State Lawmakers Back at Work in Austin

The Texas Legislature opened its 140-day 2011 session Tuesday.

The Senate and House members gathered for the Legislature's 82nd session, with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst holding his young daughter Carolyn as she pounded the gavel. Dewhurst then turned more somber, calling for a moment of silence to remember the victims of the weekend shootings in Arizona.

The state House was packed, from the floor to the gallery above, when Secretary of State Hope Andrade brought the House to order. Rep. Vicki Truitt, a north Texas Republican, began singing the national anthem and the entire chamber joined in. Pledges to the U.S. and Texas flags followed, and House officials got about the business of calling the roll and preparing to swear in the newly elected members.

Those who didn't fit into the House and Senate galleries watched the proceedings from a video feed piped into the Capitol auditorium below.

Republicans, having fielded their largest House majority in Texas history, now dominate the Legislature more than ever. Most of them are promising to make deep cuts in spending, balance the budget without new taxes, strengthen ID requirements for voters, crack down on illegal immigration and require women to get a sonogram -- and then look at it -- before having an abortion.

New Speaker of the Texas House

Moderate Republican Joe Straus was overwhelmingly re-elected as speaker of the Texas House. By a 132-15 vote, Straus successfully fended off a challenge from conservatives who wanted to replace him with one of their own. As speaker, Straus presides over the House and is one of the most powerful men in state government. He sets the agenda and controls what legislation makes it to the House floor for consideration.

Straus beat back an internal GOP challenge Monday and is poised to win the official count Tuesday. Republican Rep. Warren Chisum said he was dropping out of the running for Texas House speaker and would support Straus.

Rep. Ken Paxton abruptly dropped out of the Texas House leadership race, clearing way the way for Straus to win a second term. Paxton, of McKinney who tried to get conservatives to pick him over the more moderate speaker, said Tuesday that fellow Republicans had already sealed his fate a day before. More than two-thirds of the GOP caucus, in a non-binding vote, had picked Straus on Monday.

Perry: "Historic" Session Begins

Texas Gov. Rick Perry says state lawmakers are beginning a "historic legislative session" that will impact lives with their votes on economic and social issues. In remarks to the Senate on Tuesday, Perry warned lawmakers it won't be easy to balance a budget facing a massive shortfall. But he said Texas can emerge "stronger."

The official revenue estimate shows the state is short billions -- as much as $27 billion -- of the amount that would be required to maintain the current level of services when adjusted for inflation and caseload growth. Gov. Rick Perry isn't too worried, telling The Associated Press that only people who want more money see a "budget hole" in the numbers released this week.

"I don't think it's the end of the world," Perry said. "I don't think it's apocalyptic."

Democrats blamed Republican leaders for creating the shortfall and warn that critical programs will be curtailed as a result.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said Republicans "want to shortchange hardworking, overtaxed Texans by cutting basic services to make up the shortfall they created." While Democrats might have power to block some Republican initiatives in the Senate, they are virtually powerless in the House. Republicans can pass legislation in that chamber even if the Democrats don't show up.

Perry, a Republican, declared ending the practice of "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants and protecting private property rights as his emergency items for the legislative session. Perry's emergency declaration allows lawmakers to consider bills on those issues in the first 30 days of the session that began Tuesday.

Undaunted, Democratic activists flocked to the west side of the capitol for a rally against an immigration crackdown. They waved signs saying "No Human Being is Illegal." Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, told the crowd that Hispanic growth in Texas far outnumbers increases in the Anglo and African-American population, telling them, "your efforts do count." Alonzo said the protesters were "a good indication of people being concerned about anti-immigration laws."

Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno and April Castro contributed to this report.

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