Culture buffs in this state rave about the Houston Grand Opera, but for high art, nothing tops Last Night at the Lege.
The Lege is short for the Texas Legislature, whose spirit was best captured some years back by Molly Ivins in The Atlantic Monthly. "The Texas Legislature," she worte, "consists of 181 people who meet for 140 days every two years. This catastrophe has now occurred 63 times."
As of midnight Monday, the number of catastrophes is up to 67. As retiring House Speaker Billy Clayton put it so eloquently at the close of an earlier session, "Only history will determine what we can now only surmise has happened."
As the 67th Legislature was about to become history, some of the veterans around the Capitol were lamenting that serious business had gotten in the way of hijinks and hilarity, that this was as bland a group of lawmakers as the public had ever elected.
At the time the members were deadlocked on congressional redistricting -- which almost produced two fistfights during the afternoon -- and a variety of other matters, and the final day was winding down to an uninspired whimper.
So it was easy to forget in those last hours that this remains a legislature whose members have nicknames like the Duke of Paducah and Mad Dog Mengen; that earlier in the session, when a freshman member offered a bill allowing members to carry guns, Gov. Bill Clements nixed it by reminding everyone, that legislators were dangerous enough without guns; and that one day this year, with a group of third-graders looking on, the Duke of Paducah presented one of his colleagues, known for turning color during debates, with a vial of "red a-- salve."
Last Night at the Lege is a moveable feast, and the crowds start gathering before dark to watch the fun. Although there were as many important unresolved issues on Monday as anyone can recall, the House still took time in mid-evening to hear San Antonio Democrats challenge other delegations to a margarita mix-off this summer.
The galleries were not quite packed to the rafters Monday night, but the booze flowed freely, and on the Capitol's fourth floor a three-piece bluegrass band entertained the folks who had tired of filibusters and conference reports. On the first floor, in the office of one senator, a woman in a red T-shirt was blowing in the ear of an excited man surrounded by cheese, crackers, and rye bread. His name apparently was "Funny Bunny," or so his woman friend called him.
The governor tried to interrupt all this merrymaking about 9:15 p.m. with a news conference to announce his batting average for the session: a red-hot .770. That included a back-to-basics education bill, a host of measures (including wiretapping) to fight crime, two bills to pull the plug on drugs and several management improvements. He did not count as a gubernatorial setback the failed resolution to make the armadillo the official state mammal.
Unfortunately for the assembled spectators, the life went out of this session a little early, when the chairman of the congressional redistricting conference committee announced about 10 p.m. that his panel was deadlocked. That will mean a special session this summer, during which only the economy of Austin may benefit.
With redistricting dead, the House and Senate waltzed to a close, and though several Senate minions were perched on the gallery railing, ready to turn back the clock if midnight arrived too early, there was hardly a need for it. The 67th Lege ended with a prayer from Gerald Mann, the comic chaplin of the Senate:
"It's been a pleasure to lobby in the halls of heaven . . .," he said. "May all our hangups be drip dry and all the wild oats we've sown by crop failures."