Under cloudy skies but facing a sunny budget outlook, the 83rd Texas Legislature opened for business Tuesday, with state leaders calling for a focus on education, infrastructure and the economy — and, perhaps, tax relief — in the 140 days ahead.
The first day was part substance, part ceremony. Legislators were sworn in with their families crowded into the House and Senate with them, celebrating the reward of a long election season.
Straus and his Senate counterpart, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both opened with nearly identical lists of priorities for the session: education, water, infrastructure, jobs and the state budget.
Gov. Rick Perry paid each chamber a short visit, calling on members to work hard and suggesting strongly that the state’s glowing revenue outlook might light the way to tax cuts or tax refunds.
Comptroller Susan Combs set the stage on Monday, telling lawmakers, in effect, that they’ll have enough money to continue the programs and services they provide now — even if they were to replace the cuts made two years ago, when lawmakers believed money was short.
Perry warned against those who see Combs’ rosy forecast as “the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell.” He joked that legislators would be hearing from supplicants right away: “They regard it as manna falling from heaven, and they have all of y'alls' addresses and phone numbers.
Perry returned to some unanswered items from his past wish lists, saying lawmakers should stop balancing the budget by delaying payments and rerouting money from dedicated accounts to general spending. He added that they shouldn’t use the state’s Rainy Day Fund for anything outside of onetime expenses, and then only sparingly. He also suggested that the state’s fiscal outlook means it is “time to take a hard look at providing tax relief.”
Senators didn’t vote on their permanent rules — there has been talk of changing a couple of major ones — but several said the vote would happen soon. And they appear to have settled their most public debate; it appears they will leave in place the rule that requires consent from two-thirds of the Senate before a bill can be presented for debate. They’ve ignored that one in the past on some major fights, and might do that again in the future, but the rule will apparently stay in the book.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Senate, a largely ceremonial position that puts her in the line of succession behind the governor and lieutenant governor and ahead of the speaker of the House. During her acceptance speech, she celebrated the growing racial diversity of Texas: "Let us say to the world, 'Bienvenidos, y'all.'"
Some of the big caucuses in the Legislature have yet to organize and choose their leaders for the current session, but that will happen in the next few days. House Republicans will meet Wednesday — a gathering that might include a visit from the governor — and the Democrats might wait a couple of weeks. State Reps. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and Jim Murphy, R-Houston, are campaigning to lead the GOP caucus; Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, headed the Democratic Caucus last year but has said "it would be nice to have someone rotate" into that job.
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.
Pat Springer, mother of freshman Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, knew her son would make it to the statehouse when he was a teenager. “He was in high school, in the Young Republicans Club; he said, one day, he was going to serve,” she said, waiting in line to enter the chamber. “This has been a dream for a long time.”
As House members trickled into chamber, family members posed for pictures in front of the podium and children lolled in the legislators’ leather chairs.
Kristin Rodriguez, Rep. Justin Rodriguez’s sister-in-law, brought her three boys — ages 7, 5 and 2 — from Houston. “We’re here to support him, even though he’s not our representative,” she said.
Tyler Hildebrant and Telsa Hildebrant, said it was a “big-time surprise” when Tyler’s cousin, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, ran for office, so they drove four hours from Crowley to see him join the House.
“He’s just a goofy guy, so I wouldn’t think that he would do something like this,” Telsa Hildebrant said. “God told him that this is where he wants him to be.”