The Best and the Worst of the Texas Legislature

Noah M. Horwitz


Yesterday, as part of a long Texas tradition, the state’s eponymous magazine published its biennial “Best and Worst of the Texas Legislature” list. Proving no exception to the rule, this year’s list stoked controversy from both the left and the right for its unconventional picks. 

Two years ago, when I was senior associate editor, the Texan published its own list. At the time, we thought that Texas politics could not get any crazier or more vindictive. Alas, here we are. In a session with so much abject terribleness and failure, discussing the idea of the “Best” legislators feels almost quaint. 

There were some honorable mentions, such as Rep. Dan Huberty’s, R-Houston, valiant quest to improve the state’s broken school finance system–and Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, fighting to keep the crazy-train amendments out of the budget. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, authored the “Sandra Bland Act,” which passed unanimously and will help folks with mental illnesses who are incarcerated. Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, among others, enacted a reform of CPS that was a step in the right direction. A group of lawmakers that included UT’s representative, Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, pushed through a ban on school suspensions for little kids. 

But all too often adulation has been given when someone does something that should have been expected of any decent human being in the first place. Put another way, I do not sing my dog’s praises when I come home and she has not defecated on the carpet. That the political punditry figuratively does always has perplexed me. 

So Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, may have spoken bravely against the amendment that turned SB4 from a garden-variety “let’s make a solution to a problem that does not exist” fight against mythical sanctuary cities to a full-blown Arizona-style “Show Me Your Papers” law. But he still voted for the underlying bill, with this amendment! Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, spoke out compassionately against the Bathroom Bill, but both signed off on a compromise that would have kept the playoff games in the state but still led to a bunch of trans kids hurting themselves. (The compromise was deemed not-mean-enough by the Senate, so we’ll see what monstrosity awaits us in the special session.) 

For my worst list, I think I just want to nominate en masse the Senate Republican Caucus, including its ex-officio 21st member Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. Consisting of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the helm and his pathetic sycophants, they passed measure after measure that would turn Texas into the hellhole that is Sam Brownback’s Kansas. Worse yet, it appears that it is only Patrick and a few close colleagues who actually believe in any of this drek. 

Patrick passed through his chamber two proposals that would have seriously — and possibly irrevocably — messed up Texas. The first was the voucherization of the public school system, known in an Orwellian sense by Patrick and his handlers as “school choice.” The second was odious restrictions on the ability of localities to set their own revenue to fund basic services like the police and firefighters. Both were rightly assailed by non-partisan organizations of cities and counties, as well as rural interest groups. But most rural senators sold their constituents down the river to salvage their future prospects in Republican primary elections. Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, put up a token fight, but again, the axiom about the dog and the carpet is applicable. 

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, was one of the only bright spots in the Senate. She cast the sole vote against Patrick’s reactionary, ridiculous budget. The budget slashed basic services and in the words of Straus himself, used Enron accounting tricks to balance. (But for the grace of HaShem, cooler heads prevailed in conference committee, amid them Zerwas and Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West Univ. Place, and the final budget was considerably saner.) Like Joseph Martin-Dauch in Jacques-Louis David’s seminal portrait of the Tennis Court Oath, it was Garcia alone who dissented as all her colleagues prepared to march over the cliff. 

The members of the House Freedom Caucus also deserve a special place on the worst list. To the extent that Patrick ever got his way in the House, it was because of the weasel tactics of these legislators. In what is now known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” they talked both uncontroversial and must-pass bills to death, later revealed to be, at times, at the bidding of Patrick himself. Reps. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, were perhaps the worst offenders in this regard, though Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, needs to be castigated independently for making racist quips to a group of Hispanic legislators. 

While it is true that the most controversial proposals — sans SB4 — died in the House, the upcoming special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott promises to resurrect them. And despite Straus’s reputation for moderation, when he was placed in similar predicaments by former Gov. Rick Perry, he folded like a cheap card table. I would reiterate what I had said a few weeks back — this is the worst Legislative session in my life, but we haven’t even gotten through with the carnage.  

Perhaps there will be a postscript in August. 

Horwitz is a second-year law student from Houston. He is a senior columnist.