AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - State leaders appeared to be focused on the tighter-than-expected state budget today after their first weekly breakfast meeting of the legislative session.
In their first joint appearance shortly after breakfast, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and newly elected House Speaker Joe Straus said passing a balanced budget would be their top priority during the next 139 days of session.
"We got a pretty sobering wake up call from a budgetary standpoint," Perry said, referring to the news that the beginning balance would be about $9 billion less than in the previous budget. "I'm not sure anyone had estimated it would be quite as severe as what the comptroller reported."
The budget - currently about $167 billion in all funds - is used to divvy up money to all state agencies and programs from public education to health care and law enforcement.
Perry said agency leaders should be prepared to "have a very intense discussion about your budget and be able to defend and defend strongly expenditures."
The state will still have an estimated $6.7 billion in the so-called Rainy Day Fund, but it will take two-thirds approval of both chambers to use that money.
"To the extent that we spend all of the Rainy Day (fund) - and we're not going to do that - we put ourselves into a real bind and a deficit in 2011," Dewhurst said.
"There has to be a balance between taking care of all of our essential services and I believe that we can do that, and at the same time, holding back some reserves so that we're in pretty good shape going into 2011."
A day earlier, Perry told the Austin American-Statesman that some cuts at state agencies would be likely.
Dewhurst raised the possibility of across-the-board cuts in agency expenditures for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Some House members held a closed-door working group meeting today to hash out proposals for the House rules, which will be formally adopted by the chamber in a few days.
Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, attended some of the meeting and said there were no fireworks, a contrast from the rules clash in the Texas Senate. Coleman said more House members than usual attended the informal meeting because they feel they have input with new Speaker Joe Straus at the helm.
Among the items under discussion, Coleman said, are how House employees are classified as part-time or full-time workers. Controversy erupted a few months ago over the Legislature's long-standing practice of hiring full-time employees at part-time hours.
House Speaker Joe Straus, after being elevated to the powerful post a day earlier, said today he was still getting situated in his new office.
"Having been speaker now for about 20 hours, I'm not quite up to where the Senate is," he said, in his first press conference as speaker. "But we're going to get there after we do a couple of weeks of heavy organizing in the House."
Perry said his office was making resources available to ensure House operations don't fall behind.
"1 of the things that we're offering him is making sure that he has access to ... both our policy shops," Perry said, referring to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. "We're working closely with his folks so we stay on the same page of the hymnbook, if you will."
MEXICAN AMERICAN CAUCUS
The 44-member Mexican American Legislative Caucus got a welcome visit from new House Speaker Joe Straus at its meeting today. MALC's chairman, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, said it was the first time a speaker has addressed the caucus since 2001.
"These members, they represent all corners of the state," said Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat. For the past three sessions - 2003, 2005 and 2007 - the caucus didn't have direct dialogue as a group with then-Speaker Tom Craddick, he said.
"I really take my hat off to Joe," Martinez Fischer said. "I don't think he's been speaker for 24 hours and this is 1 of his first appearances as the speaker."
Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, also praised Straus, a San Antonio Republican, for appearing at the private meeting.
"It's great to have a speaker that is here right as session starts," she said. "He wants to work alongside us."
The caucus wants diversity in House leadership and committee appointments and wants to ensure that the issues of importance to the caucus are raised, Martinez Fischer said.
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