Texas Legislature convenes with GOP in control

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Legislature opened its 2011 session Tuesday with a blast of conservative chest-beating, a fizzled leadership challenge and a gigantic budget shortfall that could change state government as the people have come to know it.

Republicans, having fielded their largest House majority in Texas history, now dominate the Legislature more than ever. Most of them are promising to make deep cuts in spending, balance the budget without new taxes, strengthen ID requirements for voters, crack down on illegal immigration and require women to get a sonogram - and then look at it - before having an abortion.

The conservative tide was so strong it had threatened to sweep away relatively moderate House Speaker Joe Straus, but the San Antonio businessman beat back an internal GOP challenge Monday and was re-elected Tuesday by a 132-15 vote. As speaker, Straus presides over the House and is 1 of the most powerful men in state government. He sets the agenda and controls what legislation makes it to the House floor for consideration.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said lawmakers heard the voters that swept in the Republican tidal wave and urged them to be smart when casting their votes in what he called a "historic legislative session."

"You are asked to make decisions about the economy and social issues that affect people across this state, touch lives of the people we have the great privilege to serve," Perry said. "The actions that will be taken will make a big difference, make a difference between success and failure."

The official revenue estimate shows the state is short as much as $27 billion of the amount that would be required to maintain the current level of services when adjusted for inflation and caseload growth.

Democrats blamed Republican leaders for creating the shortfall and warn that critical programs will be curtailed as a result. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said Republicans "want to shortchange hardworking, overtaxed Texans by cutting basic services to make up the shortfall they created."

While Democrats might have power to block some Republican initiatives in the Senate, they are virtually powerless in the House. Republicans can pass legislation in that chamber even if the Democrats don't show up.

Perry also declared ending the practice of "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants and protecting private property rights as his emergency items for the legislative session. His emergency declaration allows lawmakers to consider bills on those issues in the first 30 days of the session.

He also plans to propose reforms of "unfunded mandates" on local governments, or laws that require them to make expenditures but without giving them the funds to do so.


Just one day in, and 15 Republican lawmakers may already be out of favor with the leadership.

That's because they voted against Speaker Joe Straus, the victor in Tuesday's speaker election.

Most of Straus' critics fell in line when it became clear that he would win. But 15 of the Republicans who said Straus wasn't conservative enough stuck to their guns and voted nay.

They were Reps. Leo Berman of Tyler, Cindy Burkett of Mesquite, Erwin Cain of Sulphur Springs, Wayne Christian of Center, Dan Flynn Canton, Phil King of Weatherford, Jim Landtroop of Plainview, Jodie Laubenberg of Rockwall, Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Ken Paxton of McKinney, Charles Perry of Lubbock, David Simpson of Longview, Van Taylor of Plano, James White of Hillister and Bill Zedler of Arlington.

Two Republicans - Reps. Bryan Hughes of Minneola and Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs - abstained from voting.

Some conservative groups had warned that they would use the speaker's vote to score lawmakers' performance at the end of the session. The House was on the verge of taking an anonymous voice vote, but Berman abruptly requested the vote be recorded.

With a handful of notable exceptions, the House has traditionally voted unanimously in speakers races in the modern era.

As speaker, Straus presides over the House and is 1 of the most powerful men in state government. He sets the agenda, makes committee assignments and controls what legislation makes it to the House floor for consideration.


The return of the Legislature also means the return of almost daily rallies on the Capitol grounds.

Opening day is always busy.

Lawmakers walked through a gantlet of wheelchairs to enter the Senate and House chambers on Tuesday as demonstrators protested any further cuts to programs that help the disabled live at home.

"They are cutting back on a lot of our services already," said Burrell Steele, who parked his motorized wheelchair outside the House chamber. "We need help cleaning our house, fixing our food. They've already cut back on Meals on Wheels and they might be cutting back even more."

Democratic activists flocked to a rally against an immigration crackdown, waving signs that read "No Human Being is Illegal."

Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, told the crowd that Hispanic growth in Texas far outnumbers increases in the Anglo and African-American population, telling them, "your efforts do count."

Alonzo said the protesters were "a good indication of people being concerned about anti-immigration laws."

Later in the day, several hundred tea party and conservative activists gathered to commiserate after losing the bid to replace Straus as House speaker.

Many had come from around the state and listened to conservative activists say they should take pride in pushing Straus and the entire Texas House rightward.

"There is no reason for anyone to be disappointed," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of the conservative group Empower Texas. "If we want our nation to be on a right track you and I have 139 days to help out legislators to help the speaker, the governor and the lieutenant governor make Texas and keep Texas strong."

The Texas Legislature meets for only 140 days in odd-numbered years, making for an intense legislative session. Sullivan and other speakers urged the activists to keep the pressure on their lawmakers, and to vote them out if they fail to follow a conservative agenda.


Tuesday was a day for the Senate to play nice. Democrats and Republicans shook hands and hugged.

A very partisan battle over Senate rules was expected to emerge as early as Wednesday.

Houston Republican Sen. Dan Patrick wants to change the rule that requires two-thirds - or 21 members - of the Senate chamber to agree to bring a bill up for a vote. The rule is traditionally designed for force bipartisan support of bills, but Patrick says the two-thirds hurdle is unreasonably high.

Patrick wants to reduce the rule to a 60% majority, or 19 votes. Republicans happen to outnumber Democrats 19-12 in the Senate, giving Democrats two key votes they need to block bills.

The Senate fought over a similar change in 2009 and the chamber changed the rule to approve a Democrat-opposed voter identification bill.


Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst held up his 7-year-old stepdaughter Carolyn and let her gavel in the Senate. Carolyn is the biological daughter of former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Sweden Teel Bivins, who died in October 2009.

"I know daddy Teel is proud of you, too," Dewhurst said.


"Time for the dance." - Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.