Texas Legislature opens amid sweeping GOP promises, oil woes

The Texas Legislature opened Tuesday with pomp and good feelings belying what could be bitter policy fights ahead as re-galvanized Republicans work to keep sweeping conservative promises on tax cuts, gun rights, education and immigration -- all while collapsing oil prices may threaten the state's economy.

State lawmakers headed back to work after Texas' largest political shake-up in a generation last November changed the names in power, but not the party. The GOP still controls every statewide office, from governor through the state appeals courts, and enjoys strong majorities in the House and Senate.

It plans to use it. Energized by landslide wins for the top posts, Republicans have vowed to keep pushing an already conservative state even further right over the next 140 days.

That likely means renewed debates over beefing up border security, expanding where and how Texans can carry guns and whether to allow parents to use state money for private school vouchers.

Central to it all will be the two-year state budget, the Legislature's only must-pass bill. Lawmakers will have $7.5 billion left unspent from the current budget for their 2016-2017 spending plan, a figure Republicans will likely use to push for tax cuts.

But the economy is a source of some budget anxiety. Oil has been trading below $50 a barrel for the first time since 2009, and new state Comptroller Glen Hegar warned that oil production and regulation tax revenues could drop by up to 14 percent.

"I am confident that we'll be able to craft a budget that prioritizes education, border security, jobs and transportation funding," and still cut taxes, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott said.

Tuesday was more about ceremony than policy, with lines to access the House and Senate galleries -- consisting mainly of lawmakers' relatives, friends and top supporters -- snaking around part of the stately rotunda and down three flights of steps most of the morning.

"It's like the first day of school," said Deputy State Fire Marshall John Nichols, who has been handling opening days in the Legislature since 1995.

But Nichols called Tuesday's line "nothing" compared to the thousands who packed the Texas Capitol the last time lawmakers were in session during the summer of 2013. That featured weeks of protests for and against tough new restrictions on abortion that state lawmakers passed during a special session, following a 12-plus hour Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

There wasn't much partisan bitterness on display Tuesday -- but there will be some political maneuvering.

In the House, tea party Republicans have tried to rally support for replacing Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican they criticize as too moderate. That effort looked unlikely to prevail, with Straus expected to win his fifth term as speaker.

Gun-rights advocates, meanwhile, were holding an open-carry rally outside the Capitol, with some even bringing a 3-D printer that produces components finishing out the lower receiver of an AR-15 rifle.

Pablo Friars of Arlington stood in the cold with a black AR-15 slung over his right shoulder and a black bullhorn in his left hand.

"Our most important weapon is our voice and we defend it with the Second Amendment," Friars said.

Gov. Rick Perry's 14-year tenure ends Jan. 20, when Abbott, the former state attorney general, is sworn in as the state's 48th chief executive. Incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is also taking office then.

Abbott has mostly stuck to broad policy issues such as boosting early education, transportation funding, border security and tax cuts. He only recently hinted at pushing the state to curtail local ordinances on such things as bans on tree cutting on private property and the use of plastic bags by retailers.

Patrick is a longtime leader of the party's right wing. He's pledged an ultra-conservative agenda on issues such as immigration and school vouchers.

Patrick also could lead an effort to grab even more power for Senate Republicans. The lieutenant governor-elect has said he wants the Senate to lower the traditional threshold for passing bills in that chamber from two-thirds to 60 percent. That would effectively marginalize Senate Democrats, whose 11 members have just enough votes to block especially contentious bills from coming up.

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