Inauguration, Senate rules on-tap at Texas Legislature

By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - For the first time since August 2013, the Texas Legislature is back in session - and if that idea takes some getting used to, think how 24 first-term representatives and eight freshman senators feel.

Lawmakers' opening week was heavy on ceremony and good feelings, with outgoing Gov. Rick Perry delivering a rousing farewell speech praising the virtues of bipartisanship. Things got tense, though, during a verbal confrontation involving gun rights activists in the office of Eagle Pass Democratic Rep. Poncho Nevarez.

The week ahead should start with another dose of comradery when Gov.-elect Greg Abbott is inaugurated. But a potentially tough Senate rules fight may mean it doesn't end that way. Here's a look at some of the expected upcoming top stories:

INAUGURATION: Organizers raised $4.5-plus million to celebrate Abbott's swearing-in, and plan a concert headlined by Lady Antebellum, a parade and a barbeque featuring four tons of brisket.

SENATE RULES: The new Senate could break with tradition and tweak chamber rules to remove Democrats' ability to block certain bills. At issue is the longstanding "two-thirds rule," requiring that at least 21 of 31 senators support a bill before it can be brought to the floor. Republicans control only 20 seats. But they may change the rule using a simple majority vote when the Senate debates its rules as expected this week.

SCHOOL FINANCE: House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock has bucked expectations by filing a bill attempting to fix a state school finance system declared unconstitutional by District Judge John Dietz. Aycock's plan would consolidate 1,200 school districts statewide for tax purposes. The Killeen Republican acknowledges his bill may not pass. But the fact that he's proposing it - even as the state is appealing Dietz's ruling to the Texas Supreme Court in a case likely to stretch into 2016 - is something of a school shocker.

SENATE DRAFT BUDGET: The upper chamber has yet to release the earliest version of its proposed 2016-2017 state budget, but Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick has promised it won't include funding for public corruption prosecutors. That may clash with a House preliminary budget released Thursday. The lower chamber's $98.9 billion draft budget includes $6 million for prosecutors who investigate governmental wrongdoing. Perry was indicted last summer on two felony counts after publicly threatening - then carrying out - a 2013 veto of $7.5 million in funding for the unit, after its Democratic head rebuffed the governor's calls to resign in the wake of her drunken driving conviction.

JANEK LEAVING?: Top lawmakers - including Houston's John Whitmire, the Senate's longest serving member - have called for Health and Human Services Commissioner Kyle Janek to resign amid a scandal involving a $110-million, no-bid state contract with an Austin tech company. Janek's chief of staff is among those who have already stepped down. With Abbott becoming governor, could he ensure Janek is next?

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