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Ten best and worst 2017

This is always the most anticipated part of a legislative session.

Around the Texas Capitol this year, it wasn’t unusual to hear the 85th Legislature described as the worst anyone could remember. While we wouldn’t go that far, this session had more than its fair share of dispiriting moments. Quite a few of those came courtesy of the bathroom bill and the misleading public-safety rhetoric its supporters used to justify restrictions on where transgender Texans could relieve themselves. The bill died in the House, but the issue hasn’t gone away. Lawmakers also took a simple bill to ensure that Texas cities comply with federal immigration requests and amended it to allow police to inquire about immigration status when they merely detain someone. Democrats argued that the “show me your papers” provision could lead to racial profiling of Latinos, and police chiefs said it would result in an increase in crime. On the other hand, the Legislature did provide a major funding increase—$509 million—to the Child Protective Services department, which desperately needed it.

But otherwise, not much got done. This Legislature passed the fewest bills in years, and while some might argue that’s a good thing, the biggest issue facing Texas—the crumbling school-finance system—went unaddressed. Instead of action, we got grandstanding over school vouchers, property taxes, and, as ever, abortion.

Most bills fell victim to a standoff between the House and Senate. The differences between the chambers have never seemed greater, mostly because the two men leading those chambers represent opposing sides of a divided Republican party. Speaker Joe Straus led a moderate, business-friendly coalition in the House; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick steered the more right-wing Senate.

In February, we declared Patrick the state’s most influential politician, and much of what happened this session reinforced that view. It’s true that his three prized proposals—on bathrooms, property taxes, and vouchers—all failed to pass. But there’s no denying that Patrick controlled the narrative of the session. He bullied the Senate to bend to his will and deftly used the bully pulpit to dominate news coverage and pressure the House. In the end, his killing of certain must-pass bills forced a special session.

For his part, Straus played skillful defense against Patrick’s agenda, but he too failed to pass his top legislative priority, school-finance reform. He also lost control of his chamber during the sanctuary cities debate, which resulted in the “show me your papers” amendment.

Meanwhile, Greg Abbott was largely a nonpresence at the Capitol. You’d have to go back decades to find a governor who engaged less with lawmakers. Abbott waffled repeatedly on the bathroom bill. He did little to aid the sanctuary cities measure he wanted but then took credit for it during a Facebook Live bill signing at which none of the lawmakers who actually passed it were present. A question often heard around the Capitol: Why did Greg Abbott want to be governor?

In the end, this session featured too much noise and too little done to improve the lives of Texans. All of which made compiling our biennial list of the best and worst legislators especially challenging. How do you judge a session in which so little was accomplished? Well, we talked to journalists, lobbyists, and many of the lawmakers themselves. We weren’t interested in ideology but rather who tried to solve problems and who created them. Politics is not just about conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It’s about working cooperatively to make Texas a better place. That has been the standard for the Best and Worst list since its inception in 1973 and remains so four decades later.

You can see the lists for yourself. Suffice it to say that I agree with some of the choices and disagree – strongly – with some others. I get that the intent of these lists is to be policy-agnostic, focusing instead on process and results, but I have a hard time with rewarding legislators (one in particular) who are successful in pursuing what even the authors freely state is bad policy. That just seems, I don’t know, a bit nihilistic to me. But these are the lists, and you can make of them what you will. As always, Harold Cook provides the template for legislators to respond to their inclusion in either place.

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