Friday, April 08, 2011

State Budget Shortfalls and Redistricting: How the Texas Legislature Handled it in 1951

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 describe how Texas House Speaker Reuben Senterfitt took charge of the state budget and the conflict between urban and rural representatives during the decade's redistricting struggle.

If Gov. Allan Shivers emerged in the 1950s as the erratic center of gravity in Texas politics, House Speaker Reuben Senterfitt and House member Jim Lindsey arose as the steady polestars, translating the charismatic governor’s ideas into less showy reality. ”Senterfitt . . . owed most of his political success to Shivers [and] tended to defer to the governor,” Ricky F. Dobbs argues in his recent biography of Shivers. But the relationship was more complex and Senterfitt played a critical leadership role. Senterfitt and Shivers almost always agreed on issues, but the speaker from San Saba was more than willing to take the initiative if the volatile Shivers was in an impractical or distracted mood. By 1954, this became more frequent as scandals rocked Shivers’ administration.

Jim Lindsey also kept busy during the 51st session. Born on a Bowie County Farm near Boston, the county seat, Lindsey served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II before returning to enroll in Baylor University where he graduated with a law degree in 1950. Before earning his diploma, however, Lindsey was elected to the Legislature in 1948. Preston Smith, a House member who later served as governor, took Lindsey under his wing and introduced him to Senterfitt, who was already Manford’s heir apparent. While Senterfitt apprenticed under former Speaker Durwood Manford, Lindsey apprenticed under Senterfitt.

“I remember sitting there one day at my desk, when Preston [Smith] . . . came over to me and he sat down. He said, ‘Jim, I think someday you may get to be speaker,’” Lindsey remembered in an interview at his home in California in 2004. “I want you to go over and meet with Reuben Senterfitt, who’s going to be our next speaker.’. . . So I did that, and I signed up with Reuben that day . . . early on . . . and began . . . [to] cut my teeth on the Gilmore-Aikin bill, by . . . not handling it on microphone but on [the] floor . . . desk to desk.”

Not headline-grabbers by nature, neither Senterfitt nor Lindsey fought to share the limelight with Shivers. Senterfitt had little of Shivers’ charisma, but had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Once, Manford joked that Senterfitt could not serve as his successor because the Constitution required that the post be filled by “qualified” members. Senterfitt drawled back, “Oh, that’s all changed. You set the precedent that a speaker doesn’t have to be qualified.”

If he wasn’t flashy, Senterfitt nevertheless changed the speakership more than any of his more colorful predecessors. Before Senterfitt, speakers generally made news only when they won the post and when House members threw a big party to say goodbye at the end of their single term. Beginning with Senterfitt, the press began to notice the House speaker as a figure who directly shaped policy. Reporters began asking Senterfitt about his views of the budget and his ideas on what the state’s priorities should be. A symbiotic relationship evolved as speakers starting with Senterfitt began to proactively use the media as a tool for advancing their legislative priorities.

Senterfitt and Lindsey would be left to clean up much unfinished business, even after the productive 51st session (1949-1950.) Senterfitt won election as speaker unopposed at the start of the 1951 session. He immediately signaled a shift from the slow and indecisive leadership of Manford, announcing his committee assignments the afternoon he won the speakership, a pace the Dallas Morning News termed “a speed record.”

Controversy stirred over Senterfitt’s alleged stacking of the Appropriations Committee with rural representatives, hinting at one of the most divisive issues he faced. In 1921, the Legislature established the maximum size of the House at 150 members. The Legislature, however, failed to redistrict state House and Senate districts in 1931 and 1941. The state grew increasingly urban in that period, provoking a political crisis. The state Constitution at that time limited urban areas to a maximum of seven representatives in the House for a metropolitan area of 700,000 people. Another representative could be added when the city added 100,000 more residents.

Rural districts, meanwhile, were grossly over-represented by the late 1940s. Based on the Texas Constitution, there was one representative in the state House for every 45,000 constituents in non-urban areas. East Texas represented the most over-represented part of the state. There, six House members in Red River, Titus, Morris, Camp, Upshur, Henderson and Van Zandt Counties represented a population of about 145,000, a ratio of one House member for every 24,166 people, as opposed to the 1 to 100,000 ratio in places like Dallas and Houston. The situation was even worse in heavily Mexican-American South Texas where Sen. Rogers Kelley of Edinburg served as the lone voice in the upper house for 18 counties with a population of almost 800,000.

Texas voters signaled impatience with unfair representation in the Legislature by approving a Constitutional amendment in 1950 that created the Texas Legislative Redistricting Board. Under the provision, if the Legislature failed to redistrict in its first regular session following the release of the decennial federal census, then the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB) would meet and file redistricting plans with the Texas Secretary of State.

The LRB consists of five members: the lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, attorney general, comptroller of public accounts, and commissioner of the General Land Office. If the LRB failed to agree on a new districting map, then the state Supreme Court would be empowered to force board action. Members of the 1951 Legislature, loathe to hand their political futures to the LRB or the courts, moved quickly to resolve the redistricting crisis.

In 1951, Senterfitt appointed a House redistricting committee dominated by rural members. The newly drawn state House districts still provided only one House representative for every 87,000 voters in Dallas, while representatives in rural areas represented between 30,000 and about 70,000 voters. The Legislature also left a number of Legislative seats to be elected "at-large." Under this system, a county with two or more House seats could set up multi-district “super” districts to elect representatives at-large.

Voters in such districts could thus cast ballots in more than one House race. This forced candidates in super districts to campaign countywide. This system, not ruled unconstitutional until the 1960s, gave advantage to wealthier candidates and continued to dilute already suppressed minority voting strength.

As always, state finances emerged as the most contentious issue. Here, Senterfitt established the House speaker as an equal player with the governor and lieutenant governor. Ironically, it was up to conservative Senterfitt to argue that tax increases would be needed to balance the budget. Senterfitt felt that getting finances straightened out would be impossible unless the state adopted a unified budget.

Although Coke Stevenson had drafted legislation in the 1930s creating the office of state auditor, in the late 1940s the state budget process remained in chaos. Budgets for large departments were drawn up separately and no one had a complete picture of the total appropriations until the individual spending bills were added up. That meant the state then had to work backwards to balance the books. In 1951, without any support from Shivers or from Lieutenant Governor Ben Ramsey, Senterfitt successfully pushed for a single budget bill.

"[A]nd I went to Governor Shivers and I went to Ben Ramsey, the lieutenant governor, . . . and told them . . . that I was going to try to establish a . . . budget system for Texas. And I got my [appropriations] chairman [Henry Rampy of Winters] and we had a press conference to come up with a new precedent and the governor and lieutenant governor finally joined me."

It would have been unthinkable in any previous year for a speaker to take the public lead in the budget process as Senterfitt did in 1951. The state, Senterfitt told the capitol press, faced a $107 million shortfall. ”The probable deficit is one of the most urgent problems facing the Texas Legislature,” Senterfitt said at a late February 1951 press appearance. “In one way or another, solving the deficit problem will affect directly every citizen in Texas. He will be asked to do without some state services, or to pay more taxes, or to do some of both.” Senterfitt made it clear that he felt both approaches would be necessary.

In the past, speakers arose to the leadership post almost solely on collegiality. Most avoided writing bills or stepping out in front on controversial issues. This tradition changed under Senterfitt as he named the man he groomed as his successor, Jim Lindsey, chair of the critical Revenue and Taxation Committee. This meant that Lindsey had to present a contentious set of tax proposals before the House. Lindsey discovered how hard it could be to enjoy political power and have a private life as well.

"[T]he Revenue and Taxation Committee . . . was obviously going to be the committee for that session, because unfortunately being conservative you don’t like to vote for taxes . . . But we . . . had to have the money . . . because we were on a pay-as-you-go [basis] . . . The day my oldest daughter was born was the day . . . it had to be passed in the House. So I stayed there, and [my wife] Moja was in the hospital in Texarkana . . . And I got the bill passed about 2:30, I think. And went down to catch the train and rode — and I did my pacing on the train, on the way home. Got home, got to Texarkana, and my daughter had had a very difficult time with . . . being born . . . Moja was strong . . . And, so [my baby] made it. Her little head was all pressed out of shape. But that was . . . the day we passed the tax bill that session."

Lindsey began filling many of the speaker’s duties during Senterfitt’s second term. Senterfitt reluctantly accepted the post again after being drafted by men like Lindsey. The San Saba representative drew no opponents, but he was already thinking about the 1956 gubernatorial campaign. Lindsey, who served as vice chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Legislative Council during his career in the House, gathered much on-the-job training during the 1953-1955 term.

"I began having meetings in his [Senterfitt’s] office. I would send him to the theater or something with his family, and I would take everybody that was . . . on our team . . . into the office and sit there and we’d talk, and we spent four nights," Lindsey said. " . . . and four days. I slept about ten minutes a day those four days . . . So persistence —- hard work’s the only way I’ve got anyplace . . . "

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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