The Brief: Top Texas Headlines for Jan. 9, 2013

Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst listen to Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Jan. 8, 2013, the opening day of the 83rd legislative session.
Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst listen to Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Jan. 8, 2013, the opening day of the 83rd legislative session.

The Big Conversation

Gov. Rick Perry injected a note of caution into the otherwise low-drama first day of the 83rd Legislature.

State lawmakers descended on the state Capitol on Tuesday for their biennial 140-day lawmaking session. Amid an improving fiscal outlook, state leaders said their lists of priorities for the next five months included the state budget, education, water and infrastructure.

After they were sworn in, the House, in no surprise, voted by acclamation to re-elect Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, withdrew from the race.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the chamber would likely keep its controversial two-thirds rule, though some senators suggested that a fight could still materialize. The chamber also voted to elect Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, as president pro tempore, putting her third in the line of succession in state government, behind the governor and lieutenant governor. 

 

The day's strongest political message, however, likely came from Perry, who in brief addresses to each chamber warned lawmakers against interpreting the state's improving economic forecast — and $8.8 billion budget surplus — as a license to abandon conservative spending principles.

"Trust me when I tell you that there are interests all across the state who view Monday's revenue estimates as the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell," Perry said of Comptroller Susan Combs' projections this week. "They all want more for their causes. They all figure we have manna falling from heaven."

As Perry spoke, groups like the Texas State Employees Union had gathered outside the Capitol to call on lawmakers to restore some of the sweeping cuts made last session, when the Legislature faced a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said of Perry's remarks: "It's a good political speech, but the bottom line is we need to put more money into public education and deal with the dropout rate. … There is not a state agency in this state that is being adequately funded."

Based on Day One, whether lawmakers should restore those 2011 cuts — or whether they should cut the budget even further — will likely emerge as the central issue of the session. 

Capitol Notes
Compiled from Tribune reports

  • Rep. David Simpson decided against pressing for a vote for House speaker, but he wanted a trial run on his Tuesday speech. Simpson got permission to shut down the House chamber for a time on Monday afternoon — before the session — for some practice. The House closed the doors and turned off the video feed so he could work in private. 
  • Former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Rick Santorum was in town for some of the festivities, getting a new sweater vest with the Texas A&M logo from Griffin Perry, the governor’s son. Santorum also stopped by an opening day event for state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney. Asked whether Perry should run for president again, Santorum said, "You will have to ask Governor Perry that."
  • Ongoing redistricting lawsuits delayed a typical opening-day tradition in the Senate. In a session following one in which the Legislature redraws the state’s political boundaries, senators typically hold a drawing to determine who will have two-year terms and who will have four-year terms, so as to ensure that the Senate's terms remain staggered. Senate leaders said Tuesday they were delaying the drawing to ensure that it wouldn't conflict with ongoing federal appeals over the redistricting maps the Legislature passed in 2011. Dewhurst said he'd asked for legal briefs from the Republican and Democratic caucuses, as well as from the attorney general’s office, on whether the drawing should be delayed. If no legal issues emerge, he said, he expects the drawing to take place later this month.
  • Near the beginning of Perry's Senate speech, a staffer fainted in the chamber, prompting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to ask for the assistance of any doctors in the audience. The woman regained consciousness and was escorted off the floor, after which Perry said, to laughs, "I have not had that kind of an impact on anyone in a long time."
  • A group of about 15 activists from ADAPT of Texas, a disability rights group, waited outside the House and Senate chambers to pass out fliers outlining their goals for the session, including Medicaid expansion, more funding for services for the disabled and increased housing access. David Wittie, a member of the organization who had polio as a child, said the group would focus on increasing funding for existing programs to help individuals with disabilities. "The laws in place won't help us if the money isn't there," Wittie said. "Texas has a bad history of disability rights, but it's getting better."
  • University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers said he hopes to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to restore funding to the university. UT lost about $92 million in the last budget cycle. "Higher education is the future of the state, and having some funding restored will put energy into the university and move us forward," Powers said. "We know we're not going to prevail on every issue with every legislator."

Culled
Texas news from across the state and around the web

  • Oprah to interview Lance Armstrong (The Associated Press): "Lance Armstrong has agreed to a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey where he will address allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. According to a release posted on Oprah's website on Tuesday, it's the first interview with Armstrong since his athletic career crumbled under the weight of a massive report by USADA detailing allegations of drug use by the famous cyclist and teammates on his U.S. Postal Service teams."
  • S.F. welcomes Dems' rising Latino stars (San Francisco Chronicle): "Democrats' hunger for fresh faces and Latino leadership in politics was on full display as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro — last year's highly praised Democratic National Convention keynoter — found himself face to face with a crowd in San Francisco this week. … With his identical-twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas — who accompanied him on a California trip that included a stop at their alma mater, Stanford University — the pair were mobbed by admirers."
  • Texas calls on Supreme Court to settle water dispute with New Mexico (Austin American-Statesman): "Raising the heat in a long-simmering dispute between Texas and New Mexico, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality filed a complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking justices to order New Mexico to release water the commission argues belongs to to Texas."

Quote of the Day: "I think it's just that, scuttlebutt." — Rick Perry to the AP on rumors that George P. Bush may run against him for governor in 2014

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