AUSTIN (AP) — Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has promised a more conservative state Senate in 2013.
That’s saying a lot.
The 31-member chamber has been dominated by a Republican majority since 1997 and was anything but liberal in 2011 when it passed new restrictions on abortion, cut public education, required voters to produce photo identification and approved a get-tough-on immigration measure.
If that’s not conservative enough, just how far right does Dewhurst want the Senate to go? In an interview with The Associated Press, Dewhurst said he wants Texas to be “the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country.”
“We’re going to pass one of the boldest agendas of the last decade, building even on the 2011 successful session, which is the most conservative session in recent history,” Dewhurst said.
For Dewhurst, that means even tougher restrictions on abortion, new public school choice measures, drug tests for welfare and unemployment aid recipients and keeping Texas among the lowest in the nation in per-capita public spending when the Legislature convenes its 140-day session on Jan. 8.
Dewhurst had pledged a more conservative session after his stinging defeat in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. After a decade leading the state Senate, Dewhurst was defeated by rookie politician and tea party darling Ted Cruz in an election that rocked Texas establishment Republicans.
Dewhurst said he’s moved on. “That was then, this is now. I’m pleased to be where I am to help the state of Texas move forward,” Dewhurst said.
Republicans will be watching Dewhurst, who was attacked by tea party conservatives during the election as not conservative enough. If he plans to run for statewide office again in 2014, whether for another term as lieutenant governor or governor, he’ll use the 2013 session as a proving ground for his conservative credentials, said Republican political consultant Bill Miller.
“He believes he was misunderstood and has a better conservative record than he was given credit for,” Miller said. “He got flanked on the right and he knows that. He’s not going to get flanked on the right again.”
Dewhurst said he supports initiatives pushed by Gov. Rick Perry to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy and drug tests for those seeking welfare and unemployment benefits. “I’m not going to approve paying someone to sit at home and take drugs,” Dewhurst said.
Dewhurst said he also supports a multi-pronged “school choice” proposal to increase the number of charter schools and giving parents more opportunities to let students in poor-performing public schools transfer to better ones, including private schools. Democrats have fiercely proposed the idea of vouchers, allowing families to use public money to enroll in private schools.
And Dewhurst said he expects the Senate to again approve allowing law enforcement to question people they detain about their citizenship status. The measure passed the Senate in 2011 over strong resistance from Hispanic Democrats, but the bill ultimately died in the House without a vote in that chamber.
Senate Democrats are bracing for another fight in the Senate where they may be playing defense for the entire session.
Resurrecting the immigration enforcement bill would create a “toxic environment for those of us who represent Latino communities and are exactly the ones they are trying to target,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.
Van de Putte urged Dewhurst to set aside the Republican “red-meat” issues he is pushing to mollify conservative voters who rejected him.
“You move so far to the right at your own peril. At some point you can’t get through a general election,” Van de Putte said. “Look at Mitt Romney.”
Democrats will have some cover from the Senate’s traditional rule that requires two-thirds of the chamber to agree to bring a bill to a vote. With a 19-12 majority, Republicans are two votes shy of ramming through anything they want — so long as that rule stays in place.
Dewhurst said he’ll leave it up to the Senate and its Republican majority to decide if the two-thirds rules should remain in place in for the 2013 session.
He started making moves for a more-conservative Senate back in October with several key committee assignments. Dewhurst appointed firebrand tea party radio commentator Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, a staunch supporter of vouchers, to lead the Senate Education Committee.
Dewhurst also appointed Sen. Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, the main sponsor of the immigration bill in 2011, as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. And Dewhurst also ousted Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, from her post as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, replacing her with Republican Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo.
He and Republican House Speaker Joe Straus have both said tackling Texas’ growing water shortage should be a top priority for lawmakers. Dewhurst has said he wants to use $1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to use as seed money for major water projects such as new reservoirs.
Dewhurst in the past has typically deflected credit for major policy initiatives to the Senate as a whole in an effort to build cooperation between him and lawmakers. He’ll likely claim more personal responsibility for his conservative agenda this time, Miller said.
“I’ve never been more excited about this session. This will tell the rest of the country whether Texas stays on top or starts to decline,” Dewhurst said. “This state is going to stay on top if I have to carry it on my back.”
Copyright The Associated Press