What They Saw at the 69th Lege

The issues facing Texas, then and (still) now

A few things sound familiar about the 69th Legislature, convened in January of 1985. The session began, as did the 78th in 2004, with a deficit, although Comptroller Bob Bullock reported it at only about $1.1 billion on a projected biennial budget of a little more than $36 billion (compared to last year's $10 billion shortfall on a $112 billion budget). The 1985 Lege patched the hole dug by declining oil revenues much as it did during last year's session, with cuts, "no new taxes," and increases in "fees": university tuition, day care facilities, court actions, and so on. Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, made it clear he would not consider an income tax – indeed, declared he would veto any such notion – which was a convenient threat, since there was never any chance an income tax would ever come to the House or Senate floor. The Lege was, then as now, heavily dominated by conservatives, though of both parties; officially Democrats still had the numbers (two-thirds of the House and 25 of 31 senators).

Much of the 69th Lege's heaviest lifting had been done for it the previous summer, when White called a special session of the 68th that enacted significant tax increases to pay for more highways and for the education reform whose symbolic centerpiece was "No Pass, No Play" – the revolutionary notion, carried by an education commission headed by Dallas tycoon H. Ross Perot, that public school students' extracurricular activities, most specifically sports, should happen after acceptable academic performance. Texans were still getting used to that idea (football would not be directly affected until the fall), and there were a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits, but the 69th could pretty much shrug, "Wait and see."

Of more immediate controversy were the state "blue laws," forbidding the sale on weekends of 42 curiously selective items – nails but not hammers, aluminum ladders but not wooden, cloth diapers but not synthetic – in an increasingly pathetic attempt to enforce Sunday store closings. Many major stores were already ignoring the law, and police were reluctant to enforce it ("We decided we had better things to do than arrest people for shopping on Sunday," said a Houston sergeant). On the floor of the House, a few country reps brooded glumly about the threat to the Texas way of life and Sunday dinner – but by sine die (and three months before the repeal would actually take effect), ruthless mobs of Sunday shoppers were spending their money at will.

Subject to equally spirited debate were proposals for a seat belt law, requiring free-spirited (or self-destructive) Texas drivers to buckle up, and raising the drinking age to 21. The laws turned out to be much ado about nothing – despite much advance consternation, both laws turned out to be quite popular then and largely uncontroversial since. In any case, there were federal highway funds at stake, so it was hardly a major victory for the nanny state – the big auto manufacturers, defending themselves from the imposition of required air bags, poured big lobby bucks into the seat belt effort, assuring passage.

On a more serious note, workers' comp and unemployment benefits were finally extended to farmworkers; there were some moderate regulations of pesticides (over the thundering objections of the Farm Bureau); and the Lege improved state welfare benefits – raising the princely sum offered to mothers of dependent children to half the national average. That was not before Houston Republican Rep. Brad Wright, chairing the committee charged with considering an indigent health care bill, suggested that poor people be sterilized. Gov. White also got into hot water by proposing that the mentally retarded should not be housed in neighborhoods but "industrial areas," though he retracted (as a "misunderstanding") his notion that bad family backgrounds might have led to their unhappy conditions.

Passing a moderate indigent health care bill – aimed at sharing the burden and ending the reflexive habit among certain public hospitals of refusing poor patients outright – required a brief special session when lawmakers couldn't manage a compromise by midnight on sine die. The lieutenant governor was Democrat Bill Hobby (a force behind the education reforms) and the House Speaker Gib Lewis; it would take the procedural reforms adopted by Speaker Pete Laney, beginning in 1993, to bring some order and transparency to the traditional chaos at session end.

At one point in the session, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Steve Guest warned reporters that women would not be admitted inside the Senate chamber unless they were wearing bras. It was never officially established how that standard was to be enforced.

Much of the session's political talk was of party-switching, with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Kent Hance (the man who beat George W. Bush in Midland, and who hoped to later take on White) noisily announcing his changeover in early May, at the side of turncoat Sen. Phil Gramm. (Gramm had just won his Senate seat over then state Sen. Lloyd Doggett, who had beaten Hance in the 1984 Democratic primary.) GOP Chair George Strake was promising a Republican House majority by 1990; that would take a little longer.

  • More of the Story

  • The Class of 1985

    The 69th Legislature, 1985, marked a turning point in the future of Texas politics

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