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FEATURE Last of the Legislative Mechanics The Texas Observer talks with Senator Bill Ratliff BY JAKE BERNSTEIN rf he media advisory was crypticSenator Bill 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 31member 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 criticshis 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 desiredno 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 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/19/03