Texas Legislature convenes amid budget shortfall

January 12, 2011 5:13:49 PM PST
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.

The Senate and House members gathered Tuesday for the Legislature's 82nd session, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst holding his young daughter Carolyn as she pounded the gavel. Dewhurst then turned more somber, calling for a moment of silence to remember the victims of the weekend shootings in Arizona.

The state House was packed, from the floor to the gallery above, when Secretary of State Hope Andrade brought the House to order. Rep. Vicki Truitt, a north Texas Republican, began singing the national anthem and the entire chamber joined in. Pledges to the U.S. and Texas flags followed, and House officials got about the business of calling the roll and preparing to swear in the newly elected members.

Those who didn't fit into the House and Senate galleries watched the proceedings from a video feed piped into the Capitol auditorium below

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 that it had threatened to sweep away relatively moderate House Speaker Joe Straus, but the San Antonio businessman appeared to be within grasp of winning a second term. Straus beat back an internal GOP challenge Monday and is poised to win the official count Tuesday. Republican Rep. Warren Chisum said he was dropping out of the running for Texas House speaker and would support Straus.

Some conservatives have complained that Straus is too moderate and depended too much on Democrats for his re-election.

Supporters of another GOP candidate, Rep. Ken Paxton of McKinney, lined the halls of the Capitol on Tuesday morning and weren't ready to throw in the towel. A sign below the staircase leading up to the House chamber proclaimed, "We Are Watching You." A pair of tiny green binoculars hung from the poster board.

"It's not over `til it's over," said retired telecommunications engineer John Barber, who was waiting to get into the House gallery for a glimpse of the approaching ceremony.

The state's budget woes also are coming into focus just as lawmakers head back into town for the 140-day session. The official revenue estimate shows the state is short billions -- 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. Gov. Rick Perry isn't too worried, telling The Associated Press that only people who want more money see a "budget hole" in the numbers released this week.

"I don't think it's the end of the world," Perry said. "I don't think it's apocalyptic."

Perry plans to address both the House and Senate on Tuesday, when he will propose emergency legislation to enact curbs on government condemnation powers and abolish so-called sanctuary cities, a reference to policies designed keep municipal law enforcement agencies from getting involved in federal immigration matters. 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.

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.

Undaunted, Democratic activists flocked to the west side of the capitol for a rally against an immigration crackdown. They waved signs saying "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."

Eyewitness News reporter Miya Shay is in Austin and will be bringing us the latest on Eyewitness News and abc13.com.