El Paso state Rep. Joe Pickett has won a lot of awards in the past 19 years for his steady and sometimes stellar work in the Texas House. But his contributions this year, particularly in the summer’s third special session of the Legislature, stand out.
Next November, Texas voters will consider an amendment to the state Constitution based on a bill that Democrat Pickett wrote and shepherded through debates and opposition. If passed, it will send billions of dollars from booming oil and gas revenues to Texas transportation projects.
Pickett’s House Bill 1 is one reason – but not the only reason – he’s been selected as this year’s El Pasoan of the Year.
“His hands or fingerprints are all over the transportation projects we have here,” said former U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who was El Pasoan of the Year in 2006. Reyes was referring to the Spur 601 project that helped cinch the Fort Bliss expansion and the Spaghetti Bowl interchange at Interstate 10 and Americas Avenue.
“Pickett is a real MVP for transportation,” said Reyes, a Democrat. “Without him supporting what I did at the federal level, we would not have been in a position to get a lot of those federal dollars.
“The most impressive things about Joe Pickett are that he is a hard worker, he’s not interested in getting the credit and he’s a team player who understands that in politics, we have to work together and put aside differences at times to get things done.”
Former state Rep. Dee Margo, a Republican, said Pickett is remarkable for his ability to get things done behind the scenes, noting his quiet but effective support for funding Texas Tech’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso.
“He’s been an exceptional leader in Austin who has the ability to work both sides of aisle,” Margo said. “He’s a strong personification of El Paso, bright and pragmatic.”
Although his parents, Glenn and Phyllis Pickett, were well-known educators and school principals in El Paso, Pickett was living on his own at 16 and never went to college. Nonetheless, he’s a successful legislator, a businessman who wrote a line of real estate curricula that is still in use, and the author of two popular children’s books.
Back in 1989, his frustration with City Hall’s lack of concern about the appearance of El Paso streets and parks led him to run for City Council.
He had a big hand in waking the city up to the importance of landscaped streets, recycling and community policing, and he’s still running the Graffiti Busters program he started in 1987.
After one term on council, Pickett went straight to the Texas Legislature, where he has made a name for himself as a budget and transportation expert, as well as a state rep willing to take on constituents’ problems.
He and his wife, Shannon, live in “Pickett Land” as it is known, an industrial-looking compound off Montana Avenue where he keeps his collection of vintage vehicles.
He married Shannon Wiggins, a lawyer and the former assistant parliamentarian of the Texas House, in 2010. She’s now the deputy director of the Texas Health and Human Services’ medical transportation program.
Their red brick home looks like a Coca-Cola plant because of the red sign on the flat roof. There’s a big polar bear up there, too.
“If I blindfolded you and took you into my living quarters, you would not know it’s not a house,” he said.
Pickett is a true El Paso character who has managed to keep much of his personal story to himself. After being told he’d been named El Paso Inc.’s El Pasoan of the Year, he opened up during an extended interview. Pickett’s got some great stories to tell, including why he expects to be called the ghost of the Texas House 50 years from now.
Q: You’re in your 10th term and 19th year in the Texas House. Did you think you might want to serve this long, say, after your first term?
No. Even the speaker at the time, Pete Laney, said, “You’re going to serve a couple terms and go back and run for mayor of El Paso or county judge.” I said I’m thinking about it. But I got there and found out it’s not like college or high school. You can excel, and you can use your talents, be the one willing to do the work. A lot of people think my reputation is about transportation, and a lot of it is. But most of it’s about money – dollars and appropriations. Once I got on the Appropriation Committee, I got depended on by both parties.
When the Republicans took over in 2003, I was surprised to be tapped for subcommittee chairman of Appropriations under Speaker Tom Craddick, who hated Democrats. The Legislature is a place where you can do whatever you want because there is so much to do.
Q: You’re running for your 11th term now. How much longer would you like to serve, and is there anything in particular you want to accomplish?
It’s all one term at a time. I wrestled more over whether to run this election cycle than I ever have before, for family reasons. My wife would like me to go on to something else. A couple of large law firms have offered me positions – though I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have a degree – regarding transportation policy and working with elected officials.
But I decided I want to finish off this last legislative session. In November of next year, Proposition 1, which I authored, will be on the state ballot. The speaker and other people have asked me to stick around. They said, “We think it’s going to pass, and we want you to stick around to help initiate it.”
Q: Proposition 1 is the proposed constitutional amendment to dip into the Rainy Day Fund to finance new projects and highway maintenance. If it passes, how much will it help the shortfall in state transportation funding?
It’s huge. Right now, the windfall from the oil and gas severance tax is just huge. It’s the biggest it’s been since the oil boom in 1981. This is going to sustain us longer. In 1987, there was a constitutional amendment that said any monies above that year’s level of income from oil and gas severance tax is going to go into a savings account. It’s been that way since then.
But now, the money coming from that tax is phenomenal. We’ve got more money than we should have. It’s your money and my money, but it’s not doing anything in the savings account.
Q: How much?
If Proposition 1 passes in November, we’ll still have $8 billion sitting there. If it doesn’t pass, it will be about $11 billion.
We take 25 percent of whatever comes in from the oil and gas severance tax, and it goes to public education. The balance goes into the Rainy Day Fund, all of it. What I’ve proposed is, let’s split it. Instead of all the money going into the savings account, half goes to transportation and half to a savings account because we have so much money.
Q: Because of all the oil and gas now coming from state-owned land using hydraulic fracking, the severance tax revenue keeps going up, right? How high will it go?
It keeps growing. I talked to the comptroller, Susan Combs, and she said by the time this proposition comes up for a vote in November, it’ll mean about $1.5 billion a year, or $3 billion every biennium, until something changes and it goes down. Currently, we are appropriating barely $1 billion for new projects in TxDOT’s budget.
Q: How did you happen to be the one who wrote House Bill 1 to put the amendment on the ballot?
There had been attempts in the regular session, but none of them made it through. Nobody could convince the committees or the body as a whole that they would work until some of the proposals I made with Sen. Robert Nichols (Republican chair of the Senate Transportation Committee).
I asked the speaker not to send it to Transportation or to Ways and Means, but to send all these bills to the Appropriations Committee, where there were people who understand money. It’s a larger committee that is harder to work, but it’s a bigger representation of the body as a whole. I thought if I can get it to 28 diverse people, the chances of passing it out of the House are pretty good.
Q: So you managed the bill through Appropriations. What was the difference between your proposal and the others addressing transportation funding in the third special session of the Legislature last summer?
What we wound up with is still a compromise. My proposal went a step further. I wanted to end the 5 cents from the gas tax that comes off the top and goes to public education and to fund it through another source.
Now when you get gas, you pay a 20-cent tax per gallon to the state of Texas. A nickel goes to public education. The House preferred my version, but what we ended up with was a compromise. I got everything else that I wanted.
There will still be a select committee of five House members and five Senate members, and before each legislative session, that group will get together and recommend to the Legislature what the balance in the Rainy Day Fund cannot drop below. Then that has to be approved by the Legislature. It gives the ultra-conservatives the ability to go home and say, “You control me, and I control it.” They’re happy.
Q: Former Congressman Silvestre Reyes calls you El Paso’s MVP for transportation, especially when it came to the costly but needed flyover at Interstate 10 and Americas Avenue and Spur 601. What was so significant about the funding of those projects?
Other people were involved, too. Ted Houghton. The county and city governments. They all needed to buy into it. Spur 601 was unusual because it was the first time we used some of the new laws passed in 2003 that allowed for the private sector to make an offer to the state to build a project. Spur 601 was where the contractor said, “We think we can do it for this much, and we’re going to make a proposal to the state.”
Usually, the state says we’re not going to put this out to bid until the money is in the account. That’s how government works: You build up your account, you approve a project and put it out for bid.
With Spur 601, it was, if someone can tell us how they can build it for a certain amount and where they money will come from, we might accept it.
Q: You also had a big hand in the transportation reinvestment zones.
I’m the creator of transportation reinvestment zones. It’s an idea I had some years ago based on the growth you see around new transportation projects. It’s just like a tax increment reinvestment zone, where you set aside revenues from new development. If you build and improve a new highway, everybody wants to be there. In real estate, it’s like saving the frontage so when it develops, you can get a lot more money for it.
I thought, why can’t you do that with transportation projects? So I came up with this in 2005. It has helped mostly local communities come up with their matching funds for big transportation projects.
Have you been out to Loop 375 lately? It’s exploding. They’re pouring a foundation a week out there. The tax rate hasn’t gone up, but because of the infrastructure, they want to be there. Where there was vacant land, there’s now a McDonald’s or Village Inn. And it doesn’t cost you anything because the tax money from that new development goes to pay off the project.
But again, why I’m here, which is an honor, is because of House Bill 1, the constitutional amendment. What Congressman Reyes said is nice, but I can’t do anything by myself. I mean, Ted Houghton (chair of the Texas Transportation Commission) and I have this friendly relationship. We’re kind of …
Q: I have to mention that you are banging your fists together as you say that.
Yes. I want to give Ted credit. But Ted wanted to toll Spur 601. Had we tolled 601, the Department of Defense said they’re not expanding Fort Bliss. Ted wanted to toll Loop 375 because it’s low-hanging fruit. I said absolutely not. I got enough support on the Metropolitan Planning Organization to beat him.
Did he win, too? Yes. We’re tolling the new lanes on Cesar Chavez Border Highway. That was the toll that we agreed to, or we would have had our funding cut.
Q: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment in 19 years?
I can’t. There’s no way. I have worked on 300-page bills rewriting the Department of Motor Vehicles. I debated the TxDOT Sunset Bill in 2009 for 10 hours on the House floor. This session was the hardest bill I’ve ever worked on, House Bill 1. I can’t pick a bill. They’re like my children.
Q: But is there one bill you passed, one thing you did that stands out from the rest for reasons that are yours alone?
I can tell you I’m proud of things that were initiated by issues in El Paso and have statewide implications. I’m the creator of the Silver Alert (for missing elderly persons), the same thing as the Amber Alert for missing children.
I’m also proud of my involvement with Child Protective Services. One of the biggest floor fights I had was in 2009 over a bill everybody thought was innocuous that was giving state employees credit time for volunteering for CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, because they couldn’t get enough volunteers to help. A state employee said, “I would if I could.”
Now, a state employee can have up to five hours a month that the state pays for volunteering for CASA. So, when someone’s in foster care, we have volunteers that go by and see how’s little David doing? Is he OK?
Q: What are your thoughts on the state of politics in Texas? Like the U.S. House, the Texas House is overwhelmingly Republican. But the politics of compromise still seem to work in the Texas Capitol. Why?
I think because you’re a little closer to home. Politics is like real estate; it’s all local. So it’s easier to have constituents feel they can still contact you, you get emails, letters, calls. I think there’s still a little more of that personal connection here.
There are moments when I think we’re like Congress, and it has changed for the worse since I got there in 1995. I think it’s going to come to a head in the next two to four years, and I think it’ll start reversing. But, it may get worse before it gets better, because we do have a “take no prisoners” faction that sees compromise as a bad thing. And anybody who believes compromise is a bad thing is wrong and dangerous.
Right now, we have a lot of people worried about blogs and rankings. For two sessions now, you have to take every bill to the Conservative Coalition, to the Tea Party and all these different little groups that have put together staffs that rate bills. Members rarely listen to debate anymore. Most members go in with a sheet of paper on how they’re going to vote on a bill since the day it was put on the calendar.
Q: The Texas Legislature is famously, if not notoriously, colorful. Can you tell us a story from the 2013 session?
We’re starting to get boring. The colorful characters and statesmen have pretty much subsided. Wait, I do have one, but it’s a Pickett story.
Q: That will do.
Every session, we take a master picture of the entire House, a panoramic picture. They use a 200-year-old camera that does slow-pan photography. For 19 years, I’ve thought it would be fun to jump up and get in the other side of the picture.
I did it this session. The camera was pointed at one side. My chair is on the other. Everybody’s in their place, but I got up and went over to the far left side and stood there. The sergeant at arms comes and gets me and tries to make me move, and I say no. So they start the picture and after the camera passes me, I run off the House floor and go behind and come back in on the other side and sit in my chair on the right and I’m in the picture twice.
They told me they’ve never sold so many panoramic pictures before. Fifty years from now, I’m going to be the ghost who was in the picture twice.
Q: Most El Pasoans would be surprised to know you’ve written and published two children’s books, “Margo! the Weird Cat” and “Two Apples, Two Cookies.” Does the first have anything to do with former legislator Dee Margo?
It has nothing at all to do with Dee Margo. It was a name my youngest daughter and I talked about because I used to do children’s theater at Bassett Center and around town. She encouraged me to take some of these stories and put them down on paper. It started as a literacy program.
“Margo” was an instant success because the gas company, AT&T, some of the major corporations wanted to buy these and participate in literacy programs. “Two Apples, Two Cookies” was actually commissioned by the United Way. They came to me to write a story based on what they liked about “Margo” because of the colorful art and the story. They wanted something that had a message but was short because they have this book-in-a-bag program, and they get 300 or 400 volunteers to read to children throughout El Paso County. They wanted something big and bright to give to kids afterward. They also wanted it in Spanish. I speak Spanish, and it translated very well.
I think since “Margo” came out, we’ve sold 20,000 to 25,000 copies. “Two Apples, Two Cookies,” probably sold 30,000 around the state. I have a third one I’m working on now.
Q: Some people know you have a warehouse full of restored vintage vehicles. How did you become a collector?
It started when I was about 16. I had already moved out of the house and was working. I was without a vehicle, so I had to walk or take the bus. I told myself I’d never be without two or three vehicles. I bought my first antique car very young. I still have it. It just started from there.
It doesn’t have to be expensive. People think of antique cars and they see all these shows on TV where cars go for $1 million. I’ve bought these over the years instead of drinking in the bars or whatever people do with their disposable income. I save up and buy old cars, and I wheel and deal.
It’s not a business, it’s a hobby. The first antique car I bought was a 1955 English taxi. I think I paid maybe $1,800 for it 30 some years ago, and I still have it, an Austin FX 3.
Q: You were on your own when you were 16? Why?
I was just independent. It wasn’t because of a bad family life at all or that kind of thing.
There were six kids in the family. My parents were both teachers. I wasn’t the easiest student in school, because I was kind of ahead of the teacher. I was really bored and it was hard to keep my attention.
They asked if I’d be interested in a work program, and I went to work at Sears at Five Points when I was 16. I did extremely well and I liked it, so I went out and met a guy who worked there who was a few years older than me, and we wound up becoming roommates in an apartment.
Q: You served one term on the El Paso City Council from 1989 to 1991. What were the big issues then?
The big issue for me was aesthetics. There wasn’t anybody cleaning weeds or serving the public. I would call about it and be told, “Don’t bother us. Just pay your taxes.” And there wasn’t enough park space. There were problems with how the city was treating businesses. Nobody was recycling.
I took it to the council and nobody wanted to do it. We got permission to use Sanitation Department equipment for a voluntary pilot program to have people bring their recyclables to the parking lot at Eastwood High.
It was so phenomenal and overrun that within three or four months, every other City Council member wanted one in their district. It’s now grown into picking recyclables up at your house.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.