He was sworn in Jan. 20, 1995 and within weeks had met every state senator individually and most of the members of the House. He homed in on the legislature's power brokers, sitting with them at University of Texas basketball games, wooing them from the owners box behind the dugout at Texas Rangers games (his partnership sold the team in 1998), grilling steaks on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion.
"Whether they're Democrat or Republican or independent, he doesn't really care," said Terral Smith, Bush's legislative director. "He recognizes who he has to work with, whose got the power, and then he goes and develops a personal relationship with that person."
The strategy worked. The state adopted an education curriculum that gave more power to school districts. Richards' educational testing program would be used to ensure the power shift did not compromise educational quality, and Bush won two signature programs: a charter school effort that would allow individual schools to opt out of many state regulations, and a "home-rule" option that would allow whole districts to do the same.
On tort reform, Bush won new restrictions on what he called "junk lawsuits," but he had to pay a price. The Republicans wanted to cap punitive damages at $100,000, The Democrats wanted to set the cap at $1 million. Instead of sacrificing the entire measure, Bush settled on $750,000, then persuaded his own party to go along.
"You can't imagine how difficult it was," recalled state Sen. David Sibley, who shepherded the tort reform measure through the legislature for Bush. "There's literally blood on every word in that bill."
On welfare reform, Democrats again bent Bush their way, inserting costly worker training provisions and English literacy programs while easing some of the welfare deadlines and drug-testing provisions.
"I thought he was a little naive" on welfare reform, said Democratic state Rep. Rene Oliveira, chairman of the Texas House Ways and Means Committee. "You're not going to get a South Texas farm worker or an inner-city African American with little education or social skills to be a flight attendant without a lot of help."
But, Oliveira said, Bush deserves kudos for his successes in 1995. "I was quite impressed with his personal touch. He came down from the mountain top, unlike a lot of other governors," Oliveira said. "And I would agree he was able to use the bully pulpit to force a consensus, to make his issues a higher priority."
Rob Junell, the Democratic chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee, agreed.
"There is no question in my mind the impetus for passing those things would not have occurred but for Governor Bush," he said.
Praise amid failure
Ironically, it was in failure that Bush receives his most effusive praise. In 1997 the governor proposed a far-ranging tax reform proposal that would have raised the homestead exemption statewide to lower property taxes, increase the state sales tax, and spread corporate taxes to new businesses such as law firms and other partnerships.
The Bush proposal in effect redistributed the tax burden to make a disjointed system fairer.
"For George Bush to say we've got to modernize the tax structure in the state of Texas was a huge gamble," Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said. "It was the right thing to do."
Right or wrong, the bill was trounced. Bush's top priority that year was a dramatic overhaul of the tax code. He did come away with a $1 billion tax cut, but no sweeping changes were enacted and the cause of tax reform has been dead ever since.
"The governor went to Plan B," said state Sen. Teel Bivens, Bush's point man in the 1997 tax fight. "And he still had a twinkle in the eye and a joke for the staff. He did it with great style, though it was a personal defeat for him."
Mixed results from reforms
For all his successes, the results of his "reforms" are mixed, especially in the tax arena. The $1 billion tax cut of 1997 was used to raise the state's homestead exemption from $5000 to $15,000, but most homeowners have seen almost no change in their tax burden because property values have rose and school districts have increased their property tax rates, said Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst and an education policy expert at Austin's Center for Public Policy Priorities.
In 1999, Bush again targeted property taxes but this time indirectly. By sending $1.4 billion to the districts, Bush hoped local school officials would lower tax rates. But among the state's 1,000 locally elected school boards, 25 percent did not touch their property tax rates, and 38 percent increased theirs. Statewide, tax rates on average are virtually unchanged.
In education, Bush has boasted that state test scores in every area are up, especially among African-American and Latino students. But the cause of the improvement is in dispute.