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Looking Back at Texas' Republican Decade

In the first installment of a three-part series on Texas Republicans' lock on state government over the past decade, Ben Philpott of KUT News and the Tribune looks at the early days of the GOP's domination.

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It was a gradual takeover, with the minority party trending upward for several years: George Bush was elected governor in 1994, Republicans took over the state Senate in 1997, and by 2001 the party was just four seats away from taking a majority in the House. The resulting 2001 legislative redistricting maps would cement the state’s shift from blue to red.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

Harvey Kronberg, the editor of the Quorum Report, says that while the shift was inevitable, Republican leaders, helped by Congressman Tom DeLay, helped accelerate it in the 2002 elections.

“Obviously there was some gerrymandering, but the state was clearly trending Republican and the demographics were working on their behalf,” Kronberg says.

The genesis of that final push may have come when DeLay dropped by Democratic Speaker Pete Laney’s office in 2001. Kronberg says that meeting let Republicans know that the only way their party would get a majority in the Texas congressional delegation was to get rid of Laney.

“You can argue that that was the predicate for everything that happened afterward, when Laney said he wasn’t going to be cooperative on congressional redistricting,” Kronberg says.

A new House map and an influx of campaign funds — some of which were eventually deemed illegal — led 88 Republicans to be elected to the House in 2002. Tom Craddick was elected the state's first Republican speaker since Reconstruction. Craddick says the new majority carried responsibilities and freedoms many Republicans had never experienced, which led to a few problems during that 2003 session.

“For over 100 years, you didn’t have control and you didn’t have a lot of input,” Craddick says. “All of a sudden you have control and everybody’s got a program. Everybody’s got a factor they want put into effect. And so you kind of weed through and say, ‘We can’t do that’ [or] ‘We can do this.’”

The new leadership had clear priorities: insurance regulations aimed at stabilizing a homeowners insurance market with skyrocketing premiums, and legislation limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.

“Most of the people that carried the major legislation had never passed a major bill,” Craddick says. “Many of them had never passed anything but local bills.”

One example of that inexperience surfaced at the end of the session. When bills headed to conference committees to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of a bill, Craddick often had multiple committees meeting in different parts of his apartment in an effort to help with the negotiations.

“My wife, Nadine, came home after an event and said, ‘What’s going on? There are people everywhere in the apartment,’” Craddick says. “And I said, ‘Nadine, you know more about conference committees then most of them. Dig in and help with one of them.’”

Kronberg says the inexperience also showed in how quickly some bills were passed, sometimes with little understanding of what was in them. That includes passage of bills that gave new powers to Texas’ traditionally weak governor.

“The appointment process is more direct to boards and commissions,” Kronberg says. “The ability of the governor to reach into boards and commissions — where the true administration of government takes place — is more profound. Then there’s a whole series of mechanical things that were passed in a massive government-reorganization bill.”

Kronberg says Republican inexperience also showed in some of the key legislative committees. More experienced Democrats were either voted out of office or relegated to the background, and eager but “green” Republicans took control.

The GOP leadership also had problems getting business-centric lawmakers to get out of their comfort zone and tackle other topics. Craddick says that was a problem, especially when trying to fill out the House committees focused on health care.

“No members wanted to do it. No Republicans wanted to be on those committees. No Republicans wanted to be chairmen of it,” Craddick says. “We had a real hard time. I had to sit some members down and say, ‘You know this is a major issue in the state. We’ve got to be able to do it.’”

The new majority also had to contend with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. The hole was filled through program cuts, fee increases and some accounting tricks. But there were no outright state tax increases.

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson says that budgetary road map established in 2003 has directed GOP policy ever since. Over the years, he says, this has led to less money for state infrastructure, health care programs, and public and higher education.

“They are far more oriented towards stopping bad things from happening — from their perspective — than causing good things to happen,” Jillson says. “They don’t have a positive agenda in the sense of [making] improvements to education or access to health care, transportation, the environment or any of the other major policy issues.”

Republicans argue that throwing money at a problem isn’t a sustainable solution. Craddick says the changes that began in 2003 have guided the state in the right direction.

“I think there were some great changes made,” he says. “Probably some mistakes were made, but over all I think that the state’s better off and in better shape because of having the Republican control.”

And Republicans expect this control to last.

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