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John Ben Shepperd: The Future of State Government—If Any

March 5, 1957

Joint Luncheon of the League of Women Voters and the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Odessa, Texas)

The Future of State Government—If Any

No two organizations have done as much to encourage the intelligent participation of citizens in public affairs as have the league of Women Voters and the Jaycees. They have both worked hard at getting citizens to pay their poll tax and to vote when election time rolls around. The League sponsors a presentation of objective and impartial information on the issues and candidates involved in each election while the Jaycees work through its Government and Public Affairs Committees.

While it is probably unnecessary before this audience, I would like to say that I am a firm believer in constitutional government and local autonomy. I sincerely believe that necessary governmental functions should be performed and paid for by that level of government closest to the people. We in Odessa should not call on our state government in Austin to do anything that we can do for ourselves. As Texans, we should not call on the federal government to do anything that we can do in Odessa or Austin.

To be consistent and realistic with this philosophy, we must resolve ourselves to the simple fact that local and state governments must be prepared both financially and morally to walk the straight line of responsibility. State governments, which are our concern today, must modernize their outmoded methods and functions which cause them to look like old houses in need of a paint job. What can we do in Texas?

We can reorganize our administrative branch to elminate duplication and overlapping among our conglomeration of 198 state boards and agencies. We can revise and modernize our statutes, which have been without a complete revision for thirty years, even though the Constitution contemplates a revision every decade. We can take stronger measures to leave in the hands of private initiative all functions that can be privately performed and let governmental functions be handled by the lowest possible level of government. We can revamp our tax structure to eliminate inequality and inefficiency. We not only can, but must, extend home rule government to more of our political subdivisions. Texas has only 129 home rule cities and towns out of a total of 3,280 and not one of our 254 counties is a home rule county because the process for becoming such is so tangled and complex that no county can qualify.

I know that you were happy to see the democratic processes restored to the people of Duval County last year after a long, hard, bitter fight of six years duration. There were over 400 legal actions in and out of practically every state and Federal court. I thought you might be interested in a brief report of conditions there now.

We have stopped the stealing and killing in Duval County. Public meetings are now open and by the way, better attended—I dare say—than in any other county in the state. The budgets and official actions of local government agencies are now matters of public record.

George Parr, the Duke of Duval, no longer controls all the public officials and they are now performing their duties according to law and not according to Parr.

The hundreds of gun-toting “deputies” are gone. The Commissioners’ Court and the School Boards no longer take orders from Parr. He doesn’t sign the checks anymore or keep the records. There’s no more easy money, no handouts, no payoffs.

County officials don’t charge their personal household expenses, medical bills or gasoline to the County any more. They don’t carry their daughters on the payroll as teachers while they’re away at college. They don’t get their deer rifles at County expense or charge their kids’ cough medicine and castor oil to the School District. Yes, thing. are different in Duval.

They’re different for Parr too. His two banks, depositories of County and School funds, long ago were taken out of his hands, closed down by the State. His 55,000 acre ranch, bought with County funds, has gone back to the County and another 4,000 acre hacienda was auctioned off by the authorities to satisfy tax claims against the Duke.

The Duval County tax rate has been reduced from the highest in the state to one of the lowest. Election costs have been reduced ninety percent and the number of voters almost doubled. People there are now getting roads and other services for their money instead of shrugged shoulders and blank faces.

Parr has been found guilty of stealing money from the school kids and given five years. This was his fourth conviction. He has been declared a bankrupt by a federal court. The former District Attorney, the former Tax Collector of the rich Benavides School District, the former County School Superintendent and five lessor [sic] officials have been convicted. Over seventy officials resigned under fire.

Why did I mention Duval County? Because it’s still possible under antiquated Texas laws to have a reocurrence [sic] of the sordid and sorry mess that has taken place in Duval County.

What can we do about these laws? Two years ago the Texas Press Association and I prepared legislation that we called “Open Door to Good Government Bills”. We didn’t get any passed but we are trying again this session. They are worthy of your support.

Here is what these bills would do: a law providing for indictment outside the county of anyone accused of misusing or embezzling public funds or of destroying, defacing, altering or hiding public records; removal of officeholders who refuse to reveal public records or who stand on the Fifth Amendment and refuse to answer questions about their conduct of office; a statute permitting the County or District Attorney to sue for recovery of funds due the county without authorization of the Commissioners’ Court in cases where the Commissioners’ Court is suspected of misappropriation; a constitutional workable mandatory publications act which would require publication of annual financial statements of all offices, boards, agencies and commissions on all levels of government; a law providing for a special audit to be ordered by the District Judge on the petition of at least thirty percent of the voters of the county; a law requiring publication of the full text of city ordinances; an anti-secrecy bill that would prohibit closed and secret sessions of government bodies from the state capitol to the county precincts; a clear, positive law requiring that all state, county and municipal records shall at all times be open for personal inspection of any citizen and those in charge of such records shall not have the right to refuse this privilege to any citizen.

If an aroused citizenry will get behind these bills and see that they are enacted into law, it will be impossible for a small group of crooked men to usurp civil liberties and to gain riches at the expense of the taxpayer in any county or city in Texas!

In Texas we also need a code of ethics for public officials, an effective lobby control bill, penal laws for the Insurance code and a revamping of the code of criminal procedure as well as the penal code.

I have saved until last the very commendable project of the League in studying the Texas Constitution for a possible revision and that of the Jaycees in promoting annual sessions of the Legislature and increased pay for the legislators.

A study of the Texas Constitution should be made by every citizen and the League of Women Voters is to be congratulated for initiating and leading such a study. I believe the principal argument for revision can be summed up very simply like this: the model, or ideal, state constitution is one which says, “Jack and Jill shall go up the hill and fetch a pail of water,” leaving it to the legislative discretion to have Jack and Jill comply in the best manner of time. But our present Constitution says “Jack and Jill shall rise, face the door, pick up the bucket, place one foot before the other and proceed in this manner until reaching the top of the hill, et cetera”. It does not allow them to ride up in a station wagon or pipe water into the house because it wasn’t done that way in 1876. We have a bucket Constitution in a pipeline age—much too long and far too detailed, restrictive and cumbersome.

It is also frequently pointed out that other states have had the good sense to revise their too lengthy and outmoded state charters. At least fifteen states have recently amended their constitutions, have called for conventions or commissions to study or revise them or have submitted the question to the voters with favorable or negative results. Oklahoma voted down a convention in 1950 and Kentucky voters vetoed one in 1947. New Jersey revised its Constitution in 1943 and Missouri did the same in 1945. The movements for revision in many of these states were led by the League of Women Voters.

But there are many arguments against revision, also. To begin with, there are many people who consider the Constitution too sacred to touch. We revere the legacies of our forefathers and don’t want to change them. The March 2 and April 21 orators group the Constitution with the Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence and the Sermon on the Mount and deplore any attempt to tamper with it.

But the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence were intended to effect an immediate change at one period in history. They are not the law of the land under which we pass our statutes and pay our taxes. Furthermore, the eternal principles they declare will not be thrown away in a constitutional revision. As for the Sermon on the Mount, it is not a human utterance and will never change or pass away with human institutions.

A second argument against alteration is the feeling that a constitutional convention or commission might fall under the influence of the wrong people, the wrong political faction or pressure groups and would therefore produce an off-color Constitution. This idea was manifest in the State Bar Convention in 1949 where a resolution was passed urging the Legislature to set up a study but withholding a request for a revision. The legislature failed to pass on the suggestion.

The primary lesson to be learned from all these arguments on both sides is that what we need is not argument but study.

We must bear in mind that our Texas Constitution followed a very autocratic and bloody Reconstruction administration in which all appointments and matters of state government were not based on law but upon the executive orders of a carpetbagger governor.

The architects of our present Constitution came to Austin to do their job and that job, as they saw it, was to slam down the bars against further abuse of authority and delineate all powers so that they could not be stretched or abused by any administration in the future. They wanted a Constitution that was cut, dried and pin-pointed to correct the errors of the immediate present.

It was not their job to produce a broad, flexible statement of eternal principles that would withstand the ravages of time; their job was to squash the carpetbaggers, curtail the power of the governor, establish an elective judiciary, put an end to malfeasance in office, shorten terms and lower salaries.

We must also remember that the Constitution we have inherited is not the same one they created and whatever faults lie in it are not entirely those of the original makers. It has acquired over 20,000 words of amendments, some made as late as last year. From 1879 to the present, 2,251 resolutions have been introduced proposing amendments. Of those, 213 have been submitted to the voters and 126 have been voted into effect. So actually, we have revised our Constitution, changing all but six articles, but I think that the members of the League of Women Voters who are present today will agree with me that this is like patches on a crazy quilt and what we need is an objective and intelligent study of the whole document.

That is exactly what the league is advocating in their House Concurrent Resolution #13, now pending in Austin. It provides that the Texas Legislative Council make a study of each provision of the Constitution to determine historical purpose, meaning given it by courts and its function in contemporary society. The Council shall make this research available to the people and also make recommendations both as to the most suitable means for revision. HR #13 further provides for an eighteen member citizen advisory commission to assist the Council in its work.

The Texas Junior Chamber of Commerce began a very comprehensive and detailed study of legislative sessions and legislator’s pay nearly two years ago. They came up with the recommendation that we should have annual sessions of our legislature and that the legislators should be paid an annual salary and be required to make their job more than a part-time affair. Their proposal has passed the House of Representatives and is now pending in the Senate. Their original recommendation was $7,500 per year, but HJR #1 passed by the House cut this to $4,800. SJR #15 is still being considered by the Senate in the original amount.

Critics of both the League of Women Voters and the Junior Chamber of Commerce have said through the years that both these organizations are idealistic dreamers who are not willing to face reality and who deal in intangibles rather than facts. One, they say, is composed of a bunch of women who ought to stay in the kitchen and leave public affairs to men who are more qualified to deal with those things. The other, they say, is composed of a bunch of young kids who are not dry behind the ears.

While I am not willing to adopt either their premise or their reasons, I am willing to agree with them to the extent that even if you are idealistic dreamers, we need such idealistic dreamers today more than ever before in our history. We need them as long as there are closed doors in public office, public meetings held in secret and public files marked “confidential”. We need them as long as there are antiquated, harmful laws on the statute books, remaining there only because they suit somebody’s political or financial convenience and as long as there are loopholes in the law, left there by lawyer-legislators for the benefit of their private practice.

We need idealists as long as we live under big, bloated governments feeding on the lassitude of a citizenry that wants everybody to have a benefit at everybody else’s expense. We need them as long as this nation is trying to live high on money borrowed from our children’s unborn children. We need idealistic, courageous men and women as long aa we have judges who cannot or will not lay aside their politics when they put on the judicial robes.

Yes, we need idealistic dreamers all long as we have people in this country who believe that the best things in life can either be bought with money or voted into existence. We need idealistic dreamers to constantly remind other Texans that nobody can go down to the bank and file away a title to a West Texas sunset. Nobody can lay gold on the counter and purchase cherished friendships nor can we purchase at any price the love and companionship of a loyal wife or husband. And all the dazzling wealth of the universe is not half so beautiful as the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a strong, free man.

Because freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;

It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
Yes to be born free is an accident;

To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]