The People’s Friends and Foes
As a rule, we tend to steer clear of “best of” and “top 10” lists at the Observer. Sure, they’re fine harmless fun; we just can’t help feeling that their natural milieu is high school yearbooks and The Late Show with David Letterman. But even haughty journalist types can’t always resist the temptation. We herewith offer our highly selective tallies of lawmakers who notably opposed—or bravely championed—the best interests of the good folk of Texas at the 81st Legislature.
The People’s Foes
Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands
No lawmaker bears more of the burden for the Legislature’s failure to do the people’s business than Tommy Williams. His destructive maneuver to eviscerate Senate tradition to allow consideration of Republicans’ controversial voter ID bill—without the two-thirds support traditionally required to bring up legislation—knocked the wheels off this session before it could even get rolling. Unsatisfied with merely destroying any prospect of a productive session, Williams went on to dubious efforts like trying to ensure that family planning centers providing abortions wouldn’t get any state money. When he tried to amend a media-shield law by forcing publications to print disclaimers on every story with a confidential source, Sen. Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat who wrote the law, rejected the amendment on grounds that “it runs afoul of the Constitution.” Nothing new there: Running afoul was Williams’ special role this session.
Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell
Among some Capitol watchers, white-haired Betty Brown has earned the nickname “Evil Grandma.” Indeed, she sometimes sounds like someone’s mortifyingly dated grandparent muttering bigoted comments during Thanksgiving dinner. Brown has been a back-bencher for years, but on one controversial issue—voter ID—she seems omnipresent. Last session, she wrote a voter ID bill that narrowly lost. This session, Brown was again a prominent voter ID proponent—to the delight of comedy writers everywhere. During a committee hearing on the issue, Brown said that Americans of Chinese descent should Americanize their names so they would be “easier for Americans to deal with.” That made Saturday Night Live. A month later, on May 5, Brown met in her Capitol office with six advocates for Asian Americans. (Three people in the meeting confirmed the details to the Observer.) After a long discussion about potential problems with voter ID, during which Brown was cordial but refused to change her stance, the advocates—all of them Americans, four of them with law degrees—got up to leave. They thanked the lawmaker for meeting with them. Brown responded, “I’m thankful you all speak English so well.” Uh, ahem: Could someone please pass the turkey?
Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center
Bless his heart, this former gospel singer and current leader of the Texas Christian Coalition just couldn’t help himself. In the twilight hours of the session, Wayne Christian snuck an amendment through that allows him to rebuild his oceanside Galveston County vacation home, destroyed by Hurricane Ike, on the public beach. Critics have blasted Christian for eroding the 50-year-old Open Beaches Act. He insists he’s just protecting property owners from the “Big Brother State.” Before striking that blow for liberty, Christian spent much of the session trying, unsuccessfully, to impose his ultraconservative beliefs on the poor and weak, most notably with a bill requiring all applicants for government services to get drug-tested—even moms and dads applying for their kids. Hey: It’s the Christian thing to do!
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van
Payday lenders, who charge low-income borrowers up to 1,000 percent interest, operate virtually without regulation thanks to a loophole in Texas law—and thanks to Dan Flynn, who bottled up legislation in his subcommittee that would have closed the loophole. Flynn, who collected $5,000 in the last election cycle from payday-lender PACs, suggested during a hearing that borrowers were to blame for not reading the fine print on their contracts. “The disclosure is there—it’s very prominent. I can read it without my glasses,” he said. “Do they not realize what they are doing? Is it because of education?” When he wasn’t bashing low-income borrowers, Flynn wrote a bill that would have prohibited Texas from spending money on public-safety messages and election materials in languages other than English. “It’s very frustrating to most Americans,” he said. “You’ve probably gone to Wal-Mart and picked something up and had to search for English on the instructions.” Charming.
Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay
Troy Fraser is a human black hole: He sucks the light out of everything he comes near. A bosom buddy—some say lackey—of Gov. Rick Perry, Fraser’s signal contribution to the session was the divisive, destructive voter ID bill, which Democrats said was designed to suppress minority votes. During a 24-hour floor debate, Fraser was long on passionate intensity but short on details. At one point, he repeatedly insisted that one of his amendments would have prevented voters from using voter-registration cards—when he had explicitly added them to the list of acceptable forms of ID. On environmental and consumer issues, Fraser frequently played spoiler, delighting business lobbyists. As chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee, Fraser squelched bills to promote energy efficiency and solar power, provide assistance to low-income electric customers and start a needle-exchange program. If it’s good for ordinary folk, Fraser’s agin’ it.
The People’s Friends
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas
When his fellow partisans in the Senate voted to abolish the two-thirds rule in order to railroad through the divisive voter ID bill (see Tommy Williams, opposite page), John Carona balked. Didn’t the Senate have more important things to do? he asked. Carona was the sole Republican to vote against the scheme. He showed his independent streak on other issues, too. Carona championed legislation that would have allowed communities to raise money through taxes for transportation projects, including mass-transit projects like commuter rail in Dallas-Fort Worth. That bold proposal provoked howls of indignation from anti-tax zealots. Carona pushed back, criticizing the naysayers, including Gov. Rick Perry, for being blinded by ideology. He even threatened to filibuster when the local-option tax was struck from the bill late in the session, quoting an old Italian saying: “I can protect myself from my enemies; may God protect me from my friends!”
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston
For those who follow Texas politics, Garnet Coleman and the Children’s Health Insurance Program have become nearly synonymous. Perhaps no recent government program has benefited working families as much as CHIP, which provides low-cost coverage to families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can’t afford private insurance. And no lawmaker in the state has nurtured and protected the program since its inception in 1999 as fiercely as Coleman. This session, Coleman once again fought the good fight, sponsoring a bill to expand CHIP to 80,000 more Texas children. He pushed the bill through the House, only to see it die in the Senate. Coleman tried to resurrect the proposal right through the session’s final hours. He didn’t win this one. But Coleman will surely return in two years with another CHIP bill.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo
If this were a geniality contest, Judith Zaffirini would certainly fall on the “foe” side. She is famous for being relentlessly aggressive in pursuit of her aims—and downright mean to colleagues who stand in her way and staffers who don’t meet her standards. But however devilishly, she often does the Lord’s work. This session, Zaffirini passed a bill through the Senate to limit out-of-control college tuition increases to 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower—a canny move designed to force legislators to properly fund higher education. When the measure died in the House, she was characteristically blunt: “What an embarrassment. What a shame.” Zaffirini, who worked tirelessly on behalf of students and educators at all levels, fought a fierce, down-to-the-wire battle—locking horns with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—to do away with “proportionality” in state funding for community colleges, which relegates those vital institutions to third-rate status in Texas. Dewhurst won this round. But Zaffirini will be back, with a vengeance.
Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless
Todd Smith had a thankless job. As chairman of the House Elections Committee, he was tasked with shepherding voter ID through the chamber. Partisan Republicans badly wanted the bill to pass. Democrats were desperate to kill it. To Smith’s credit, he tried to find a compromise on an issue so polluted by partisanship that compromise might have been impossible. In the end, it did prove impossible, but Smith gets an “A” for effort. Later in the session, Smith broke again with the hardcore members of his party. Some House Republicans, suspecting a Democratic ploy, opposed a bill by Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia that was designed to register more high-schoolers to vote. Smith spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor, informing his colleagues that registering voters was a nonpartisan activity that everyone should support. He was one of just two Republicans to vote for the bill, putting good public policy ahead of rank partisanship.
Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco
Kip Averitt is a rarity at the Capitol: soft-spoken, respectful of differing opinions and allergic to flights of ideological fancy. Averitt usually votes the GOP line, but in two important areas he has shown a willingness to break with the pack. A supporter of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (see Garnet Coleman, previous page), which has been under sustained attack from other Republicans, Averitt played a pivotal role this session in trying to expand access to the children of middle-class Texans. He was also a sensible voice on water and environmental issues. Averitt assembled a package of legislation that—had it been able to vault the voter ID logjam that marred the end of the session—would have provided a $4,000 rebate for plug-in hybrid vehicles, updated building codes, encouraged more efficient appliances and brought long-overdue reforms to the state’s antiquated air-pollution permitting rules, finally forcing the state’s environmental regulators to consider the cumulative impacts of newpolluters.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston
One look at Scott Hochberg and you can tell he’s a nerd. The ruffled mop of hair, the rounded bookish glasses, the constant talk of school-funding formulas and accountability standards give it away. The man is toting around serious brainpower. He’s one of about six people in the state who actually understands school finance. For years, Hochberg has used that brainpower to try to improve education in Texas. This session was no different. Hochberg was integral to passing two large, complicated education bills this session. One bill makes minor changes to the school-finance system. Some school districts will receive a nearly 3 percent funding increase under the bill, which also includes an $800 teacher pay raise. Hochberg also helped pass House Bill 3, which will slightly reduce Texas’ reliance on standardized tests. Neither of these bills added up to comprehensive reform, and education groups were hoping for more from both. But in a legislative session in which very little got done, Hochberg was relatively productive.