Dallas Morning News: Lack of Legislature Veterans Hurt Dallas-Area Delegation

By: Gromer Jeffers Jr. | June 1, 2015 AUSTIN — With its loss of seniority, the addition of movement conservatives and the daunting needs of a booming region, the Dallas-area delegation to the Legislature seemed bound for chaos.

But veterans from both parties filled the void, and area lawmakers avoided having a disastrous session.

More significantly, perhaps, they managed to get along.

In the Legislature, playing defense is just as good as a strong offense. And lawmakers stood ready when there was a legislative threat to the system in which Dallas transfers and receives its water.

“When we were tested, we came together,” said Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, co-chairman of the Dallas-area delegation. “We were unified, and we showed our strength.”

DeSoto Democrat Helen Giddings, co-chairwoman of the delegation, agreed, adding that overcoming the loss of veteran House members like Republican Dan Branch was a challenge.

“For the most part, we worked well together,” she said. “We were actually OK in terms of what we were trying to do as a delegation. We were able to work though that.”

But there were struggles. And the loss of clout hampered the area’s ability to make gains in the Legislature, particularly compared with the more influential Houston-area delegation. No lawmaker in Dallas County can say with a straight face that the delegation knocked it out of the park.

While the House remained somewhat stable, even with the loss of Branch and Irving Republican Linda Harper-Brown, the Senate was considerably weaker for the area than in previous sessions.

That’s because powerful incumbents like former Republican Sens. John Carona of Dallas and Bob Deuell of Greenville were replaced by freshman tea party activists who had strained relationships with other area elected officials.

North Texas mayors even sent a letter to new Sen. Don Huffines, who beat Carona for the seat, asking him to refrain from taking control away from local jurisdictions.

Indeed, House Republicans and Democrats said that they missed their former colleagues because only state Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, had the experience to move through tough legislation.

“This is no knock to our new senators, but they’re new,” Sheets said. “Having two new freshmen coming in created a challenge for us over here in the House. The new guys are trying to help, but we had to make up for that learning curve.”

Their inexperience was evident. Huffines passed four bills during the entire session, while Sen. Bob Hall, who beat Deuell, managed seven.

Still, Sheets said, the session was a success. Giddings said the area fared well in the state budget, with appropriations for colleges and universities in North Texas and $1 million for Dallas County for criminal justice diversion programs.

“We did quite all right as it related to appropriations,” Giddings said.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was pleased as well. But for the most part, he called getting through the session an act of survival. Hard-line conservatives and even some Democrats sought to curb the ability of cities to control things from oil and gas drilling to taxation.

The mayor said he wanted lawmakers to consider that the Dallas area is one of the best places in the nation to do business.

“The question is do we like the model we’re building for North Texas and is it a successful model?” he said. “I think it is, and we need to make sure we don’t mess it up.”