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Texas Legislature Convenes Amid Budget Shortfall

The Texas State Capitol building. (credit: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

The Texas State Capitol building. (credit: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

AUSTIN (AP) – 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 beat back an internal GOP challenge Monday and was overwhelmingly re-elected Tuesday by a 132-15 vote. As speaker, Straus presides over the House and is one of the most powerful men in state government. He sets the agenda and controls what legislation makes it to the House floor for consideration.

Some conservatives had 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, had lined the halls of the Capitol on Tuesday morning. 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.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry says state lawmakers are beginning a “historic legislative session” that will affect people’s lives with their votes on economic and social issues. In remarks to the Senate on Tuesday, Perry warned lawmakers it won’t be easy to balance a budget facing a massive shortfall. But he said Texas can emerge “stronger.”

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. 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, a Republican, declared ending the practice of “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants and protecting private property rights as his emergency items for the legislative session. His emergency declaration allows lawmakers to consider bills on those issues in the first 30 days of the session.

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.”

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