They're back: Taxes, immigration top Texas lawmakers' agenda

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Monday, January 12, 2015

AUSTIN, TX -- Will Texas' lawyerly governor-elect see eye-to-eye with the firebrand incoming lieutenant governor? Could plummeting oil prices thwart promised tax-cuts? Can gun advocates armed with a 3-D printer producing firearm components on the state Capitol lawn draw support from lawmakers for expanding gun rights? The start of Texas' 140-day legislative session Tuesday may answer some key questions, but it is sure to raise many others.


Gov.-elect Greg Abbott is a former state attorney general who looks poised to bring a judicial temperament to policymaking and has emphasized non-confrontational priorities like building new roads. Overseeing the state Senate will be incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party darling who has promised to push Texas further to the right on issues such as immigration and school vouchers. While Patrick and Abbott agree on the big ideological picture, their different styles and divergent priorities may make hammering out legislative details tricky.


Oil prices are plummeting and so could sales tax revenue should parts of Texas experience an economic slowdown. Energy production had kept the state's economy humming in recent years, enough that new Comptroller Glenn Hegar said Monday that the Legislature will reconvene with a whopping $7.5 billion budget surplus. But he also warned that economic activity may not expand statewide as quickly as in years past, which could jeopardize expensive promises Abbott and Patrick have made on coming tax cuts.


Abbott and Patrick also agree on the need to secure the Texas-Mexico border above all else - especially given the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children, mostly from Central America, who poured into the state last summer. The governor-elect has promised a "continuous surge" along the border that includes 500 new state police troopers. Patrick says he'll fund a current National Guard deployment to the border through August 2017. Both plans won't be cheap, though, and while top Texas Republicans say Washington should reimburse the state since border security is a federal responsibility, the Obama administration hasn't complied.


Immigration was overshadowed by abortion and other thorny issues when Texas lawmakers last convened, but it looks likely to take center stage this time. Republican-backed "sanctuary cities" bills would give police more power to ask anyone they stop about their citizenship status, a notion fiercely opposed by Democrats. Patrick also wants to overturn a 2001 Texas law offering in-state college tuition to the children of people who came to the U.S. illegally. Abbott has called the law flawed but has been less vocal about repealing it, perhaps since trying to do so could trigger the session's most bitter policy fight.


The Come and Take It Texas gun rights group says it will set up a 3-D printer outside the Capitol on Tuesday that can produce key parts of AR-15 rifles. What's printed still needs separate attachments to work - but is legally considered a firearm. The group hopes to spur support for bills allowing the open carry of handguns statewide.


Republicans already enjoy majorities in both legislative chambers, but tweaking Senate rules could allow the party to pass any bills without Democrats blocking debate. Patrick is a longtime critic of the "two-thirds rule," a tradition that prevents legislation from being considered unless 21 of 31 total senators bring it up. Republicans will be a vote short unless they reduce the threshold to 19, which they are threatening to do. Tradition is strong in the staid Senate and that has kept the two-thirds rule in place despite pressure on majority Republicans during previous sessions. However, a rules change could be seen as the first test of Patrick's conservative resolve.


Many bills filed before lawmakers even report for work have turned heads. One would stop paying state employees if they grant or recognize marriage licenses for same-sex couples. The so-called "Pop Tart gun bill" would ban schools from punishing students who use fingers, toys or even breakfast food to mimic gun play. There's also a proposal to try and ensure that winless football teams don't make the high school playoffs.