Legislative wrap-up: The best and worst of the 84th Texas Legislature

Best: House

Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth): Texas public health received unique attention last year with the highly publicized arrival of ebola patients in Texas amid a growing conversation about marijuana legalization. Rep. Stephanie Klick did excellent work ensuring that Texas stays prepared for such medical concerns with her work on reinstituting a statewide infectious disease task force and allowing epilepsy patients a non-euphoric component of marijuana as medical treatment. Given UT’s recent outbreak of mumps and frequent student discussion of medical marijuana legalization, her proactive efforts set a high standard for reasonable legislative solutions to statewide health issues.

Joe Straus (R-San Antonio): Fortunately, unlike other longtime stalwarts of the House, Speaker Joe Straus hopes to remain in office, recently announcing his intention to seek another term as speaker. His focus on critical state issues, such as tax relief, public transportation and government ethics, with a responsible, non-divisive attitude makes him a model for Texas Legislative leadership, especially in a House divided by ultra-conservatives and relative newcomers. The centrist and pragmatic bent compares especially well to a Senate run amok by reactionary leadership.

Sylvester Turner (D-Houston): For around a quarter of a century, Rep. Sylvester Turner commanded respect for his willingness to reach across the aisle and speak as the “conscience of the House”. Turner’s accomplishments run as long as his service, most recently with his advocacy of criminal justice reform and denunciation of open carry. His rousing oration on the floor brought much-needed attention to the issues of mental health negligence for prisoners and the embarrassingly outdated empaneling process for grand juries in Texas. This session was Turner’s last, but his legacy will remain in the precedent he set for his fellow Legislators.

Worst: House

Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford): Rep. Jonathan Stickland, in sometimes comical fashion, made a point of being the most obstreperous, reactionary and nonsensical member of the Texas Legislature this session. The litany of his unprofessional behaviors includes arbitrarily killing single district bills, decorating Capitol hallways with a sign declaring himself a “former fetus,” almost fighting Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), potentially violating multiple House ethics policies, filibustering a bill that would prevent puppy murders and celebrating an “F-” rating for his LGBT efforts. That was a highlight reel rather than exhaustive list. His abrasive start to the Texas Legislature has surely won him more mocking headlines than supporters, but for this Board’s amusement, we almost hope to see him re-elected, though certainly not for his “public service.”

Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington): Where to begin with this media-magnet Tea Party freshman? Many touted Rep. Tony Tinderholt's campaign as an experiment to see how far right the already extremely conservative state house could go. Tinderholt did not disappoint. He has associated himself with ultra-conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and fellow worst member Rep. Jonathan Stickland, but his militant suggestions for how to defend the Texas border from Mexican invasion, his vociferous work against gay marriage’s supposed assault on the institution’s sanctity (despite being on his fifth marriage) and outbursts at anyone unwilling to allow open carry efforts as extreme as his border on farce. But, to use his own words in his defense, “What comes out of my mouth just kinda comes out sometimes.”

Best: Senate

Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler): The Texas Senate President Pro Tempore may largely be a ceremonial role, but this session’s holder, Sen. Kevin Eltife, earned the position with his recent efforts to steady the Senate. Such skill with reasoned compromise has been the mark of this session’s most praised figures on both sides of the Legislature. Eltife, who recently announced his retirement, enhanced his reputation last session by facilitating difficult legislation, and created a strong platform to continue such unification into the next.

Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay): Gov. Greg Abbott recently staked out bold ambitions for Texas public higher education, and he can thank Sen. Troy Fraser for a successful start. Fraser’s University Research Initiative bill will provide over $8 billion for Texas public universities to attract top researchers and educators. The 27-year Texas legislator decided to retire from office at the end of the session, but his contribution to Texas higher education will be a lasting legacy.

John Whitmire (D-Houston): Observers disagree about how successful the recent session was for ethics reform, but none can fault Sen. John Whitmire for his efforts nor ignore his promotion of the issue. Whitmire authored a bill that finally brought Texas’s grand jury selection in line with the rest of the country by eliminating judges’ ability to indirectly appoint jurors. In fact, the majority of the 42-year Texas legislator’s 31 bills focused on criminal and judicial reform and, while not all were successful, he should be praised as one of the premier ethics leaders of the last session, if not contemporary Texas legislative history.   

Worst: Senate

Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville): Despite national and statewide progress toward acceptance of gay marriage, Sen. Eddie Lucio stood against the trend by absorbing Rep. Cecil Bell’s (R-Magnolia) bill blocking same-sex marriage into his larger county ordinance bill. Lucio’s intentions were even more shameful, though, as he attempted to sneak the proposal into an unrelated bill. Along with trying to deny LGBT rights, Lucio worked against women’s right with his bill to limit many health providers covering abortions in Texas. Thankfully, neither passed, but the Senator’s priorities leave little to recommend him in this Board’s opinion.

Dan Patrick (R-Houston): As the polar opposite to Speaker Joe Straus, Patrick has let the Texas Senate, once the pinnacle of pragmatism and moderation, descend into extremist chaos. Once styled the “greatest deliberative body in the world,” Patrick nixed the long-valued “two-thirds” rule early in his tenure, which ensured that the majority party may unilaterally fast-track legislation through the chamber. He used the Republican majority’s newfound power to support extremist legislation, including a push to repeal the Texas DREAM Act and effectively remove the licensing requirement for open carry, among other proposals. Fortunately, Straus’s House rightly repudiated his asinine priorities.