An El Paso delegation divided
June 7, 2009

They were able to reach a number of those objectives before the session ended last week, but some achievements came in spite of the legislators' continual bickering with one another and in some cases with other lawmakers and state leaders.

Written by Brandi Grissom, The El Paso Times

AUSTIN -- Six El Paso lawmakers stood together in January, presenting a united front to accomplish El Paso's goals in Austin this year during the 140-day legislative session.

They were able to reach a number of those objectives before the session ended last week, but some achievements came in spite of the legislators' continual bickering with one another and in some cases with other lawmakers and state leaders.

"There are s erious personal issues that seem to give rise to behavior every session," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said. "Truthfully, I can't answer why that dysfunctional, destructive behavior comes up over and over again."

State Rep. Joe Pickett took advantage of a new, powerful platform to wage war with the massive Texas Department of Transportation. He also drew criticism from certain El Paso leaders who said they did not get the support they expected from him.

State Rep. Norma Chávez spent much of her energy during the session feuding with freshman state Rep. Marisa Marquez, whom she helped get elected to the Texas House.

Shapleigh did his best to avoid Chávez and Pickett, now the senior members of the El Paso House delegation.

Even some other legislators and lobbyists called the El Paso delegation dysfunctional. Though few wanted to talk on the record about the lawmakers' tiffs, they said the strained relationships were as bad this year as they have been in the past.

"This delegation É needs to do some soul-searching about their personal relationships and not allowing those personal relationships to get in the way of doing what's best for El Paso," said El Paso County Attorney José Rodríguez.

Chávez vs. Marquez

Two El Paso legislators made statewide headlines with their acrimony. Chávez and Marquez split on a sour note after Chávez helped Marquez win election last year.

Chávez felt disrespected by her new colleague. The relationship deteriorated throughout the legislative session as the two disagreed over Marquez's bill that would allow El Paso County to create an ethics commission with teeth.

By the end of the session, as Chávez, 48, prepared to graduate with a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she sent an unpleasant text message to Marquez. Chávez told 30-year-old Marquez to steer clear of her graduation celebration with other legislators.

Rodríguez was among the county officials who helped lobby for the ethics measure in Austin. It was a priority for the county, which has been in the middle of a public corruption investigation. Former county judge and state legislator Luther Jones and El Paso County District Clerk Gilbert Sanchez were the latest to be indicted last week.

Rodríguez rushed to Austin this spring when he learned Chávez had problems with the ethics bill. In a meeting in her office, Rodríguez said Chávez yelled at him angrily and behaved unprofessionally. He said she never explained specific concerns she had with the ethics measure.

"I've never experienced that in the Legislature in all my years I've been going down there," he said.

Weeks later, Chávez gave Marquez a binder full of concerns about the bill. Some of her suggested changes were made. Others were not.

After all the delays, the measure was approved just in the nick of time to become law and is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature.

Chávez did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. In an e-mail reply, she said she was in New Mexico and unable to get reception on her cell phone.

After the ethics measure passed, Chávez said she was happy it was approved. Then she called it a "witch hunt" bill and said she regretted not carrying the measure herself.

"That was my mistake, giving (Marquez) the bill," she said.

Pickett vs. El Paso

Pickett also made headlines as he led the powerful House Transportation Committee. He long has been a harsh critic of the Texas Department of Transportation, and his committee position gave him a platform to challenge the agency.

"It's something that has been a passion, something I'm interested in, something that needs a lot of attention," Pickett said early in the session.

For him, the timing could not have been better. He led the committee during a year when the transportation department was facing a wholesale legislative review.

In the "sunset" process, lawmakers would decide whether to make major changes to the agency or even nix it altogether. But that legislation became one of the biggest fights of the session, and its failure could be one factor that necessitates a special legislative session. The bill died, and the agency could be dissolved without legislation allowing it to continue.

For leaders in El Paso, having a local guy lead one of the most powerful committees in the Legislature brought hopes they might have more stroke at the Capitol for their agenda, too.

It didn't always work out that way, said city Rep. Susie Byrd.

"Representative Pickett was in a very powerful position, which in some ways was great, but he had some disagreement and some distrust with our agenda," she said.

Among the city's legislative priorities was to pursue options for raising money for local transportation projects. A measure that would have allowed cities such as El Paso to hold elections for voters to decide on taxes and fees for road, rail and transportation projects was the critical factor that led to the demise of the major TxDOT legislation.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, wanted the measure in the bill. Pickett insisted the House would not support it and rejected efforts to keep it in the bill. Carona threatened to talk the bill to death over the disagreement.

Byrd said city leaders supported that measure and hoped it could be a method to allow El Paso voters to decide on transit projects.

"We did not get what we felt were some really important strategic initiatives for the city of El Paso," she said.

Pickett became incensed Friday over Byrd's remarks. He said he supported giving cities the option to raise the gas tax. The rest of the Texas House, Pickett said, would not have supported that measure.

"Is she just in a (expletive) vacuum?" he said. "I treat her so well with her stupid, stupid asinine ideas."

Pickett said he did not know what else he could have done, and then said Byrd was simply parroting the position of Shapleigh, whom he dislikes.

"She is so frustrating, but then, that's how the city is," he said. "They've got their heads in the sky."

Pickett also sparked a confrontation with the city during the legislative session when he added to that major TxDOT bill a measure that would have allowed the city to replace the El Paso Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority with members of the City Council. Pickett made the move without discussing it with anyone else.

At the time, Mayor John Cook said he was shocked.

"I don't know why Representative Pickett would unilaterally make a decision affecting the entire city ... without even telling me or consulting with me," he said.

Pickett eventually dropped the measure after complaints from the city leaders, including Cook and RMA Chairman Harold Hahn.

Last week, Cook said the city and Pickett worked well together.

"In the end, all's well that ends well," he said.

Despite the collapse of the largest transportation measure of the legislative session and the complaints of some city leaders, Pickett said he thought he performed well as committee chairman.

"I think it went fantastic. I was told I ran the best committee some people had ever seen. We passed over 118 bills that help the entire state of Texas, and we worked extremely hard on them."

Shapleigh vs. Chávez, Pickett

In past legislative sessions, Chávez and Pickett have been at odds. In 2001, the two had a curse-word laden exchange on the House floor.

This year, though, they were on better terms and even gave one another a friendly hug on the final day of the session.

The duo, though, had a common enemy this year in Shapleigh. Shapleigh said he did not trust either of them.

"Over the last few sessions, over and over again, trust has been violated on issues key to El Paso's future," he said.

From Pickett's perspective, at least, the feeling seemed to be mutual.

"He doesn't communicate with us," Pickett said.

Shapleigh faulted Pickett for opposing the Regional Mobility Authority, and he said Chávez tried to have another state senator pass a bill that would have lessened stormwater fees in El Paso when he was already working on a bill to do the same thing.

"That is simply not right. She knows that. She knows better," he said.

Shapleigh and state Rep. Chente Quintanilla filed two bills to exempt school districts and the county government from paying stormwater fees to the Public Service Board.

Chávez and Pickett filed similar bills.

Their wrangling over who should get credit stalled the bills. After the squabble was aired in the media, Pickett and Chávez withdrew their bills. In the end, all the delegation signed onto two measures that both were approved. Gov. Perry has already signed one of the bills, and the other awaits his pen.

Searching for a solution?

Pickett minimized the delegation's infighting and said it did not inhibit the passage of any major El Paso priorities.

"I think (the legislative session) was very good," he said.

For his part, Shapleigh said the legislators could meet and talk more, but ultimately the problems come down to trust.

Rodríguez, who has been county attorney since 1993, said he hoped state lawmakers and local officials would take time between now and the 2011 legislative session to do some reflecting and work to improve their relationships.

City Rep. Byrd said she would like to see more policy discussions between legislators and city officials to ensure they are all on the same page when it comes to El Paso priorities.

"If we're not being effective and relationships are to blame, then shame on us," she said. "What matters is if we have accomplished anything for our community, and that's the yardstick by which we should be measured."

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