Thursday, March 31, 2011

"On a Par in Importance With The Governorship": Conservatives and the Texas House Speakership in the late 1940s

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we discuss how Texas House Speakers gained authority even as the state entered a dark period of extreme conservatism.

The increased political activism of African Americans beginning in the 1930s, the growing Mexican American population, and the increasingly liberal drift of the national Democratic Party inspired a continued movement rightward for Texas Democrats. In fact, the Texas House speakership stood as an effective counterweight to the revolutionary changes that came to Texas during World War II and beyond.

In a nominating speech for the Dallas-born 44-year-old William O. Reed, state Representative John J. Bell told the House chamber, “The office of Speaker is on par in importance with the governorship.” The Dallas Morning News noted, “If this is not an accurate estimate, it is because Mr. Bell errs on the side of underestimation. For, if there is any commonwealth in the United States that is run by its legislative branch, it is Texas. And the Lower House, as the most productive source of legislation because of its large membership and as the controlling source of state finance, has a larger responsibility in state government than does the Upper House.”

In the late 1940s the question remained, power to what end? Reed experienced a childhood almost as tough as Calvert’s. Born the youngest of 10 children in the poverty-stricken Trinity River Bottoms, Reed reached only his first birthday before his father died. He held the reputation in his neighborhood as a street fighter, working as a newsboy for The Dallas Morning News. “In those days, that meant you could sell newspapers at any corner you liked – if you could fight off all the boys who wanted that corner,” a 1946 Morning News feature story on Reed reported. “Young Reed’s expert fists held down some good corners.” After dropping out of high school and working with the city water department, Reed landed a job in the Texas & Pacific accounting department. Hitting the law books at night, Reed earned a license and began working for the railroad company’s law department, specializing in railway rates.

In spite of his rough, working class origins, however, Reed quickly adapted the appearance and perspective of the ruling class. “Nowadays, you won’t suspect a rough-and-tumble background,” the Dallas News reported, “for Reed sports a trim moustache, [and] dresses his slender, lithe frame in sartorial perfection. His speech is quiet, dignified.” Even if Reed once threw off his glasses and charged towards a House colleague who had angered him until stopped by a sergeant-at-arms, Reed’s commitment to the ruling class went deeper than his clothing style. Unlike Calvert, his comrade in childhood poverty, Reed authored or presided over the passage of some of the most reactionary Texas legislation in the twentieth century.

To his credit as a House backbencher, Reed introduced a bill making it illegal for maternity homes to sell foundlings to prospective parents. But little in the rest of his career suggested such empathy for the underprivileged and struggling. Reed’s priority was a balanced budget. As a member of the Legislature, Reed authored the “pay-as–you go” amendment to the state Constitution approved by Texas voters in 1942. Up to that point, the state had no system for a unitary budget. Budgets were approved for respective programs and departments without regard to the state’s total spending for the biennium. As the state’s population expanded, so did its expenses and the result was fiscal chaos.

The state relied on deficit spending, often paying employees and even lawmakers in scrip. “The first paycheck I got would have to be discounted 20 percent to get money,” former speaker Claud Gilmer recalled. “There was a fellow with a little black box of money. He’d run around picking up these state warrants. Most people that were working for the state had no way to get away from this kind of guy.” Carson Gilmer later recalled his father receiving $8 a day in scrip as a legislator and taking the IOUs to grocery stores in Austin to buy food. The stores would accept the paper at only 60 percent of face value because the state was in such financial shambles. Gilmer had a law practice and owned shares of the telephone company, so he was not as hard hit as ordinary state employees who had to survive on only a portion of their already meager official salaries.

Economic conservatives like Gilmer, Reed and Coke Stevenson, who served as governor from 1941 to 1947, put together a state Constitutional amendment that limited deficit spending and required the state to operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. The state could deficit spend, but only in case of an emergency, and authorization of an unbalanced budget required approval of four-fifths of the House and Senate and the governor’s signature. With the state Legislature rarely in favor of tax increases, this amendment, which went into effect in 1945, meant that Legislators would have to rely instead on swinging the budget axe.

Other provisions of the amendment made the use of scrip by the treasury to pay bills illegal and required the state comptroller to certify whether biennial budgets were balanced before they could take effect. The amendment allowed the state to sell bonds in order to pay a deficit that had reached $34 million in 1941, the first year of World War II. Raising taxes and slashing already meager state spending on education, health care and other services also remained as options.

Governor Stevenson’s glacial response to a growing deficit recalls his approach to the speaker’s office. The pay-as-you-go amendment did make general sense economically, but Stevenson’s choices in how to implement it required more draconian budget cuts that jeopardized the poor. When Stevenson became governor, he “reduced funds for river authorities, starved school teachers, and abolished the Old Age Assistance Special Fund, which supported the aged, the blind, and dependent children,” according to historian Robert Dallek. As historian Kenneth Hendrickson put it:

. . . Stevenson’s economic policies were crude and shortsighted, and as the state’s needs for increased revenues became ever more critical, the governor ignored pleas for higher taxes. He could have supported (and perhaps even secured) a hike in the wellhead oil tax to bring Texas policy more in line with those of neighboring oil producing states, but he chose not to . . . When he left office in 1947, Stevenson was proud of the fact that the state budget was in the black. A deficit of thirty-four billion dollars in 1941 had been transformed into a surplus of thirty-five million dollars, but the quality of state services had declined substantially in the process . . ."

Only two years after Stevenson left the governorship, the state was forced to deal with the neglect given schools, hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill. The conservative dominance begun in the early modern period of the speakership pinched pennies at a terrible cost to state, leaving it unprepared for post-World War II realities. In contrast, the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II laid the groundwork for higher expectations of the state government by Texans in the postwar era.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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