speeches to engineering groups all the time because I’m such an anomaly. There are so few engineers in public policy, in public office. I try to tell them that the general public thinks of engineers as people who build things but the fact is that engineers are simply taught to solve problems. We are problem solvers. We are taught to take a disparate bunch of facts and break them down into their component pieces and try to reconstruct them in a way that makes sense. And you can apply that to torts or economic development or health and human services or to education. You may not arrive at the right answer [all the time].

And that’s the part of it that I love. I love taking some complex subject and tinkering with it and trying to figure out how it would work.

TO: I would think engineers cannot afford to be ideological in their work: Just because the bridge is appealing to look at doesn’t mean it’s going to stand up.

BR: Ideology plays no part ….We were on the Senate floor one day and Senator Sibley came over and asked me a question. I gave him my answer, and he looked at me with this—in a kidding way—sort of disdain, and said, “Well, damn it, Ratliff, I didn’t want logic.”

Logic and ideology are incompatible in many cases. Sometimes the logic will lead you to an ideology, but not necessarily.

TO: What was it like working with Bullock?

BR:…I think the reason that almost everyone I suppose was willing to overlook the volatility was that everybody felt that, whether you agreed with his position or not, he thought he was doing what was best for the state of Texas. He had agendas four layers deep. And you never quite knew what the baseline agenda was but you always had the feeling that it wasn’t about Bullock. It wasn’t about a political party. That’s for sure. And it wasn’t for personal interest. It was because way down deep, that’s what he thought was best for the state. And you know, you can overlook a lot of eccentricities if you truly believe that they are working for the best interests of the state.

TO: Why did you drop your bid to run for a full term as lieutenant governor?

BR: In that period of time, I was being thrust into the political mode and my advisors were telling me what was going to be necessary to run for lieutenant governor. I had some of them tell me that you are going to have to cool this rhetoric. You are going to have to reach out to the right wing. We are going to have to teach you how to couch your comments in a certain way. You are going to have to become acquainted with and solicit the big heavy-hitter donors. It became more and more obvious to me that if I was going to raise the $10 million dollars that back then was necessary to be successful, I was going to have to remake myself, and I couldn’t do it.

We had been to Houston to a get-acquainted event with some of those big donors, some of that element. The next day my wife and I were driving down the highway and I said, “You know, I don’t like myself very much.” Because it became obvious to me that I wasn’t saying the things that I believed—I was biting my tongue—and I had never done that in my career. And I knew when those words came out of my mouth that I wasn’t going to run.

Let me make sure that I go ahead and say that is not unique to the Republican Party. It’s just the system. That’s why I think the two-thirds issue in the Senate is more important today than ever. It is the one place in all of state government where elected officials are forced to reach across the partisan divide. Forced, because you can’t get anything done otherwise.

TO: It was said during the special sessions that in removing the two-thirds tradition, the biggest loser would be the lieutenant governor. How important is it to him?

BR: It is an extraordinarily powerful political device for the lieutenant governor but exercised judicially it is also the very thing that keeps the Senate from polarizing along party lines… The lieutenant governor can have a lot of impact on the process by naming committee chairs and controlling the flow of legislation, but to a large extent, the best thing the lieutenant governor can do is to allow the Senate to address these problems. They will get it right. In my opinion, they will get it right if you honor the tradition of the two-thirds, because it requires that the members reach across partisan boundaries and arrive at a consensus that is good for the state.

TO: When will we see the full impact from the 78th Legislature’s budget cuts? Has the impact already begun?

BR: I don’t think we have seen it yet. I think in some cases you are going to see greater and greater pressure on local government. Counties are having to pick up the indigent health care load that is being cut by the state. I think you are going to see continued problems with the quality of nursing home care because you just don’t fund them adequately. So you are going to have inadequate staffing. And when you have inadequate staffing, you, I won’t call it neglect, it’s not conscious neglect, but it is neglect because they are going to have more bedsores and they are going to have more accidents and more people not being fed properly. You are going to have a continued erosion of the teacher corps in Texas because people are not going to go into teaching if they see that it is not adequately rewarded. And particularly, if they see that if they go into teaching, they are not going to have an adequate health care plan. Those things don’t happen overnight. They are a gradual degradation of the quality of life in this state. The quality of society.

TO: Yet, despite your objections, you voted for the budget. Why?

BR: It finally boiled down to the fact that I had been chair of finance twice and lieutenant governor overseeing the budget once. Senator [Teel] Bivens [R-Amarillo] had always supported me. And while I disagreed with many of the things that they did, I just didn’t feel, I felt like I ought to support them and not the final product. Even though I disagreed with them that we didn’t have to do what we did, since they believed that there wasn’t any more money, they probably did as good a job as they could have.

TO: The 78th Legislature passed an unprecedented number of massive omnibus bills covering torts, transportation, and health care reorganization. Is that dangerous?

BR: It is the most dangerous thing. Some of us actually joked about it, that from here on in, for every legislature, it will just be one bill, and we will just put everything that everybody wants in it, and one bill, vote up or down. And they just become an absolute nightmare trying to figure out what’s going to be in there. I’ve never seen anything like it. Mainly because, at least in the past, the leadership didn’t want a bill where [virtually] anything was germane. They wanted to be able to control it more precisely than that. They wanted to make sure they knew what was coming through.

I think they are terrifically dangerous. Politically dangerous for the members. Because what inevitably happens is that you go home and somebody says, “Why did you vote for this?” whatever this paragraph is, and you say “That was in a 400-page omnibus bill, I didn’t know it was in there.” The members cannot possibly be held accountable for every little thing in there, but they will be if they voted for it.

TO: At the end of the first special session, you joined the Democratic senators in signing a letter against redistricting. How did that happen and what transpired between you and the lieutenant governor during the negotiations?

BR: Well, it is not all that great a mystery. A handful of the Republican members of the Senate came to me and said, “Can’t you figure out a way to stop that?” Nobody wanted to do it. Going into the session, the governor said that he didn’t want to do it. The lieutenant governor called it akin to the flu. None of the members wanted to do it. And some of them came to me … and I said, yeah I can figure out a way.

They knew that I was very displeased with the House version. And that furthermore, I was very concerned that even if the Senate passed a version that I thought was acceptable, that if we went to conference, you don’t know what’s coming back. Then you lose your two-thirds leverage. And they also knew that my district was such that, as far as redistricting was concerned, my district didn’t want it anyway, so it wasn’t going to hurt me. So I said, yes, I think I can stop it.

So I went to Senator [John] Whitmire [D-Houston] and said, if you’ve got 10 members who unalterably say that they will not vote to suspend, then I will be the eleventh and we will put a stop to it. And two days later he brought me a letter… I hoped that he [Dewhurst] would honor the tradition. I urged him in the strongest possible way not to circumvent the tradition for any purpose. But he never committed that he would.

I told him that I had the letter. I let him know that I would be the eleventh so that I would give him the chance to announce. There have been occasions in the past, as you probably recall, when the lieutenant governor will say “I am aware that there are eleven votes against, and therefore the bill is not going up.” I had done that two years prior. In redistricting. [It was even] congressional redistricting. [Senator] Jeff Wentworth [R-San Antonio] had a bill. He wanted me to bring it to the floor. I wasn’t voting at that time. I said you show me the 20 votes and I’ll bring it up. I’m not going to bring it up unless you have the votes. And all he could bring me was 18. So I said it’s not going up—without throwing anybody in the grease as to who was where.

TO: You seemed particularly upset with the sanctions that Republican senators slapped on Democrats who walked out and went to Albuquerque. In fact, you abruptly left the meeting when they were imposed. Why?

BR: I just felt that each step along the way was an escalation of the hostilities. We would finally get to a point where the hostilities had escalated so far that we would never be able to put the Humpty Dumpty back together. And those sanctions were perhaps the final straw that was going to render the Senate a different body. That it was going to tear the Senate apart. I have such a profound and deep feeling for this institution of the Senate. It just distressed me to the point that I didn’t want to be part of it. I made that case very strongly.

TO: What was the argument of those within the Republican Caucus who supported the sanctions?

BR: There were those who said everything will be fine. This will force them back. When we get the vote it will all be patched up and scars heal and we will go back to being one big happy family. I am sure that some of them consider me of a different time, an anachronism, because I did have suc
strong feelings about the institution itself.

TO: When it functions at its best, what does that institution look like?

BR: [A Republican Party consultant] once wrote an article that said the Texas Senate was the greatest deliberative, legislative body in the world. Most of the reason [is] the tradition of the Senate. Much of that was wrapped up in the two-thirds [tradition]. People tell stories of Babe Schwartz and Bill Moore getting into fisticuffs and a few things like that, but at least since I’ve been here, the Senate is known for its civil discourse. It is deliberative. We try to work out our differences. We honor each other’s right, not only to vote their conscience, but also to filibuster. We don’t take things personally. We try to keep all the dialogue on a high plane …. If not consensus, we recognize the right to dissent. But when we disagree, we try not to do it disagreeably. As a result, we become very good friends, very close friends with our political counterparts, even people who are philosophically miles apart. That’s the atmosphere I felt I was trying to protect.

TO: And clearly, you think that atmosphere produces the best end product for the people of Texas?

BR: Yes I do. And I think the people of Texas feel that. You know, there was a time, and it hasn’t been all that long ago, two sessions or so, when there was a public poll done on the people of Texas’ perception of their political leaders. The U.S. Congress had about a 10-percent favorable rating but the Texas Legislature was in the 70-percent favorable [range]. And I believe that it is because over the years the people have grown to understand that we do try to reach some kind of compromise. If not consensus, at least compromise—that at least recognizes the issues from the other side. And then I understand that there was one done this year, and the Texas Legislature’s numbers are in the 20s and 30s. We’ve lost a huge amount of respect.

TO: What do you think is going to happen with school finance?

BR: Well, I have to tell you. The last time I took the count, of the 181 members of the Texas Legislature, 108 have never been through a school finance battle. And that’s why there are many of them that say, “Oh, this can’t be that hard.” School finance is—not for the same reasons—as difficult, if not more difficult, than redistricting. And for that reason, I have no predictions…. My personal opinion is that you don’t significantly change current school finance without a major tax bill. I’m talking about a major tax bill, and that will be very hard to come by.

TO: You’ve decided not to run for a second term and there are rumors you might not even finish out your current one. Why?

BR: I seriously, seriously considered not running this last time and just finishing out as lieutenant governor. And I finally decided that we were losing Carlos Truan, Buster Brown, and some rather senior leadership; people who understood the traditions. I thought, well, maybe we need a little more gray hair one more session. I’d come back for another term. And I don’t regret doing it. My point is this is not a new thought of mine. In January, I’ll have been in the Senate for 15 years. When Bill Hobby had been in the lieutenant governor’s office 16 years, and announced his retirement, I thought my gosh, he’s been here forever. Now I’ve been here almost as long as Bill Hobby was. There just comes a time. I’ve done about everything that a person can do. I’ve chaired three different major committees. I’ve carried and enacted legislation and even had a chance to be lieutenant governor. It’s probably time to let somebody else [try].

TO: And yet it seems like there is as much of a need for a grown-up as there ever was.

BR: A lot of people don’t want a grown-up. I’m 67 years old. I’m not going to be Strom Thurmond.

TO: Do you think we are seeing a permanent break with tradition or will there be a return to better days for the Senate?

BR: I hope that it comes back around. We’ve known for some time, for years, that Texas was an anomaly. People who come to Texas, in the NCSL [National Conference of State Legislatures], and some of those folks would say: “Are you telling us that in your two legislative bodies—you actually have chairmen from both parties?” In some states, they hardly give minority parties offices. They have to use a pool for their staffs. It’s an ostracism that is so foreign to us. And perhaps we have just finally succumbed to what has happened in virtually all the other states. Maybe that was inevitable. It does distress me. Because it is not the Legislature that I came to and enjoyed and loved so.

You have to wonder if all the other states have gone that way, can we truly continue to be [different]? And what would it take for that? I happen to believe that the two-thirds tradition is the single most important thing that has kept us there. And that would keep us there. But you’ve heard the Governor. He has actually advocated doing away with it. Obviously there are differences in opinion.