Ogden wields ultimate authority in Senate
June 8, 2009

Ogden left his fingerprints on countless bills by adding an amendment that effectively gave him veto power. The "Ogden Amendment" would kill a bill if money was not appropriated for it in the $182 billion budget, and Ogden was the gatekeeper to the budget.

Written by Kate Alexander, The Austin American Statesman

Gov. Rick Perry, in his State of the State address, threw the full weight of his office behind a push to reduce taxes for small businesses.

So did Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, 25 senators and the entire House of Representatives.

That left Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, pretty much alone to slow the gathering momentum for a $172 million tax cut.

"I didn't mind (being alone). I didn't mind that at all," said Ogden, who held up the tax cut until the last moment to ensure that the state could afford it.

"I was at the intersection of the different paths and got to play traffic cop," Ogden said. "We were able to manage the traffic without having a car wreck."

Ogden's traffic cop days might be over, however. He is mulling over whether to seek re-election next year and will announce a decision in the fall.

If Ogden left, the Senate would lose a fiscal compass that often sets a course for Texas. Not everyone likes where or how Ogden leads, but few cross him.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and submariner, Ogden has been at the helm of the Senate Finance Committee since 2004.

The panel is already the power center of the Senate because 10 of its 14 rank-and-file members are the leaders of other committees and its primary responsibility is to divvyup the money in the budget.

So its leader is naturally quite muscular. But this session, Ogden bulked up more.

Ogden left his fingerprints on countless bills by adding an amendment that effectively gave him veto power. The "Ogden Amendment" would kill a bill if money was not appropriated for it in the $182 billion budget, and Ogden was the gatekeeper to the budget.

"I certainly want every good idea to pass," Ogden said recently on the Senate floor. "I just want to keep from bankrupting us."

While the intent of the amendment was to keep a tight handle on the state's purse strings, its application was heavy-handed and more sweeping than initially understood, said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. Republicans, too, chafed under the rule.

"It was a pretty powerful position; I'll admit that," Ogden said, adding that his approach was an "imperfect solution" to a difficult budget problem.

But somebody had to say no, and "a lot of the time, my colleagues would like it to be somebody else," Ogden said.

Sometimes gruff and impatient, Ogden is resigned to being Dr. No. In the last week of the legislative session, Ogden said, everyone who approached him either wanted to thank him or to chew him out for not including something in the budget.

People who deal with Ogden regularly say he is fair, straightforward and willing to listen. He is also very smart and has an incomparable command of the numbers.

He has "strong views that aren't necessarily unbendable, but you better have a damn good argument," said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Heiligenstein worked closely with Ogden when the senator was chairman of the transportation committee.

Ogden looks first at what is right for Texas, then his district and then the Republican Party, said Charles Carter, a Republican political consultant in Williamson County, which is part of Ogden's district.

"Republicans sometimes don't like that. But, golly, you've got to admire a man who has got vision," Carter said.

Still, Ogden has done plenty to please the party faithful.

When the confirmation of State Board of Education Chairman — and fellow Bryan Republican — Don McLeroy appeared to be stuck, Ogden worked his colleagues to get him a vote in the Senate.

McLeroy, a conservative Christian, had been accused of trying to inject his religion into public education, and Ogden argued that McLeroy was being condemned because of his religious views. In the end, McLeroy could not muster enough votes to be confirmed.

Ogden has also been a strong opponent of abortion, and he has used his position to advance that view.

He sparked a controversy this legislative session by pushing through an unexpected budget provision to prohibit the use of state dollars to support stem cell research that destroys human embryos.

The provision was added to the budget — the one bill that the Legislature must pass — with no notice, little discussion and a divided committee vote.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, led the charge to strip the rider from the budget based both on the policy, which he said would stifle medical research in Texas, and the process.

"It didn't get a hearing. It was never evaluated for its fiscal impact. No one, for it or against it, ever got to testify on it or really even knew it was happening," Watson wrote about the stem cell rider in his regular online column.

"One partisan majority should never use something like the state budget as a cloak to hide the passage of partisan legislation," Watson wrote. Although the provision did not survive the budget negotiations, it was not for lack of effort by Ogden.

Ogden said he does not regret pushing the policy because he thinks the state should not be silent on the issue. But he does regret his approach.

"I mishandled the stem cell debate," Ogden said. "I surprised people on that, and it scared them, and I lost."

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the budget was the wrong place to make such a policy and Ogden knew it.

"He could make a statement that he felt it was important for him to make. But at the end of the day, he knew the process was more important than his personal issue," Shapiro said.

When it came to the business tax cut, Ogden said his caution was always about being a good steward of state dollars.

As Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, pushed to move the bill quickly through the Senate, Ogden kept it parked in his committee as he awaitedthe final budget numbers.

It did not get a committee vote until the last moment, but despite the delay, Patrick said he trusted that Ogden would keep his word to make good on a tax cut.

"We all think he is a person of impeccable character and a person who has great integrity," Patrick said. "And that is the person we would miss."

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