Texas Legislature opens; Straus re-elected speaker

Jan. 8, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 8, 2013 at 7:09 p.m.

AUSTIN (AP) - The Texas Legislature roared back to work Tuesday with an ambitious Republican wish list headlined by tax relief and abortion, calls from both parties to solve a looming water crisis, and Democrats and teachers re-igniting efforts to roll back $5.4 billion in classroom cuts.

Another tumultuous 140-day session has begun. Yet a key vote on the first day - the election of House speaker - turned out to be a dud.

Republican Joe Straus was elected to a third term as speaker when an expected tea party-incited mutiny flickered but never flared, and Gov. Rick Perry - opening his first session since his failed run for the presidency - broadly outlined a conservative agenda built on showing lawmakers and the public his power hasn't weakened.

It was a largely ceremonial and typical first day that packed little drama save for some gasps when a Senate staffer briefly ground the room to a halt when she passed out during a speech by Perry, sending two senators who are doctors scrambling to her aid.

"I haven't had that kind of impact on anyone in a long time," Perry joked after the woman was declared OK just a few minutes later.

As they have for a decade, Republicans run the show in Austin with commanding majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats were able to snag the handful of seats needed in November to break up the GOP super-majority in the House, but the pink hues of the state Capitol remain dominated by the underlying red-state nature of the politics inside the building.

Perry used short speeches to the House and Senate chambers to outline a conservative agenda he hopes lawmakers will follow: Hold the line on spending after historic cuts in 2011, reduce taxes and further limit abortion.

Many are watching Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to see how they re-assert their power following failed runs for bigger offices last year. Perry has said he'll wait until summer to announce if he'll run for a fourth full term for governor in 2014 or make another run for the White House in 2016.

Perry called for lawmakers to pursue new tax relief measures but laid out no specifics.

"When people keep more of their own money, it's better for them, it's better for their families and it's better for the state. It's time to take a hard look at providing tax relief," Perry told lawmakers.

While Perry broadly outlined his personal agenda, Dewhurst renewed his call to make Texas to be "the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country."

At the other end of the Capitol, Straus was staying pragmatic and trying to steer clear of politics. He said he will spend his third term as speaker looking for solutions to public schools, crumbling state infrastructure and a growing water shortage.

"The core functions of government, that's my agenda," Straus said. "That's what I'm going to focus on."

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the Democratic chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said he thought his party could work with Straus.

"Rick Perry has fallen off the right-wing cliff, and we know (Lt.) Gov. Dewhurst is trying to re-invent himself as an ultra-conservative," he said. "The Republican who wants to act like the adult in the room is Speaker Straus, and whether he can withstand that pressure I think is the ultimate question."

Many lawmakers expect a particularly conservative session. But missing from the first day ceremonies were the tea party demonstrators who disrupted the Capitol so often in 2011, and many wondered how strong their influence will be this session.

Ellis County Republican Party secretary Tommie Worthy said this was the sixth time she has made the two and a half hour drive from her home in rural North Texas for the Legislature's opening day, and she hopes the tea party won't spark too much infighting.

"They have some good ideas but they don't know how to put them to work," Worthy said. "They don't have any structure. They don't know how to conduct themselves in public, and they don't listen to facts. They don't really have any idea how to govern."

Tea party supporters took an immediate hit when the House re-elected Straus as Speaker by acclamation after the only challenger, David Simpson of Longview, dropped out of the race. That left Straus again at the helm of one of the most inexperienced House chambers in four decades: more than one-fourth of the 150 members of the chamber are freshmen.

The two-year state budget is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass and will be the focal point of the session as Democrats fight to restore money cut from public education in 2011 and try to push back against any further cuts in health care programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.

The comptroller has set $101.4 billion in available spending for the next two-year budget cycle. Democrats say it is a healthy enough forecast to reverse the slashed spending of two years ago, but Republicans are already signaling they want to hold the line on spending.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio urged the Senate to restore the money cut from education in 2011.

"Education is the fuel of our economic engine. Two years ago, I believe we did our state a disservice," Van de Putte said. "Cutting back cannot be sustained."



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