Ric Williamson leaves a legacy
Ric Williamson may have done more to change Texas transportation than anything since the farmto market road campaign of a half-century earlier to "get the farmers out of the mud," and the federal interstate highway system.
Williamson, who died on Dec. 30 of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 55, was the architect of the state's recent big turn toward toll roads.
Something huge was anticipated when his chum from their freshman term in the Texas House of Representatives, Gov. Rick Perry, named Williamson to the Texas Department of Transportation Commission in 2001.
In a column at the time, I wrote, "If you think he won't make a difference, you're probably wrong."
In January of 2002, Perry unveiled the plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, with lots of toll roads, that is both visionary and very controversial.
Williamson was one of the smartest, hardest working members ever in the Texas Legislature, with ideas exploding in his head and a determination to carry them out that was awesome.
As a freshman House member in 1985, though he was not on the Appropriations Committee, he developed a computer program to analyze the state's budget, to look for extreme deviations up or down in agency spending.
He was so proud of his work that when he went to discuss it with House Speaker Gib Lewis's chief of staff, "Doc" Arnold, Williamson jumped up on Arnold's desk to help get his attention.
At his memorial service in Weatherford Jan. 3, another close friend from the 1985 freshman class, Cliff Johnson, said he quickly learned to frequently assess Williamson's mood.
"When you're around the hand grenade, you want to know whether the pin is in or out," said Johnson, who roomed with Williamson and Perry.
"Ric Williamson was like a brother to me," Perry said. "When I first met Ric, my experience was kind of like a near-miss with a tornado."
In his second term, at Arnold's suggestion, Lewis put Williamson on the Appropriations Committee. He and seven other ferocious sophomore committee budget-cutters were nicknamed "The Pit Bulls."
"Living with Ric was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life," Perry said. After grueling hours of appropriations meetings, he'd hope to go to their apartment, "kick back, and have a cold one. Nope. Here comes Ric with his flip chart."
Not only did Williamson think outside the box, Perry said, "he questioned what the hell we've got a box for anyway." It was Williamson, Perry said, who convinced him while he was Agriculture Commissioner to run for lieutenant governor - which in turn catapulted him to the governorship after then-Gov. George W. Bush became president.
The next session, Lewis also put him on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, plus the Legislative Budget Board that writes the rough draft of the state budget between legislative sessions.
Williamson spun off ideas like static electricity, and pursued them with the gentility of a rugby player.
Thankfully, his fellow Pit Bulls provided a buffer between the aggressive idea man and his colleagues. They also provided a filter to sort Williamson's good ideas from the not so good, and provided a cooling oil bath to keep his full-race brain from exploding.
"Williamson believed that the Democratic process was a contact sport," Johnson said. "Whether he had a good idea or a bad idea, Ric made us think and debate."
Williamson was the ramrod behind creating the Department of Information Resources, to coordinate agencies' computer purchases and oversight; establishing goal-oriented rather than agency-oriented budgets; setting up uniform budgeting procedures among state agencies; and setting up alternative schools for those expelled from regular schools.
In an interview with the Dallas Morning News a week before his death, Williamson voiced his frustration over the resistance to toll roads.
"We are (expletive) running out of money," he declared. "It absolutely boggles my mind how men and women elected to make courageous decisions in leading this state cannot focus on the simple fact that our congestion is rapidly approaching an intolerable level."
The legislature has refrained from raising the gasoline tax, three-fourths of which goes to transportation, after Perry promised to veto any tax increase. The tax has remained at 20 cents per gallon since 1991.
Williamson's legacy, to use another transportation metaphor, is to kick the Legislature (and governor) out of the plane, wearing two parachutes: increase gasoline and other taxes, or have more toll roads. Or both. It will be interesting to see what they choose.
Contact McNeely at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 458-2963.