The three state senators who had the least impact during the 2015 legislative session — at least in terms of numbers — were all freshman conservatives from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But observers say that doesn’t mean they had an unsuccessful session.
Among the three Republicans, Konni Burton sent just one bill to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, while Don Huffines and Bob Hall passed none. No other senator passed fewer than seven bills, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, topped the rankings with 44. (Former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte passed no bills, although she stepped down to run for San Antonio mayor.)
Yet statistics on bills' passage, said Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones, can be an incomplete measure.
“It’s one of many indicators of legislative success, but it’s not the only one,” Jones said. “Certainly you can be very influential without passing many bills. A great example of that at the national level is [U.S. Sen.] Ted Cruz.”
Getting your bills signed by the governor is equivalent to hitting a home run, but Jones noted there are “a lot of ways to score runs in baseball."
One, as Burton, R-Colleyville, demonstrated, is tacking on your legislative priorities as amendments to other bills. Burton resorted to that tactic when longtime state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, killed some of her bills after she led efforts to block his proposal that would have banned texting and driving statewide.
With her legislation facing little hope, Burton got some of her ideas to Abbott’s desk as amendments, and Senate staff dubbed one bill with several Burton amendments the “Konnibus bill.” That effort demonstrated the freshman’s “ability to maneuver legislatively with the best of them,” according to Burton’s chief of staff, Art Martinez de Vara.
In an emailed statement, Burton said it’s “amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
“We were able to pass our legislation and kill [Craddick’s], seems like we got what we wanted, and what is best for the people of Texas without playing the political gamesmanship that dominates the Capitol,” Burton said. The one bill Burton passed established a pilot program to recycle unused prescription drugs.
Hall, meanwhile, garnered a “Furniture” award in Texas Monthly’s ranking of lawmakers, a designation given to those whose “participation in the legislative process was indistinguishable from that of their desks and chairs.”
Huffines’ predecessor — whom Huffines beat in a GOP primary — called him “the least effective of all 31 senators.”
“To serve his constituents, he’ll need to temper his strict Libertarian and Tea Party views and better understand what it is to be a legislator,” former state Sen. John Carona said in a statement. “Scorecard results mean nothing if Donald can’t work with his colleagues to get things done.”
Hall, R-Edgewood, and Huffines, R-Dallas, did not respond to requests for comment.
But in the view of conservative groups, all three senators had a strong session.
The three ranked in the top four of the Empower Texans 2015 Fiscal Responsibility Index. In a blog post titled “Freshmen Lawmakers Deliver Results,” the group noted that Huffines “blazed a conservative trail” and Hall “validated the grassroots effort that supported his election.”
The group also wrote that there’s little chance Texans could “find a stronger fighter” than Burton, who replaced Wendy Davis, the Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for governor.
The three senators got similar praise from Emily Horne, a lobbyist for Texas Right to Life, who said they took the unusual step of co-authoring all of her group’s priority bills, and were proactive in backing their issues.
“They were fantastic,” Horne said. “We were thrilled to work with them. They were supportive and wanted to do anything they could to help. We hope they continue to work with us in future sessions and hope to see them again.”
Next session, the three political newcomers will have more legislative experience, unlike some other freshman senators who had previously served in the House, said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
“I think that having one session under their belts could help them as it relates to knowing how the process works,” West said. “Now, they’re going to have to make a political decision as to whether or not they’re gonna work with other senators in order to pass legislation and thereby deal with issues not only for the state of Texas but for their districts.”