Session to usher in new leadership, large projects

AUSTIN Call it a session of big projects—with the potential for some big fights.

When lawmakers convene Jan. 13 for the 84th Texas Legislature, they do so with a host of new state leaders and what may be the most conservative group of lawmakers the state has seen in decades.

Statewide issues, such as transportation infrastructure, water management, property taxes and public education, loom large. In addition, an upwardly mobile revenue number means more money for the state budget than in recent years—and more fights over who gets the cash.

"Every dollar of government spending has a constituency," said James Quintero, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Local Governance.

Some Texas Republicans, emboldened by strong victories both nationwide and at home on Election Day, are also bringing with them some of the most divisive issues on the table: gay rights, immigration and border security, and gun control.

State Republicans are in a strong position to pass their priorities but are by no means immune to a Democratic Party ready to play defense.

"We cannot look at the overwhelming victory as a mandate to do nothing," said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. "We need to take care of these things."

Democrats said they are prepared to do battle.

"You're still seeing some folks working together because Republicans don't have a supermajority," said Emmanuel Garcia, former Texas Democratic Party communications director who stepped down in December. "The minority can still hold a position."

A defining characteristic of the 84th legislative session is that Texas will have a new governor and new lieutenant governor for the first time in more than a decade.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are both conservative Republicans ready to make a strong impression right out of the gate.

"All eyes are on them," Munisteri said.

After backsliding in the 2012 elections, Texas Republicans regained a few seats in both chambers in November. As of

Jan. 2, the House has 96 Republicans and 51 Democrats. The Senate has 20 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Special elections Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 will decide who fills three open House seats and one open Senate seat, unless a runoff is needed.

Growth issues

Ranking third nationwide in state population growth rate by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Texas has a number of large-scale issues facing it.

"We have the highest rate of uninsured people in the country, and we are tied with California for the largest number of adults who lack a high school degree. Those are just two [issues]," said Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive Austin think tank.

Lawmakers in 2013 secured voter approval of $2 billion in loan funds for water plans but will continue to seek conservation on privately owned lands, among other issues.

The need for better road maintenance and new highway construction is expected to spark numerous plans to redirect and raise funds.

Texas ranks 15th highest among states in per capita property taxes, and relief is a top priority for conservative groups.

"We really want to focus on how much [property taxes impact] families at the dinner table," Quintero said.

With nearly 5 million children in the public school system, education remains at or near the top of priority lists all along the political spectrum.

Among the fights expected in the session is the battle over school choice, a system in which the state subsidizes—through vouchers, tax credits or similar plans—private and parochial schools.

Those plans top the list of education priorities for Patrick, who said that allowing parents to choose private or religious schools allows them the opportunity to find the best education for their children.

Opponents believe such programs negatively affect the children who stay in public schools and focus state resources in the wrong place.

"They're a scheme to defund public education and funnel it into private schools," said Jose Medina, deputy communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for public education.

Social divide

Republicans have filed bills that would allow Texans to openly carry weapons, fire gay employees or refuse gay customers and would also repeal the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition and pursue citizenship.

In previous sessions, similar bills have divided the chambers and taken up days and weeks of debate, pushed off budget passage and otherwise derailed sessions.

Democrats, who have filed their own social bills, including a repeal of the gay marriage ban, said those types of fights siphon the energy and goodwill needed to address the most urgent issues.

"Any time that is spent in a 140-day legislative session distracted with these sorts of issues gets away from doing what Texas actually needs, which is to prepare for its growth," Garcia said.

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