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Doing What's Best For Texas - A Commentary

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – The late Bob Bullock, a former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, used to hand out small bumper stickers of the state flag, with the motto "God Bless Texas" printed below. That statement perfectly reflected Bullock's governing philosophy, in which loyalty to his home state ran deeper than fealty to his political party.

I really miss Bob Bullock, a great, if sometimes ruthless, leader. When the Texas Legislature collapsed this week, it showed just how stunted and inept the state's current political leadership is by comparison. The Democrats' run for the border makes amusing political theater, but it also reveals a complete failure of leadership in Austin. Competent, flexible leadership would have prevented this implosion. Instead, as the state faces a $10 billion budget shortfall in the next two years, and the public school finance system falls apart, partisans on each side are lobbing long-distance insults at one another. This is a Legislature that could headline the Jerry Springer show.

This session couldn't be more different from Bob Bullock's last years in office. Back then, Republican George Bush was governor and Democrat Pete Laney was Speaker of the House. Each man had a different style, but they could work as a team. They were pragmatists, not ideologues, so they weren't overly concerned about their parties' legislative agendas. In fact, members of Governor Bush's own party gave him more trouble than most Democrats did. These men shared a motto: "Do what's best for Texas."

Of course, this Legislature had a much tougher environment than those heady years of the late 1990s. The sagging economy and budget deficit were going to make this a very tough session, even if the Bush-Bullock-Laney triumvirate had still been in charge.

But the state's elected leadership, now all Republican, seemed determined to make a bad situation worse. Governor Perry did not produce a serious budget draft for lawmakers; he simply told lawmakers to start from zero. Handled properly, zero-based budgeting can be a useful exercise. This was just ducking responsibility.

Governor Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick have also insisted, with the petulant stubbornness of 5-year-olds, that they will not raise taxes, no matter how much suffering budget cuts cause. Speaker Craddick made sure most House Democrats knew they were there to be seen and not heard; Republicans were in charge and the minority's opinion no longer mattered. Bringing up a redistricting bill late in the session, a bill that strongly favors Republicans, a bill pushed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom De Lay, was the final straw. Democrats rebelled - and some Republicans even thought their leadership had overreached. As one veteran lawmaker said after the Democrats left for Oklahoma, "Tom Craddick's been asking for this since the first day."

Governors Bush and Bullock modeled bipartisan leadership. Sadly for Texas, their legacy in that arena ended the day each left office. Only Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican with a pragmatic streak, carries on their tradition of trying to do what's best for Texas. He has worked hard to protect the Senate from the partisan squabbles that have torn apart the House. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst can't run the Capitol by himself.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.