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Texas Legislature to Open With Far More Pomp Than Policy

Republican Joe Straus to serve record-tying fifth term as Speaker of the Texas House of Reps

What to Know

  • Jan. 10 -- 85th Legislature convenes at noon; session ends after 140 days on May 29.
  • June 18 (20th day following adjournment) is the last day the governor can sign or veto bills passed in the regular session.
  • Aug. 28 (91st day following adjournment) is the date that bills without specific, or immediate, effective dates become law.

Texas legislators opened the state's 85th Legislature Tuesday, the first time they've convened since June 2015.

Opening day is reserved for pomp and circumstance, as lawmakers take oaths of office and their families pose for pictures.   

"This is what we were elected to do, what we have been working for. We have big challenegs ahead for the state we also have great opportunities," said Republican Rep. Jeff Leach, from District 67.

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers and control all Texas statewide offices.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversee the Senate, are both entering their second legislative sessions since their 2014 elections.

Before opening the 85th session, Patrick released the following statement:

"As the Capitol welcomes legislators from all over the State of Texas, I am proud to gavel-in the opening of the Texas Senate for the 85th session of the Texas Legislature. Our state faces many challenges this session, but I have great confidence in the commitment of the hard-working senators of this state and the people of Texas who elected them. In all our deliberations, maintaining our conservative principles and protecting Texas values will be our top priority."

2:25 p.m. Update

House Speaker Joe Straus has marked his re-election as head of the chamber by offering what appeared to be a veiled swipe at a transgender bathroom bill cheered by top conservatives.

The San Antonio Republican told the Texas House on Tuesday that, "This state should invite economic opportunity, not turn it away."

Straus didn't specifically mention the Texas version of a bill approved to national uproar in North Carolina last year. It would ban transgender people from using public bathrooms of their choice.

Business groups say the bill could cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenue. Straus previously has suggested it's not a top priority.

But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Texas Senate, has vowed to fight for the bill at all cost.

"I think the votes will probably be in the Senate. I think there will be the votes to get it out of the senate, but I don’t think it will become law in the State of Texas," Dallas Democratic State Senator Royce West said of that bill.

1:15 p.m. Update

Republican Joe Straus will serve a record-tying fifth term as the powerful speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

Straus faced no competition Tuesday and won a unanimous 150-0 vote.

It was a sharp departure from previous sessions, when far-right conservative groups who criticize Straus as a moderate backed longshot challengers against him.

Straus is popular among both Republicans and Democrats, who see him an even hand and not a provocative firebrand like other GOP leaders. One legislator who tried to unseat Straus in 2013 even seconded his nomination this time.

1:05 p.m. Update

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has opened a Texas legislative session that will likely eventually feature bitter partisan battles by urging lawmakers to put aside their differences.

Abbott told the Senate on Tuesday: "We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome."

Those words were conciliatory, but the coming 140-day session likely won't be.

A tighter-than-usual state budget and a potential policy showdown over a North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill are already raising tensions. 

And things are likely to get even testier in the face of promises by the Republican majority to cut taxes and fix a broken child welfare system.

12:40 p.m. Update

A state representative who reneged on previous plans to resign amid a criminal investigation into misusing campaign funds has reported to the Texas House for the opening day of the legislative session.

Austin Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes arrived on the floor Tuesday escorted by the House sergeant at arms after the pledge of allegiance and national anthem.

Dukes was sworn in for her 12th term moments later. The Texas Rangers are investigating accusations she misused her legislative staff and campaign funds.

Dukes announced in September that she was stepping down at the end of 2016, citing medical concerns.

That announcement came too late for her to be replaced on the ballot and she was re-elected in November. On Twitter, Dukes now says her constituents didn't want her to resign.

12:10 p.m. Update

The state House and Senate have gaveled in, formally beginning Texas' 140-day legislative session.

Lawmakers were taking oaths of office on Tuesday, but planned to concentrate more on ceremony rather than policy. The Legislature is prohibited from passing most bills in the early going, meaning little gets accomplished for the first few weeks.

Tensions could rise soon, though, over a cash crunch and North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill championed by top conservatives.

The prolonged oil price slump has hurt state revenue, meaning the Texas budget approved this session could be tighter than previous incarnations.

Also sure to shape the session is President-elect Donald Trump and his policy moves. For starters, Trump's promises to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border may save Texas money in its border security budget.

11:40 a.m. Update

NBC 5's Julie Fine walks between the House and Senate chambers at the Texas State Capitol in the hour before the 85th Legislative session begins. Watch her Facebook Live video below.

11:10 a.m. Update

Elders representing various religious faiths are praying for lawmakers to remember society's neediest on the Texas Legislature's opening day.

More than a dozen religious leaders held a prayer service on the Capitol steps. Behind them, the line of people waiting to enter the building grew on a windy but balmy Tuesday.

The faithful urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to, as Pastor Ronald Smith of Houston's New Mount Calvary Baptist Church put it, "Remember the least, the last, the left out."

The prolonged oil slump is squeezing the state budget, fueling fears of social service cuts.

The prayer service featured a Muslim call to prayer, the blowing of the Jewish shofar, or ram's horn, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian blessings and a prayer in Spanish and English.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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