With the speaker’s race still sizzling, will the state’s huge funding needs be taken care of?
By DAVE MCNEELY
As the Texas House of Representatives gets ready for the session that starts in mid-January, with the race for its powerful leadership position still going hot and heavy, heed these words:
“Big problems face the new session. Money will be needed to solve many of them. Emergency appropriations will be sought to raise state employees’ salaries, for prison rehabilitation, state hospitals, for public schools and colleges, and for farm-to-market roads.”
Actually, that appeared almost 60 years ago, in The Dallas Morning News, on Jan. 11, 1949, in a story by Richard M. Morehead. It was the backdrop to a race for House speaker between Durwood Manford and Joe Kilgore.
Manford won – and within days, the race was already under way to succeed him two years later.
In advance of the 2009 regular session, Republican Tom Craddick is vying for a fourth term as speaker. Again, although there’s talk of a surplus of several billion dollars, advocates for the people at the bottom of the economic ladder say that’s a fleeting notion – especially given the nation’s economic collapse.
The competition for state money among public schools, healthcare and health insurance, state colleges and universities, transportation funding, mental health, juvenile and adult corrections facilities, and a host of other needs, will be fierce.
There are also a significant number of House members, probably a majority, who think Craddick’s overbearing leadership style isn’t what they need, going into the future. Almost a dozen have announced as candidates to succeed him, and there are more in the wings, should there be a stalemate.
If none of the 150 House members has produced a majority of 76 supporters willing to put their names on a public list by Jan. 13, when the session begins, the speaker’s contest goes to the House floor. How will the speaker be chosen then?
There have only been three multiple-ballot contests for speaker in the last century – 1911, 1925, which took six rounds to elect a speaker from three candidates, and 1972.
The multiple-ballot option dried up with the advent of the “pledge card” system in the 1960s, in which speaker candidates got members to sign cards pledging to vote for them.
The 1972 contest, after Speaker Gus Mutscher resigned under fire as a result of the Sharpstown stock fraud and banking scandal, included a runoff between the top two candidates of the five who ran. Rayford Price beat out DeWitt Hale – and then lost re-election to his House seat.
The free-for-all with a runoff between the top two finishers is but one of the ways a speaker might be chosen. There are at least two more, and it is completely up to the House members to decide how they want to make their choice. There is no continuing set procedure.
A second way is to do what the Texas Senate did when it had to choose a senator as presiding officer in 2000, after then-Gov. George W. Bush was declared president-elect and resigned, and then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry became governor.
The senators used a secret balloting process – upheld by the Texas Supreme Court – that dropped off the bottom finisher off each of several successive ballots. Republican Bill Ratliff eventually won, and presided over the Senate for the next two years.
The third method would be to have all the declared candidates compete, and after each ballot, any who wanted to drop off could – or not – and just keep voting until someone reaches 76 votes.
The vote can be by secret ballot or record vote. The House had several secret ballots in its earlier years, but none since 1972. The incumbent speakers seeking re-election – including Craddick – have usually favored record votes, to pressure potential naysayers. Challengers have favored secret ballots, so members can vote without fear of reprisal.
Between now and Jan. 13, House members will continue circling, trying to decide whom to choose as their leader, and if no one has been chosen by then, how to choose him or her. That could be among the early big fights of the session.
Veteran Texas political writer Dave McNeely can be reached at email@example.com.