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As first bills are filed, battle lines for 2017 session begin to emerge

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled an aggressive conservative agenda for the senate with his priority list, while House Democrats promised to focus on "kitchen table" issues.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick assures the audience at the Freedom, Faith and Fellowship event May 12, 2016 that he will uphold conservative principles as leader of the Texas Senate in 2017.

On the first day lawmakers could file bills for consideration during the 2017 session, leaders from both parties began drawing battle lines for fights over taxation, immigration and social issues that will likely dominate the upcoming meeting of the Texas Legislature. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, announced priorities that he said reflected a commitment to the "conservative values" that helped propel Donald Trump's election as president. Patrick's top 10 list signaled an aggressive and potentially divisive agenda for the Texas Senate, over which he presides. 

"Starting in 2017, we will have a friend in the White House who was clearly elected because the people of this country believe in the conservative principles that have guided the way we govern in Texas — life, liberty and lean government that promotes prosperity," Patrick said. "I remain committed to those principles."

Minutes later, a group of Democrats from the Texas House criticized what they characterized as an embrace of divisiveness in the Senate and promised to focus on what they characterized as "kitchen table" matters. 

"We have been the grownups" in the Legislature, said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "We are going to continue to be the grownups."

Patrick's top two priorities are passing a balanced budget — which is required by state law — and reforming the state's property tax system, which he said is "taxing people out of their homes and hampering business growth." The rest of the list is filled with ideas that will be stringently opposed by Democrats and, in some cases, moderate Republicans, including limiting which bathrooms transgender people could use; imposing more restrictions on abortion; strengthening the state's voter ID law, and allowing parents more choice in the schools that their children attend. 

The list was light on policy specifics, but Patrick has touted many of the ideas for months, if not years. For instance, school choice has been a hobbyhorse for Patrick since he was a state senator and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and he has consistently advocated for something resembling a private school voucher system in which tax dollars are used to help parents send their kids to private or religious schools. 

And the bathroom issue has been a focus since Houston residents voted to eliminate an equal rights ordinance last year. The ordinance aimed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender identity or other factors, but opponents who led the campaign to repeal it claimed it allowed male predators to enter the women's bathroom. Patrick's office says he wants to ensure that "women and girls should have privacy and safety in their restrooms, showers and locker rooms."

The rest of his list included plans to ban local governments from refusing to cooperate with immigration agents or enforce immigration laws; prevent student-teacher relationships; cap increases in state spending, and rein in insurance lawsuits after hailstorms. 

The Democrats, meanwhile said they'd focus on reforming the state's school finance system, improving access to health care and making it easier for residents to register to vote and cast a ballot on election day. 

Many Democrats and school officials had been hoping that the Supreme Court of Texas would rule that the state's method of funding schools is unconstitutional, forcing the state to take on the political perilous task of rebuilding it. That didn't happen, though the court did say the system was problematic and should be fixed. 

Such a fix was notably absent from Patrick's list of priorities. But Democrats listed it near the top. 

"We know that the school finance system is broken," said Rep. Mary González, D-Clint. "We know that, as the Supreme Court said, we need transformational change."

One key way to do that is for the state to send more money to the school districts, which would ease the property tax burden that homeowners pay to fund K-12 education, Democrats said. Howard, for instance, said she filed a bill on Monday that would force the state to pay at least half of the cost of education each year. 

"That could go a long way toward reducing the burden of local taxpayers," she said. 

Democrats said they will also focus on improving the state's troubled foster care and Child Protective Services systems. And they said they will attempt to work with Republicans on criminal justice reform, especially finding more alternatives to jail for low-level drug offenders and people convicted of nonviolent crimes. 

They will face major obstacles in accomplishing some of those goals. They made minor gains in the Texas House in the November elections, but remain firmly in the minority in the House and Senate. But they expressed confidence that they will be able to work with Republican House Speaker Joe Straus on many issues. 

Straus has also listed overhauling school finance and  fixing foster care and CPS as top goals. But he has urged caution over the state's fiscal situation, noting that the shaky oil and gas industry could limit the money that lawmakers have to spend. 

"In 2017, enabling our citizens to pull themselves forward will be a major point of focus in the Texas House," he said in Dallas last month. 

The Legislative session starts Jan. 10. 

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