AUSTIN (AP) — A cash crunch and a potential policy showdown over a North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill are raising tensions as Texas lawmakers return to work Tuesday, when economic realities will start clashing with promises to cut taxes and fix a broken child welfare system.
What bills Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signs after the next 140 days may also depend heavily on what happens in the White House. President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could free up money at a time when Texas is spending nearly $1 billion on border security.
The new president could also ease environmental regulations which may not pack the same budget-saving punch but would ensure Austin is far more sympathetic to policies in Washington than it ever was under Barack Obama.
Regardless, lawmakers likely will need to pinch every penny. A prolonged oil slump has badly chewed away at the state budget, leaving a revenue gap that one top Republican and budget observers say is at least $5 billion short of what Texas needs over the life of its two-year budget just to preserve the status quo. Democrats say the spending baseline is already insufficient for crowded public schools and strained social services.
Spending cuts are certain, Republican state Rep. Drew Darby said Monday. Exactly where spending cuts will be made will be one of the biggest fights until summer. The two-year state budget is the only bill the Legislature is required by the state Constitution to pass.
“There’s just some challenges we’re going to have — to stretch the dollars we do have,” said Darby, who is widely believed to be in the running for the job of powerful House appropriations chairman. Committee assignments won’t formally be distributed until after Opening Day, though, as lawmakers ease into the work ahead.
Perhaps no spending issue is more dire than the one facing the state’s troubled foster care system, which has seen rising rates of children dying of abuse and neglect. In December 2015, a federal judge found that children were leaving the state system “more damaged than when they entered” and some lawmakers are pushing to boost salaries and hire more case workers.
Other issues loading up the agenda include Republican initiatives on school vouchers, an immigration crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t require police to enforce federal immigration policies and further restrictions on abortion providers.
Driven hard by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was Trump’s state chairman and presides over the Senate, conservatives may see a chance to push the state even further in a conservative direction.
A former talk radio host and state senator, Patrick is arguably the state’s most visible and powerful politician. He’s already shoved Texas to the front lines on social issues by pushing a bill that would force transgender Texans to use the public bathroom corresponding to their “biological sex.”
That’s put him at odds with business groups who warn that passing such a bill would cost the state billions in revenue and thousands of lost jobs if hit widespread boycotts that rocked North Carolina after it passed a similar bill measure last year.
The session will formally gavel into business at about noon and the first day will be dominated by the pomp and circumstance of lawmakers being sworn into office. The headiest piece of business will be the election of the speaker of the House, but that won’t feature the drama of previous sessions as San Antonio Republican Joe Straus is poised to win his seventh term as the chamber’s presiding officer.
The relationship between Abbott, Straus and Patrick will be watched closely every minute after that, though.
Abbott, who enters his second session as governor, can lay out his priorities in a series of “emergency” issues and the designation would allow lawmakers to push those bills to the front of the line if they want to. Straus has shown little interest in Patrick’s push on the bathroom bill or tax cuts.
Patrick, who faced speculation he could be eyeing higher office, has already worked to tamp down any hint of rivalry with the governor. Patrick declared Monday he would seek re-election in 2018 and would not challenge Abbott in the primary next year.
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