Posted: Jan 8, 2013 11:32 AM
Updated: Jan 8, 2013 11:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas legislators opened their 140-day session Tuesday poised to debate how to pay for public schools, decide whether to drug test unemployment recipients and possibly confront a mounting water crisis under the strain of a rapidly growing population.
Hot-button issues over abortion access and gun laws also were expected to generate widespread attention during the 83rd legislative session, which featured a unique political backdrop due to the high number of newcomers.
With 43 freshmen in the 150-member House the most in four decades it will be one of the most inexperienced Legislatures in recent history. Still, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are out to reassert their power following failed runs for bigger offices last year.
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 supermajority 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.
Republicans still rule Texas, and the leadership intends to push the state even further to the right. Dewhurst has said he wants Texas to be "the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country."
Leading the conservative charge once again is Perry, who many are watching for signs that he's ready for another run for governor in 2014 or for president in 2016. Perry, whose 2011-12 campaign for the White House collapsed under a series of public gaffes, has said he won't discuss his political plans until after the session ends in May.
But Perry is already trying to lay out a conservative agenda for state lawmakers, calling on them to continue to place tight controls on state spending, even after historic cuts in 2011 and backing a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, and drug testing for welfare and unemployment recipients.
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 Avalon to Austin 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."
Jane Vineyard, who made the trip with Worthy from nearby Waxahacie, said "unity is what you hope for so that we can all work toward the common goals of our state. But we may not get it."
Rains moved an interfaith service from the steps of the state Capitol to a fourth floor chapel where about 50 people gathered to hear prayers from different faiths in English and Spanish.
"In this 83rd legislative session, may the halls of this house of justice resound with programs that help the widow and the orphan, that help everyone find their footing and maintain themselves as each of us strive to lift up every voice," said Neil Blumofe, a senior rabi at Agudas Achim in Austin.
Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, told those assembled that what lawmakers "do reflects our values, who we are."
"Whether we say God or Yahweh or Allah or whatever name we use to describe that higher power that which is beyond ourselves, we invite that in and ask that to help us do the best that we can," Howard said. "To give us the guidance, the support, the knowledge to sometimes step out of the way in terms of our ego and do what is best for the citizens of our state."
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 which Democrats say 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.
Other top issues for 2013 include public education, water conservation, gun rights and cancer research.
While the opening day of the session is mostly ceremonial, it will include a key piece of business in the election of House speaker. Straus, a San Antonio Republican, has held the post since 2009 but has had to fight off criticism from some Republicans that he's not conservative enough and has been too willing to work with House Democrats.
Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, wants the job and Straus could face a push from a large freshman class of tea party-influenced newcomers who are eager to flex their muscle.
Straus has said he enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House and doesn't consider his tenure as leader of the chamber to be in danger.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Chris Tomlinson contributed to this report.