GOP prepares for tough Texas legislative session

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Associated Press

Posted on November 3, 2010 at 7:54 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 3 at 9:40 PM

AUSTIN, Texas  -- As Republicans prepare to take a two-thirds
majority of the Texas House, some of the party's issues that were
wilting under opposition from Democrats will likely be pushed to
the top of the agenda when the legislative session starts in
January.
  
In addition to facing a budget shortfall expected to be more
than $20 billion with renewed calls for fiscal restraint, the House
will also revisit the highly charged and partisan issues of voter
identification and immigration.
 
 The new conservative makeup of the House also will have a hand
in redrawing new congressional districts, a task that's almost sure
to result in more Texas Republicans in Washington, D.C.
  
Texas Democrats suffered staggering losses in the state
Legislature on Tuesday, losing their House leader and several
longtime incumbents who weren't even considered vulnerable.
According to unofficial returns, Republicans will pick up 22 seats
in the chamber, giving them a 99-51 majority.
  
"A lot more Republicans is a more conservative House," said
Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, who is being challenged for
another term as the chamber's presiding officer by conservative
Republican Rep. Warren Chisum of Pampa. "It certainly solidifies
the conservative nature of the House that we've had for a long
time."
  
Straus says he has enough support for another term and believes
the race for speaker is over, but Chisum warned Wednesday that
anything could happen before the 150-member chamber chooses their
leader in January.
  
Both speaker candidates turned their attention Wednesday from
the election to the issues and challenges the House will face
during their 140-day session that begins in January.
  
Bills that would require voters to present more forms of
identification have struggled to get out of the closely divided
House in recent years because of Democratic opposition. Voter
identification legislation has "come back every session I've been
here," Straus said. "I assume that it will (come back), sure."
  
Rep. Todd Smith, the Bedford Republican who carried the
legislation last year, predicted a voter identification bill would
pass under the new makeup of the House.
  
Both Straus and Chisum said immigration reform would be a key
area, but Chisum noted that immigration legislation did not get
passed during Straus' first term.
  
"We might look at the Arizona law, see how it could fit into
Texas law," he said.
  
He said the state has to do something since the federal
government is not securing the border.
  
"We have as many undocumented people here in the state as
anybody and we need to figure out how to get them documented, those
that are working and doing fine and abiding by the law," Chisum
said. "We need a way to have that work force here. ... But it
needs to be legal, documented, know where they are, paying taxes
and abiding by the law."
  
The state budget shortfall will be the driving force behind
almost every decision the Legislature makes when it convenes. From
state parks and highways to health care programs for the poor and
disabled, state agencies are bracing for the hatchet to fall.
  
"I think you have a majority of House members here who want to
make sure that our economic recovery in Texas is not hampered by
increases in taxes of any kind," Straus said. "So I would say
that fiscal discipline was certainly strongly elected yesterday."
  
State leaders, including Straus and newly re-elected Gov. Rick
Perry, have been vowing to pass a balanced budget without raising
taxes. Most of the new Republicans campaigned on fiscal restraint,
but with the massive shortfall and a budget considered conservative
already, finding places to cut won't be easy.
  
Schools say education has already been cut to the bone and
transportation officials are asking for millions to build new roads
and maintain old ones. Cutting money on social safety net programs
like Medicaid won't be easy either, with new federal requirements.
  
Straus also is awaiting recommendations from a House committee
about exemptions in the Texas tax code that can be repealed for new
revenue.
  
Despite the chorus of no-new-taxes pledges, the fiscally
conservative majority doesn't necessarily mean taxpayers won't be
paying more to the state. Fee hikes, tax exemption repeals, higher
college tuition, reduced college financial aid and tolls could all
be part of the outcome, as they were the last time the state faced
a budget shortfall in 2003.
  
Chisum said that he'll look at how big government is and which
agencies are needed. Some may be outdated and not needed and that
would be a way of making big cuts to the budget, he said.
  
The Legislature also is expected to redraw congressional
district lines using new Census data -- a highly partisan task that
in the past has been marked by quorum-busting shenanigans.
  
"I also want to be very careful not to gloat as a Republican,
not to assume that the voters have said that we're strongly
Republican now and forever more," Straus said. "I think that it's
up to us as Republicans to lead in a way that will help convince
the voters who gave us their confidence yesterday that we're worthy
of that support going forward."

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