AUSTIN — They’re back.
The Texas Legislature starts another session Tuesday with 140 days to figure out how to pay for public schools after slashing $5.4 billion from classrooms in 2011, whether unemployment recipients should be drug-tested and perhaps finally confront a mounting water crisis under the strain of a rapidly growing population.
And that’s just to name a few problems.
That also says nothing about the significant political backdrop of the 83rd legislative session that is poised to renew hot-button issues over abortion access and gun laws. Not only will this be among the most inexperienced Legislatures in recent history — there are 43 freshman in the 150-member House, the most in four decades — but Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are out to reassert their power following failed runs for bigger offices last year.
As they have for a decade, Republicans run the show in Austin with commanding majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats were able to snag the handful of seats needed in November to break up the GOP supermajority in the House, but the pink hues of the state Capitol remain dominated by the underlying red-state nature of the politics inside the building.
Republicans still rule Texas and the leadership intends to push the state even further to the right. Dewhurst has said he wants Texas to be “the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country.”
Leading the conservative charge once again is Perry, who many are watching for signs that he’s ready for another run in 2014, or another run for president in 2016. Perry, whose 2011-12 campaign for the White House collapsed under a series of public gaffes, has said he won’t discuss his political plans until after the session ends in May.
But Perry is already trying to lay out a conservative agenda for state lawmakers, calling on them to continue to place tight controls on state spending, even after historic cuts in 2011 and backing a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, and drug testing for welfare and unemployment recipients.
The two-year state budget is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass and will be the focal point of the session as Democrats fight to restore money cut from public education in 2011 and try to push back against any further cuts in health care programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.
The comptroller has set $101.4 billion in available spending for the next two-year budget cycle — which Democrats say is a healthy enough forecast to reverse the slashed spending of two years ago — but Republicans are already signaling they want to hold the line on spending.
Other top issues for 2013 include:
—Public education: Senate leaders are eager to expand the number of charter schools in Texas and allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools. And lawmakers will be considering an overhaul of the state’s rigid student testing an accountability system, which has been criticized by parents and business groups.
—Water: After the historic drought and wildfires of 2011, House Speaker Joe Straus and Dewhurst have both urged lawmakers to address the state’s shrinking water supply. Dewhurst had said he’d like to use $1 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund as seed money for future water projects such as reservoir construction.
— Guns: The Newtown school shooting has lawmakers considering whether to provide state-funding training for security personnel, including teachers with state handgun licenses. Other gun bills will likely include another attempt to allow license holders to bring concealed handguns into college classrooms.
—Cancer: An unprecedented $3 billion cancer-fighting agency launched in 2009 is nothing for Texas to brag about anymore. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is at a standstill while under criminal investigation over how leaders doled out funding, and lawmakers may decide to withhold taxpayer money from the agency in the face of widespread scrutiny.
While the opening day of the session is mostly ceremonial, it will include a key piece of business in the election of House speaker. Straus, a San Antonio Republican, has held the post since 2009 but has had to fight off criticism from some Republicans that he’s not conservative enough and has been too willing to work with House Democrats.
Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, wants the job and Straus could face a push from a large freshman class of tea party-influenced newcomers who are eager to flex their muscle.
Straus has said he enjoys broad bipartisan support in the House and doesn’t consider his tenure as leader of the chamber to be in danger.