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Time-saving tip for Texas Legislators

Legislators, about 20-30 of you will either be honored or disgraced Friday, when Texas Monthly releases their “10 Worst – 10 Best” legislators list. Counting honorable mentions and furniture, there will be more than a few people unhappy with their choices. Others of you will suddenly realize the extent to which you never realized that the folks at Texas Monthly were freakin’ geniuses.

But lets face it – your staff is really tired. They really don’t want to write the statement from you, in which you react to your inclusion in this fine piece of journalism. So, as a service to you and your exhausted staff, from Letters From Texas Worldwide Headquarters, Political Affairs Division, feel free to choose the appropriate choices on this suggested press release, and save yourself some time and trouble. Merely write in your name and your district number, circle the appropriate choices, and sent it out.

Press Release

June 5, 2009

[Senator/Representative _________ ] Responds to Texas Monthly

(Austin) [your name here] said the following today, after Texas Monthly magazine announced [his/her] inclusion in their list of ten [best or worst] legislators:

“[I am disappointed in or I applaud] Texas Monthly for their [hack job or fine journalistic effort] in naming the ten best and ten worst legislators today.

“Fortunately, constituents in my district [already knew this worthless rag was full of crap or have long known of my legislative prowess]. I can think of no higher compliment than [for this liberal commie pinko travel magazine to disagree with my high-minded legislative priorities or for this fine magazine to recognize all that we have been able to accomplish this session].

“The good people of District ____ have long known [not to take their political advice from a travel rag, any more than they would take travel advice from a political magazine or that I have worked very hard on their behalf, and the positive results are apparent].

“It is truly a great reflection on my district that [this out-of-touch liberal Austin insider gossip rag trashed me or this fine conservative news publication has finally recognized my achievements].

“I would just add [my compliments to Texas Monthly for a job well done or that Paul Burka can suck a nut].”

# # #

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Memo to Republicans: Texas doesn’t need I.D. laws, but Australia does

Republicans fond of offering solutions in search of problems, who always seem hot to make folks show their I.D.’s before doing stuff, need to move to Australia.

After the huge wildfires there, the government offered a $1,000 payment to any family losing their home. Over 67,000 families asked for and received the payments. Some were not asked to show I.D. or prove damages, since the personal records of many were lost in the fire.

One teeny weeny problem: only 2,000 homes were destroyed. In a related story, the Texas Secretary of State reports that no free money is being given away at Texas’ polling places.

It reminds me of an old aggie joke news alert:

Authorities say that a single engine Cessna airplane crashed in a cemetery outside of College Station early this morning. Local rescue teams say they have recovered over 2,396 bodies so far.

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Letters From Texas 10 Best Texas Legislators List

Editor’s note: This cross-partisan ten best legislators list started as a conversation between Republican consultant Ted Delisi and me – we wondered what would happen, in choosing legislative standouts, if a Republican judged the Democrats, and a Democrat judged the Republicans. Plus, why the hell should Texas Monthly have all the fun?

We hope you think the result is interesting, both in choices and approach. Ted Delisi’s picks are in red and Harold Cook’s are in blue. We didn’t lobby each other on the choices. We hope it’s thought-provoking and promotes discussion and comments. To my fellow Democrats – it takes some cojones for a Republican to contribute content to a Democratic blog. Please be polite to the company, we want him to come back from time to time. Of course, feel free to ridicule me all you want, same as usual. -HC

Ted Delisi’s Overview
Former Speaker of the Texas House (as well as the U.S. House) Sam Rayburn used to say that he was “a Democrat without suffix, without prefix and without apology.”

As a Republican, that’s how I like the members on the opposite side of the aisle: unrepentant and unapologetic. That doesn’t mean I respect any and all tactics to achieve your goals. In the legislative arena, effectiveness means getting your bill into law, period. This requires a potent mix of persuasiveness, passion, and persistence. All of the lawmakers on my “Top 5” share a mix of those characteristics.

I have not amassed at group of lawmakers who voted most often or who are more ideologically inclined to agree with my fellow Republicans. Standing up for what you believe and winning, that’s where you earn respect.

In some ways, my task is more difficult than my counterpart’s because Democrats are, obviously, in the minority in both chambers. They hold only a handful of key committee chairmanships and, at times, they believe their role (rightfully so) is to forcefully argue against policies that they disagree with. That being said, few will disagree that the Democrats have had their best policy session since Pete Laney was Speaker and those on this list saw opportunity in the to build consensus and pass legislation even if they weren’t in control.

Feel free to argue with my choices: you have 9 minutes and 45 seconds….

Harold Cook’s Overview
A Democrat picking the five best Republicans is a tough assignment, with several directions from which to choose. I could have picked Republicans who make Democrats look good (Betty Brown, Leo Berman, et al). I also could have picked Republicans who sometimes vote with the Democrats.

Reluctantly, I ultimately played it pretty straight and picked Republicans who I believe are constructive, well-respected, and do more good than harm, if only by accident. This, for one simple reason: writing up Republicans for voting with Democrats, or because they make Democrats look extra good, might encourage ‘em to stop doing it. If Democrats lose votes, legislation gets worse. And if Republicans ever stop acting goofy, the legislature will be even more boring than it already is.

Counting down to the best-of-the-best, here are our picks:

5. Representative Garnet Coleman. Garnet Coleman is the unapologetic voice for health care for the Democrats. He believes completely in the cause. But he’s still an accessible lawmaker who has grown into a real leader while he’s been in office. Despite strong opposition, by sheer force of will his expansion of children’s health insurance to 300% of poverty was still alive and kicking until the bitter end. When the Texas Legislature created the state’s CHIP program, then-Governor Bush fought for the benefit to be extended to those at 150% of poverty; today, the Legislature is debating extending benefits to those at 300% of poverty. That is quite a way to come in just one decade. I may not agree with it, but I respect that much of that march is a result of Representative Coleman’s hard work and singularity of focus.

5. Representative Todd Smith. I would have readily included Smith in past sessions, but almost didn’t this time. True, he’s perceived around the building as an earnest open-minded legislator, a reasonably thoughtful policy-maker, and a pretty hard worker. But I almost discounted him this session for so completely mishandling the voter I.D. issue. He worked with Democrats for weeks trying to forge a compromise, then under pressure abruptly abandoned the effort and pushed the unamended Senate version out of his committee and toward the House floor. The process upset folks in both parties. But in the end, his delays made the bill highly vulnerable to the parliamentary maneuvers which ultimately killed it. When the Senate Democrats killed voter I.D. last session, I called them heroes. How could I not repay Todd Smith for doing the same?

4. Senator Leticia Van de Putte. I’m breaking my rule on this choice because what earns Leticia Van de Putte a place on this list wasn’t a piece of legislation she passed; rather it was how she organized the opposition to a piece of legislation. As leader of the Senate Democrats, she was the leader of the strategic political debate on Voter ID. She marshaled her colleagues and made an impassioned argument against the rule changes and, ultimately, against passage of Voter ID. This was a model of how to do it right, even if her arguments didn’t carry the day. Is Senator Van de Putte the anti-Dunnam? I believe she is. She demonstrates how to oppose legislation without losing yourself in the battle. Of course, she’s an accomplished, well-liked lawmaker in her own right, but the behind-the-scenes battle shows that she is a real leader.

4. Senator Bob Deuell. I don’t like his votes, and I don’t like most of his legislation. But when Mario Gallegos was very ill last session during a hyper-partisan time in the Senate, Deuell, a doctor, stepped in and made sure Gallegos got a hospital bed just off the Senate floor so he could both rest and vote. So we already knew Deuell was a decent guy. But an event last week put Deuell over the top and on this list. In a sudden attack of political Tourette Syndrome, Deuell publicly went off on his fellow Republicans for them killing his needle exchange bill, one of the few policy ideas of his I actually like. Deuell said:

I think it’s time, especially for you Republicans, that if we’re to remain a viable party, we need to start…dealing with reality and not dealing with black helicopters and other myths that are out there by the right wing extremists.

Deuell has grown over the years, both in policy maturity and in stature among his peers(fortunately), but without abandoning his conservative roots (unfortunately). He’s a decent human being, and earned his place here.

3. Representative Scott Hochberg. Given the decades-long, expensive and politically volatile nature of school finance, you can argue that any steps taken to prevent future school finance litigation is the most important lawmaking of any session. Scott Hochberg is the formula go-to guy on the Public Education and Appropriations Committees, a numbers guru who has the trust of members from both property rich and property poor school districts. He understands the formulas, and more importantly, he understands the formulas drive the policy. Public Education Committee members can sometimes fall into protecting the status quo, but, quietly, Rep. Hochberg has been helpful to education reformers in limited cases. On Appropriations, he was tapped to lead the Article 3 subcommittee, pumping an additional $1.9 billion into the formulas. Knowledge is power; Hochberg has it.

3. Representative Warren Chisum. Molly Ivins used to tell me and anybody else who would listen that she loved her some Warren Chisum. I never saw the attraction, frankly, until this session. He’s anti-gay rights, anti-women’s rights, and generally anti-having fun. But in January when he became the (chairman) baby thrown out with the (Craddick) bathwater, he took it in stride. Many legislators would have sat in a corner all session and sulked. In fact, many did. Not Chisum. He made himself useful, took his licks in good humor, and spent most of the session being a fair and honest broker behind the scenes in touchy deals large and small. Turns out Molly was right about the guy.

2. Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. A 24-year veteran of the Texas Legislature, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa is a understated yet powerhouse force in the Legislature. As a member of the House, he made a name for himself on criminal justice issues. Last session, as a member of the Senate, he made his mark reforming the troubled Texas Youth Commission. Known as a hard-worker with bipartisan respect, he has been rewarded by the Lieutenant Governor with high profile positions on the Sunset Commission and Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He delivers for his district, securing funding for infrastructure improvements along Highway 281 and the port of Corpus Christi and funding for the engineering school at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. More importantly, he delivers for the state, most notably by passing the change in taxation of smokeless tobacco to fund both a rural physician loan repayment program and a popular small business margins tax cut. He’s an impact player who’s often overlooked by members of both parties.

2. Representative Jim Pitts. Pitts was the Appropriations Committee Chairman. Then he broke with Craddick and wasn’t the Appropriations Chairman. One new speaker later, Pitts is the Appropriations Chairman again. Pitts shined under Craddick, which was difficult because Craddick seldom let anybody shine. Pitts shined under Straus, which is difficult because nobody ever gets any signals from the coaching staff on the sidelines with Straus. But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge the principal’s office, Pitts just keeps shining. Remember back in January when everybody said it would be a tough budget year? Fugetaboutit. A very contentious and divided House passed the final budget 142-2. Granted, the Senate passed it unanimously, but make no mistake – the lack of budget acrimony isn’t all due to Obama’s magic money. A little of this bipartisan and bicameral kumbaya is because Pitts is a well-respected leader. And, oh yeah – he also led the House conferees who got rid of Ogden’s crappy stem cell rider. Nice touch, Mr. Chairman.

1. Representative Craig Eiland. Thanks to Hurricane Ike, Craig Eiland came to Austin in January with one of the biggest challenges in the Legislature: how to secure the hundreds of millions in funding needed to rebuild the University of Texas Medical Branch and his hometown of Galveston. True, Representative Eiland’s job was made easier by his assignment to the Appropriations Committee and his elevation to Speaker Pro Tem, but those assignments say a lot about Eiland’s reputation and the respect his peers have for him. Representative Eiland rose to the challenge, effectively building the coalition of state, federal and private interests to bring home the bacon needed to rebuild Galveston. Unfortunately for Eiland, that is not what he will be remembered for this session. If the Democrats regain the majority, he’ll be a leading candidate for Speaker; for the five days of the Democrat chub of the local calendar, he got some practice with the gavel. How much of an architect of the chub-a-thon he was we may never know, but his even-handed demeanor in the face of both Republican and Democrat expressions of frustration did not go unnoticed.

1. Senator John Carona. Let’s return to those child-like dreamy halcyon days of innocence, before life got dreary and complicated. And by that, of course, I mean January 14th. That’s when John Carona stood on the floor of the Texas Senate to explain why he would be the lone Republican opposing changing the Senate rules to ensure the voter I.D. bill’s Senate passage, despite his support for the actual voter I.D. legislation. Carona said the rule change would send a terrible signal:

…it seems so contrary to the very message that voters gave just a short time ago: stop the partisan gamesmanship, deal with the issues of substance and importance.

More prophetic words could not have been spoken, because just as Carona feared, the Senate rule change set the tone for the entire session, and ultimately was the root cause of the House melt-down over voter I.D., dooming many of those other “issues of substance and importance.” Carona has long been a hard-working Senator who takes on tough assignments (re: TxDOT), sometimes torturing and squeezing solutions into legislation nobody’s crazy about (re: TxDOT), but which everybody in the Senate tries to support anyway (re: TxDOT). As the session opened in January, Carona’s vote against the Senate rule change proved him to be a very wise man. And as the session closed 5 months later, it was because of his frustration, when it became apparent that his version of the TxDOT bill wouldn’t prevail, that he publicly shared more of his wisdom: “there is no agenda for this legislative session. It’s like a Seinfeld episode.”

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Desperate Cries for Help Your Faithful Correspondent in the News

Sunday morning’s “Session ’09: In Depth” political roundtable discussion on KXAN in Austin featured Texas Weekly‘s Ross Ramsey, Republican consultant Robert Black, and me. In a nutshell, we agreed in a very polite way, full of sweetness and light and many smiles, that tempers and lack of sleep dictate that everybody in the Capitol now hates each other’s guts. In other words, same as usual.

And speaking of working with Republicans (or against ’em – it’s a fine line), don’t forget that Monday at high noon, the Letters From Texas Cross-Partisan Best Legislators List will be posted. Republican Ted Delisi will rate Democratic legislators, and I will rate Republican legislators.

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Texas Legislators: you are not alone in your misery

Texas lawmakers who are working night after night with little sleep, trying to wrap up the legislative session, can take heart – other states’ legislatures are similarly working hard on The People’s business.

Case in point: in the final days of their own legislative session, the Illinois state legislature is feverishly trying to close out deliberations on the most important issues in their state. Namely, the budget, ethics reform, and bowling shoe safety.

It is rumored that legislators are split 7-10 on the issue. And I apologize.

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Ten Best Legislators List: Crossing Party Lines

If a certain monthly travel magazine can rate legislators, so can we. But our list has a twist, and while we can co-exist, we want an assist. Some of you will be pissed.

Here’s the deal: Republican consultant Ted Delisi and I are regular contributors on KXAN’s Sunday morning political show, “Session ’09: In Depth.” Since that partnership hasn’t seemed to result in any serious injuries so far, we thought another joint venture might be in order. Ted and I are going to work on a “ten best legislators” list together.

Here’s the catch: Ted, a Republican, has to pick 5 Democrats, and I, a Democrat, have to pick 5 Republicans. We will undoubtedly both have a tough time picking 5 of the opposite party we think are worth a damn.

We’ll post our results here next week. But today belongs to you. Lobby us in the comments section on who you think deserves a little cross-partisan lurve.

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FUBAR-Cam Update: Capitol evacuation possible due to dangerous disturbance in the space-time continuum

Capitol-watchers were disturbed and confused last night when it became apparent that even though it was 11:58 p.m. in the East side of the Capitol, it was simultaneously 2 a.m. on the West side of the Capitol.

Those in proximity to the House chamber noticed nothing amiss. However, those observing the Texas Senate noted that several Senators seemed to appear to be getting younger. Witnesses were primarily going by the behavior of the Senators working on the floor.

Dr. Albert Einstein was unavailable for comment.

The following two pictures taken of action in the House and Senate chambers were taken at the same time, only moments ago.

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Republicans challenged to a Deuell

Conservative Republican state Senator Bob Deuell said something that raised eyebrows on the floor of the Texas Senate yesterday. After losing Republican votes for a measure he supports to provide for a needle exchange program for drug addicts, thus saving lives, his amendment was stripped from the bill. His reaction:

I think it’s time, especially for you Republicans, that if we’re to remain a viable party, we need to start looking at medical facts and dealing with reality and not dealing with black helicopters and other myths that are out there by the right wing extremists.

Deuell’s frustration is not without merit on many issues. In this case, for the sake of those extremists, people will die. And oh yeah, did I mention that Senator Deuell is also a medical doctor – the only one in the Senate?

It also works in public education: when Republicans support extremists for positions of authority who pretend that creationism has any basis whatsoever in science, children don’t get well-educated.

It also works in public health: when Republicans fail to support CHIP expansion, or eliminating waiting lists for Texans with disabilities, or expanding Medicaid eligibility, all for the sake of fighting “big government” on behalf of extremists, people suffer, people get sick, and people die.

I could go on and on, on policy position after policy position, in almost the entirety of government functions.

Senator Deuell’s frustration yesterday provides a rare glimpse into Republican fears that Texans are noticing what is being done, and not done, in their names. But it’s not for average ordinary Texas families that these public policy priorities are pursued, but rather for a couple hundred thousand faithful Republican primary voters’ whims.

We’re about to witness this partisan suicide attempt on a National level, with President Obama’s nomination of a Hispanic woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. Everybody in politics knows that conservatives would have strongly opposed whoever Obama picked – it’s their job. But since Obama picked a woman and a Hispanic, Republican U.S. Senators, in their never-ending efforts to suck up to the ever-shrinking Republican ultra-conservative base, are about to alienate women and Hispanics from coast-to-coast for the next few months.

The good news for everybody else: if Republicans keep representing only a few elite extremists, at the expense of the rest of us, their base will shrink so small that they won’t even be able to fill up that black helicopter with their supporters.

Senator Deuell’s Republican colleagues didn’t listen to him yesterday. Someday, they’ll wish they had.

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Madness as the session grinds down

Seeing as how I’ve been too busy to post, this might be a good time to mention that with the end of the legislative session will also come an emergence of Governor Rick Perry’s power, relative to that of legislators. Even though Texas is almost undoubtedly heading into a special session*, the Governor controls the agenda then, not legislators.

Believe what you want about Perry, but unlike other governors, at least he hasn’t gutted a freshly slaughtered seal, pulled out its raw heart, and eaten it. Yet.

*kind of interesting how I slipped that in there without explanation, ain’t it?

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Desperate Cries for Help Your Faithful Correspondent in the News

Sunday morning’s voter I.D. debate on KXAN’s “Session ’09” between Ted Delisi and me, with Jenny Hoff as referee, was lively. Viewers were stunned to see that the two of us disagree. Here’s the video.

Also, be sure to post your suggested caption for the closing freeze frame of Jenny Hoff in the comments section.

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Kuempel vastly improved, but in surprising twist, remaining 149 House members slip into coma

While news organizations continue to report steady and welcome improvement in State Representative Edmond Kuempel’s condition following a heart attack suffered while in the Capitol last week, the online political publication Quorum Report additionally reports that doctors canceled their plans to perform an MRI on the lawmaker, because there seems to be a BB lodged behind his ear.

Investigators are said to be doing a ballistics test on a BB gun owned by former House Speaker Tom Craddick.

“He had motive. He had opportunity. You figure it out,” said one DPS investigator, on the condition that he immediately be placed in the witness protection program.

Craddick’s legal team immediately sprang into action, proffering the defense that if Craddick had anything to do with it, it was only because the former speaker was in a helicopter, and believed Kuempel was a feral hog.

In a related twist, even as Kuempel continued to improve and has now fully emerged from a medically-induced coma, the other 149 House members seem to have now slipped into one.

And aside from the BB and Kuempel’s welcome improvement, not a word of this dispatch is true, except for a very sincere Get Well Soon to Chairman Kuempel from Letters From Texas Worldwide Headquarters!

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San Angelo political update, not that there’s anything wrong with that

Lets see if I can get this out without stuttering. To paraphrase the classic Mel Brooks comedy movie Blazing Saddles:

The new mayor’s a qu….

I said, the new mayor’s a qu…

I SAID, the new mayor’s a QUITTER!

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Desperate Cries for Help Your Faithful Correspondent in the News

Regular News: The Dallas Morning News gave me a little love for a post on the blog.

Startling News: While they were at it, they compared me to Karl Rove.

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What R U doing? Can U come get me? I’m a legisl8tor. OMG! LOL!

Congratulations to State Representative and fellow Storyville fan Norma Chavez on her graduation from the University of Texas last weekend. I know she was proud to be on the list of graduates.

Sadly however, she does not appear to be on the El Paso County Sheriff’s list of elected officials who deputies are encouraged to drive home when drunk. And that, as anyone who has ever spent quality time in El Paso knows, is an important list to be on. Because, after all, what else is there to do in El Paso besides drink? Well, besides drink and that one other thing, but you know what I mean.

It seems that Chavez has requested an amendment to the El Paso County ethics bill that their delegation has been tussling over all session – that deputies be prohibited from driving elected officials home after said elected officials have been…well…”over-served,” as they say.

I actually think Norma has a point. Sheriff’s deputies shouldn’t be driving anybody, especially elected officials, when the elected officials are drunk. The reason I think this is because I think too highly of El Paso’s elected officials, and I’m guessing the deputies are themselves too drunk to drive.

What’s next – outlawing drunk texting for elected officials?

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Desperate Cries for Help Your Faithful Correspondent in the News

Here’s the tape from Sunday morning’s “Session ’09: In Depth” on KXAN, in which the apparent Republican position is that we shouldn’t expand health coverage for middle class Texas children, and that Shanda “Sex Toys” Perkins was qualified to be on the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles after all. I’m guessing Ted Delisi might characterize it a tad differently. Best of luck, Ted.

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