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Minutes before being elected Texas’ acting lieutenant governor, Bill Ratliff praised Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, for conducting the selection process “with the utmost decorum.” In characteristic form, Ellis responded with a wisecrack. “I wish you’d said that before my name went off the ballot,” he told Ratliff, referring to his loss in early balloting as the state Senate selected its new presiding officer on Dec. 28. A week later, Ratliff gave Ellis the most coveted chairmanship in the Senate � head of the Finance Committee, which will write the Senate’s budget plan. “I think Sen. Ellis has earned his spurs,” Ratliff says, noting that Ellis previously chaired two Senate committees and, more recently, balanced all of the emotional needs of senators during the special session when the Senate elected its presiding officer. “He showed real mettle.” It’s high praise for a man who two sessions ago found himself shunned by some at the Capitol because of his participation in a PBS documentary on politics in America. Ellis had secretly taped private comments that other senators made to him as he worked the Senate floor to win votes for a judicial selection plan during the 1995 session. Ellis also told an interviewer that he probably had a higher I.Q. than many other senators. One of the senators who was most critical of Ellis after the show aired says that the incident is “water under the bridge” and that Ellis has been on a good course ever since. “He has totally rehabilitated himself,” says Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. Others may not be as willing to forgive and forget. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, says some senators may harbor resentment against Ellis for his performance on the PBS show. “On the floor of the Senate, I don’t know if people ever forget something like that,” Barrientos says. But Barrientos says he can work with Ellis. “I think Rodney Ellis and I can look each other in the eye and say, ‘Look, you don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you.’ “ Ellis, a 46-year-old lawyer and investment banker who’s served in the Senate since 1990, is the legislator to watch in the Texas Legislature’s 2001 session. His appointment as finance chairman comes on top of an already ambitious agenda that Ellis has set for himself in the session, which begins Jan. 9. He lists among his top priorities “reforming Texas’ criminal-injustice system,” including another attempt at revamping the state’s indigent criminal defense system. “So much depends on the quality of one’s representation,” Ellis says. Texas death row inmate Calvin Burdine’s case made headlines around Texas and the nation when it was reported that his defense lawyer slept through portions of his 1984 trial. Although the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held recently in Burdine v. State of Texas that Burdine is not entitled to a new trial, the debate continues over the defense provided to indigents in criminal matters. (On Dec. 5, the 5th Circuit agreed to rehear the case en banc.) Ellis says the system has no reliable standards, few requirements for defense lawyers, and weak protections for poor people accused of committing crimes. “These inconsistencies undermine confidence and threaten our rights and freedoms,” he says. It’s a familiar topic for Ellis, who successfully steered a bill through the Legislature in 1999 that would have addressed problems in the system. Then-Gov. George W. Bush vetoed the bill in the wake of an outcry by trial judges, who feared it would strip them of the power to appoint lawyers to represent poor people charged with crimes and give that authority to county commissioners courts. “That was a myth,” says Keith Hampton, legislative chairman for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “No one intended for the commissioners to do the appointments.” Hampton, a criminal-defense lawyer in Austin, says the 1999 bill used the phrase “appointment authority” and that someone read that to mean commissioners court. “Hysteria spread,” he says. “You could not speak rationally to anybody at that time about that bill.” The appointment authority ultimately has to be the judicial branch to comply with the Texas Constitution, Hampton says. Under the bill, judges would act collectively on appointment guidelines and could designate someone — such as a criminal courts coordinator — to make the appointments, he says. To head off problems in the upcoming session, Ellis says he has spent time visiting with judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers about his proposed legislation. “The one that passes will have to have broad consensus,” the lawmaker says. Ellis disputes allegations that he tried to slip the bill past the judges. “I think that people who have followed this process over the years know that any bill that has Ellis on it is closely scrutinized,” he says. “I wish I could slip a bill through this body.” Fred Beardall, legal director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public law center that is calling for improvements in the indigent criminal defense system, says if anyone can get the bill passed in the session this year, Ellis can. “He’s very good at taking an issue that a lot of people would really prefer not thinking about and putting it front and center and keeping it there,” Beardall says. “He uses a unique combination of eloquence, charm and polemical insistence to grab and hold the attention of people who are sympathetic to his point of view and people who are not.” NOT GIVING UP Ellis also plans to make another attempt to pass the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for a black man who was dragged to death by three white men in 1998 near Jasper. A bill that would have strengthened Texas’ hate crimes law won the state House’s approval in 1999 but died in the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “Nearly every day in Texas, a hate crime occurs. The Legislature must act once and for all to strengthen our hate-crimes statute, punish crimes of hate, and protect our communities from the terror of hatred and bigotry,” Ellis says. Another rerun on Ellis’ legislative agenda is a proposal to ban the execution of mentally retarded offenders. He won the Senate’s approval of such a bill in 1999, but it never cleared the Calendars Committee that sets the legislation to be considered in the House. Other bills in Ellis’ criminal justice package would allow convicts to petition the trial court for DNA testing, permit juries to consider true life sentences in capital cases, and require the Board of Pardons and Paroles to meet before voting on commutation and reprieve decisions in capital cases. Another bill would establish an Innocence Commission that would review some death penalty cases. Ellis also proposes to raise the cap on damages that the state pays a person who has served time in prison after being wrongfully committed. The person must receive a pardon from the governor to seek damages, currently capped at $25,000 for medical expenses and $25,000 for pain and suffering. An aide to Ellis says the senator has not yet decided the limits he will propose. While criminal matters will occupy much of Ellis’ time during the session, he says his main goal is to increase significantly the amount of money the state provides for the TEXAS (Toward Excellence, Access and Success) Grant program. Ellis and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat recently named the next secretary of state, passed a bill in 1999 that established the college scholarship program and persuaded lawmakers to set aside $100 million for it in the current two-year budget cycle. Modeled after the Georgia HOPE Scholarship program, the TEXAS Grant program pays the tuition and fees for a student whose family makes no more than $25,000 a year. Ellis says he would like to raise the income level for eligibility to $50,000. “For Texas to have the second-youngest population of the 50 states, and less than a quarter of our young people are going to college, is just an abomination,” he says. Gov. Rick Perry is backing Ellis’ plan to double funding for the grant program. Perry recently endorsed a recommendation by a panel he appointed, the Special Commission on 21st Century Colleges and Universities, that $211 million be provided for the program in the coming two years. Under the program, a grant can be renewed annually for up to six years for a student who maintains a 2.5 grade-point average in college. Ellis also plans to seek an expansion of Texas’ sales tax holiday, which was part of the $506 million tax relief bill that he passed in 1999. The three-day reprieve on sales taxes occurs annually, shortly before school starts, and applies to clothing and shoes with a price tag less than $100. Ellis says he would like to add school supplies and backpacks to the list and expand the tax-free holiday to two weeks. If the state Legislature won’t approve a 14-day holiday from the sales tax, Ellis says he will work to provide the reprieve on two weekends. “I think the notion of a sales tax holiday makes good public policy in Texas because we have such a regressive form of taxation,” he says. Known as a hard worker, Ellis often files as many as 100 bills during a session and has passed 271 since taking office, according to biographical information posted on the Texas Senate’s Web site. He has served as chairman of the state Senate Jurisprudence Committee for the past two sessions. Brett Williams, an aide to Ellis, says the senator doesn’t work a traditional eight-hour workday. “He’s at it all the time,” Williams says. “I call him like 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning all the time and he’s wide awake.” Ellis has been involved in politics since high school, when he volunteered to work in Bill Hobby’s campaign for lieutenant governor. He later became chief of staff for his close friend, the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, and served three terms on the Houston City Council. Although once considered Leland’s heir apparent, Ellis decided not to run for the seat after the Houston congressman died in a 1989 plane crash while on a humanitarian mission in Africa. Instead, he ran in 1990 to fill Craig Washington’s unexpired term in the Senate after Washington was elected to Congress. When not busy representing his Houston district, Ellis divides his time between his two occupations. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Ellis is of counsel at the New Orleans-based firm of McGlinchey Stafford. He deals primarily with corporate and environmental law, government relations and international transactions. Ellis co-founded his banking firm, Apex Securities Inc., in 1987, while still a city councilman. He also serves as a director of Apex Advisors.

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