Highlights from around the Texas Capitol
Posted 5:20 p.m. Tuesday
AUSTIN, Texas — Likely budget cuts and a Donald Trump presidency loomed over the return of the Texas Legislature on Tuesday amid a worsening child welfare crisis and top Republicans promising anti-LGBT bathroom laws similar to what brought upheaval in North Carolina.
Already there are signs of tensions to come. Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate hand in a statehouse constantly drifting to the hard right, marked his election to a record-tying fifth term in his powerful post with a call for civility over Trump-style politics.
Straus didn't mention the president-elect by name, or proposals that would require transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. Driving those efforts are Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who campaigned for Trump and has scoffed at warnings from business groups of economic repercussions.
Companies, touring bands and sporting events boycotted North Carolina after GOP lawmakers last year passed a transgender bathroom law.
Straus appeared to take a veiled swipe at copycat efforts in Texas in his opening speech to the overwhelmingly Republican House.
"This state should invite economic activity, not turn it away," Straus said. His spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether the comment was about the bathroom measures.
Transgender rights will be far from the only fight in the Texas Capitol between now and June. A prolonged oil slump has left Texas short on cash for the next two-year budget — at a time when the state must fix a foster care system that a federal judge ruled unconstitutionally broken, and public school funding that the Texas Supreme Court says is only barely constitutional.
Texas is as much as $6 billion short of the money needed just to keep the status quo, according to budget experts and Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who says spending cuts are now certain. Texas has not been forced to make budget cuts since 2011, when a much bigger shortfall amid the Great Recession resulted in lawmakers cutting $5.4 billion from public schools.
STRAUS EASILY SECURES FIFTH HOUSE SPEAKER TERM
Republican Joe Straus will serve a record-tying fifth term as the powerful speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.
Straus faced no competition Tuesday and won a unanimous 150-0 vote.
It was a sharp departure from previous sessions, when far-right conservative groups who criticize Straus as a moderate backed longshot challengers against him.
Straus is popular among both Republicans and Democrats, who see him an even hand and not a provocative firebrand like other GOP leaders. One legislator who tried to unseat Straus in 2013 even seconded his nomination this time.
Only former Democratic speakers Gib Lewis and Pete Laney have held the job as long as Straus.
ABBOTT URGES UNITY
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott opened Texas' legislative session urging lawmakers to put aside their differences — but they aren't likely to do so when things get busier.
Abbott told the Senate on Tuesday: "We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome." He struck a similar tone in a speech to the House.
Those words were conciliatory and the session opened that way. But over the next 140 days, tensions will surely rise.
A tighter-than-usual state budget and a potential policy showdown over a North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill are already roiling some lawmakers.
And things are likely to get even testier in the face of promises by the Republican majority to cut taxes and fix a broken child welfare system.
DUKES SWORN-IN ANEW AMID INVESTIGATION
A state representative who reneged on previous plans to resign amid a criminal investigation into misusing campaign funds reported to the Texas House for the opening day.
Austin Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes arrived on the floor Tuesday escorted by the House sergeant at arms after the pledge of allegiance and national anthem.
Dukes was sworn in for her 12th term moments later. The Texas Rangers are investigating accusations she misused her legislative staff and campaign funds.
Dukes announced in September that she was stepping down at the end of 2016, citing medical concerns.
That announcement came too late for her to be replaced on the ballot and she was re-elected in November. On Twitter, Dukes now says her constituents didn't want her to resign.
OPENING DAY PRAYER SESSION URGES LAWMAKERS TO REMEMBER TEXAS' MARGINALIZED
Elders representing various religious faiths prayed for lawmakers to remember society's neediest as the Texas Legislature got back to work.
More than a dozen religious leaders held a prayer service on the Capitol steps. Behind them, the line of people waiting to enter the building grew on a windy but balmy Tuesday.
The faithful urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to, as Pastor Ronald Smith of Houston's New Mount Calvary Baptist Church put it, "Remember the least, the last, the left out."
The prolonged oil slump is squeezing the state budget, fueling fears of social service cuts.
The prayer service featured a Muslim call to prayer, the blowing of the Jewish shofar, or ram's horn, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian blessings and a prayer in Spanish and English.
The House reconvenes at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and the Senate is in an hour later. The upper chamber is expected to vote on its rules, which affect how bills are debated and approved — though no major changes are anticipated. The House should discuss logistical and administrative matters, though it isn't expected to tackle major policymaking, either. The Legislature is prohibited from passing most bills in the early going of the session, making the opening weeks traditionally slow.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Kel, you ain't no Hell's Angel but you're a heck of a friend to all of us," — Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, to Republican colleague Kel Seliger of Amarillo. Seliger was elected President-Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate on Tuesday and endured gentle ribbing about his love of motorcycles.