When Frederick Law Olmsted passed through Texas in 1853, he was greatly impressed by the Texas Legislature.

“I have seen several similar bodies at the North; the Federal Congress; and the Parliament of Great Britain, in both its branches, on occasions of great moment; but none of them commanded my involuntary respect for their simple manly dignity and trustworthiness for the duties that engaged them, more than the General Assembly of Texas,” he said.

Olmsted, you may recall, is regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture, a writer and social critic, but best known for designing the grounds of New York City’s Central Park and the U.S. Capitol.

We must wonder what Olmsted would say today as our lawmakers convene again in Austin. They have a lot of important bills to consider: divesting Russian investments, eliminating tenure in state universities, banning teaching critical race theory, Daylight Saving Time and regulating what school libraries can offer. Our legislature leads all others with at least 36 anti-LGBTQ bills. State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, has filed a bill that would eliminate the City of Austin government and establish the District of Austin in its place. No one seems to worry that, according to US News (that’s the operation that ranks our universities), Texas ranks 31st among the states in health care, 34th in education, 37th in crime and corrections and 40th in natural environment.

“I think of Texas as the laboratory for bad government,” the late Molly Ivins once wrote.

This session, of course, must deal with something we don’t often see in Austin: Because of a perfect storm, we have an overflowing budget surplus, thanks to the pandemic recovery (that’s federal funds), high energy prices and inflation. Comptroller Glenn Hegar predicts the state will have nearly $33 billion in excess cash. The lawmakers will get lots of advice on how to spend this fortune. Our state universities are asking for about $1 billion to keep tuition costs from going higher. Teachers want higher salaries, and on and on. One point they don’t want to mention is that this windfall is a one-time deal.

Who will be doling out the billions? The Texas Legislature is made up of 150 representatives and 31 senators. We pay them $600 per month, or $7,200 per year, plus a per diem of $221 for every day they are in session (also including any special sessions). That adds up to $38,140 a year for a regular session (140 days). With salary and per diem, the total pay for a two-year term being $45,340. That’s among the lowest any state pays. (California legislators make $114,877 a year.) In 1967, a commission recommended letting our legislators set their own salary. The voters flatly rejected that idea. In 1975, voters approved the current legislative salary at $7,200 a year.

“How can you look at the Texas legislature and still believe in intelligent design?” — Kinky Friedman

Texans want part-time legislators, don’t pay them much and only allow them to gather in regular sessions for 140 days every two years. (The feeling among many is that the Lege should meet for two days every 140 years.) Just Montana, North Dakota and Nevada still have biennial legislative sessions. The Nebraska Legislature is the only state with a unicameral body. All 49 of them are called senator.

“I keep telling these new guys that honesty is no substitute for experience.” — Texas Sen. Bill Moore

With its 150 representatives, Texas has one for every 173,000 Texans. New Hampshire’s House consists of 400 members, each representing about 3,300 residents, which is the smallest lower house representative-to-population ratio in the country.

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” — Mark Twain

For several years I covered the Lege’s sessions. Back then there were lots of newspaper and TV reporters, notepads and cameras galore. Today, who knows what is happening? Ah, those were the days. House Speaker Gib Lewis addressed a group of wheelchair-bound Texans watching from the House gallery. Lewis ended with, “Now stand and take a bow.” I was in the Texas Senate when Sen. Walter “Mad Dog” Mengden of Houston proclaimed, “And that is the problem, if there is a problem, which I deny.” One Texas lawmaker introduced a resolution praising Albert DeSalvo for his “efforts with population control.” Only after the resolution passed unanimously did the legislators realize they were praising the Boston Strangler.

Maybe Frederick Law Olmsted should have stuck to landscaping.

Lynn Ashby is a Houston-based columnist. Contact him at ashby2@comcast.net.

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Father of Six

Perhaps Lynn should stick crayons.

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