Abbott calls for unity
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Greg Abbott opened the Texas legislative session on Tuesday calling on lawmakers to put aside their differences, but they are unlikely to do so.
“We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome,” the Republican told the Senate moments after it formally gaveled into work just after noon. “A cause bigger than any one person or any political party ... it’s the cause that makes Texas far more than just a state. It’s a cause that makes Texas a passion.”
A cash crunch and a potential policy showdown over a North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill are already raising tensions as economic realities clash with promises to cut taxes and fix a broken child welfare system.
Opening day was more about ceremony than policymaking and the mood was light. The Legislature is prohibited from passing most bills in the early going, meaning light workloads for the first few weeks. The balance of power in the state Capitol has changed very little with Democrats not winning a statewide election since 1994. Democrats picked up four seats in the 150-seat House but Republicans hold an strong majority and the Senate remains unchanged at 20-11 in favor of the GOP.
Still, what bills Abbott eventually signs into law may heavily depend on something out of Austin’s control: the White House in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could free up money at a time when Texas is spending nearly $1 billion on border security.
Despite that potential windfall, lawmakers likely will need to pinch every penny. A prolonged oil slump has badly chewed away at the state budget, leaving a revenue gap that one top Republican and budget observers say is at least $5 billion short of what Texas needs over the life of its two-year budget just to preserve the status quo. Democrats say the spending baseline is already insufficient for crowded public schools and strained social services.
Spending cuts are certain, Republican state Rep. Drew Darby said Monday. Exactly where spending cuts will be made will be one of the biggest fights until summer. The two-year state budget is the only bill the Legislature is required by the state Constitution to pass.
“There’s just some challenges we’re going to have — to stretch the dollars we do have,” said Darby, who is widely believed to be in the running for the job of powerful House appropriations chairman. Committee assignments won’t formally be distributed until after Opening Day, though, as lawmakers ease into the work ahead.
Perhaps no spending issue is more dire than the one facing the state’s troubled foster care system, which has seen rising rates of children dying of abuse and neglect. In December 2015, a federal judge found that children were leaving the state system “more damaged than when they entered” and some lawmakers are pushing to boost salaries and hire more case workers.
Other issues loading up the agenda include Republican initiatives on school vouchers, an immigration crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t require police to enforce federal immigration policies and further restrictions on abortion providers.
Driven hard by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was Trump’s state chairman and presides over the Senate, conservatives may see a chance to push the state even further in a conservative direction.
A former talk radio host and state senator, Patrick is arguably the state’s most visible and powerful politician. He’s already shoved Texas to the front lines on social issues by pushing a bill that would force transgender Texans to use the public bathroom corresponding to their “biological sex.”
That’s put him at odds with business groups who warn that passing such a bill would cost the state billions in revenue and thousands of lost jobs if hit widespread boycotts that rocked North Carolina after it passed a similar bill measure last year.
Tuesday’s headiest piece of business was electing the speaker of the House, but that didn’t feature the drama of previous sessions as San Antonio Republican Joe Straus was unanimously elected to his fifth term as the chamber’s presiding officer.
The relationship between Abbott, Straus and Patrick will be watched closely every minute after that, though.
Abbott, who enters his second session as governor, can lay out his priorities in a series of “emergency” issues and the designation would allow lawmakers to push those bills to the front of the line if they want to. Straus has shown little interest in Patrick’s push on the bathroom bill or tax cuts.
Patrick, who faced speculation he could be eyeing higher office, has already worked to tamp down any hint of rivalry with the governor. Patrick declared Monday he would seek re-election in 2018 and would not challenge Abbott in the primary next year.