Former Texas Speaker of the House Pete Laney spent 34 years in Austin serving constituents from the Texas Panhandle, but he’s concerned that today’s young people are losing faith in government.
“And I can’t blame them,” Laney told high school and university students attending a Democracy-In-Action program Tuesday at Howard Payne University. The program was funded by the Othal Brand Chair at HPU’s Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom.
“But there is hope,” the Democrat from Hale Center said, “and I can see it on your campus today. Students are interested and involved in what’s happening.”
In one of several quotations he drew from Abraham Lincoln, Laney recalled that the man some Americans consider the nation’s greatest president ever observed that the political policy of tomorrow can be seen in the thoughts of the current young generation.
“I can’t tell you how energized I am about the future of our country,” Laney said.
Laney, who served in the Texas House from 1973 until his retirement in 2006 and as House speaker from 1993 to 2003, said he considers it a compliment that he was known as “a common person” while serving in the legislature. But he is most proud of being described as a “bipartisan speaker,” he said.
“Partisanship does not solve problems, and it often inflames them so much that it causes problems,” Laney said. “Once the election is over, a politician must be independent enough to put public service above the political party.”
Laney, along with the late Bob Bullock who presided over the Texas Senate as lieutenant governor, were praised for their efforts in working in a bipartisan manner with Republican George W. Bush while he was governor, even though they were both Democrats.
“It was an honor to be a temporary steward of the state’s legacy, and I worked to find a common ground and to work with other people in the legislature, even across party lines,” Laney said.
The friendship Laney developed with Bush was such that Laney was given the opportunity to introduce Bush to the Americans in his first televised speech, from the Texas Capitol, after the 2000 election was finally decided. Laney and Bush remain friends, and Laney will be visiting the White House next month.
“I tried to open up the House process so each member could represent their districts to the best of their ability,” Laney said of his service as speaker. “I couldn’t force them to represent it, but the opportunity was there.”
He said he also worked to improve the amount and timeliness of information available to the public so voters would be able to make better decisions, and to hold their elected officials accountable.
While he retired from the legislature in 2006, Laney said he didn’t retire from public service.
“Public service is a lifelong responsibility that each of us has,” Laney said. “I try to find ways to encourage young people to participate in all areas of government.”
He said he is working to initiate a program in Austin that would give young people, as well as adults, an opportunity to research issues or problems using the facts and resources that are available to lawmakers, while interacting with the public officials as well.
“My hope is that young people will consider a career in government, and perhaps consider running for public office,” Laney said. “I hope that will restore a little bit of their faith in government. Who knows? Their research may provide a solution to a problem that the public officials couldn’t reach.”
He said doing nothing as a citizen regarding public service is a decision to let others take care of the people’s business. He urged students to become informed and to express their opinions, either individually or through membership in an organization that advocates their views.
“But don’t become a one-issue person,” he warned. “The key is participation. Politics is not a spectator sport. Whether it’s school board, city, county, state or federal, government is nothing more than a body of individuals just like you.”
He said he hopes all young people will consider offering themselves for public service. But, quoting Lincoln again, Laney told students, “Whatever you do, do it well. Whether it’s medicine, technology or education, we are depending on you. It might saving a life. It might be protecting our identities or even the integrity of our election system. And for those of you in education, our very future depends on you.
In answer to questions, Laney said he is pleased that both parties have a large field of candidates running for president. He said as a Democrat and a personal friend, he plans to vote for John Edwards, although he said by the time Texans vote in their primaries in March, the nominating process may have been decided.
After another question, Laney said the Texas House is definitely involved in a race for speaker, and said the House is being governed in a more partisan manner than it was when he held the position.
“Some people say you have to build political capital even it that means voting against the interests of your district,” Laney said. “I believe you’re there to represent your district. A member needs to be obligated to (the voters), not to the speaker. I never had one of my committee chairman announce against me…”
Laney also said while the press is “a necessary part of the political process, you only get a caption of what’s going on” in most reports. He said numerous organizations will spin government actions to their advantage, and that gets reported.
“It’s up to you to find out if they’re telling you the truth,” Laney said.
Laney was introduced by HPU President Dr. Lanny Hall, a former member of the Texas House himself, who described the former speaker as very supportive of financial aid for higher education and Texas college students, and “a strong supporter of Christian values and the Tuition Equalization Grant program” for private university students in Texas.
“He encouraged public participation, and has the four marks of a great leader — integrity, fairness, effectiveness and efficiency,” Hall said. “He took his tractor-seat common sense and applied that to his work in the legislature.”