AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Conservatives in the Texas Legislature will make a final push to pass contentious abortion, education and gun rights bills over the final six weeks of the session, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Monday, renewing his pledge to make Texas the nation's most socially and fiscally conservative state.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Dewhurst dismissed the idea that slow action on those issues and an apparent willingness by the Republican majority to spend a large chunk of the state's cash reserves — an idea that Republicans wouldn't even consider two years ago — signaled a wavering of conservative principles since the tumultuous and bitter 2011 session.
Dewhurst's message was simple: The conservatives are coming and there's plenty of time to pass their agenda.
"We are well on our way," Dewhurst said, immediately jumping to the topic of "protecting the sanctity of life."
Dewhurst, who said he's still planning to run for a fourth term in 2014, has supported a measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks and another pending in the Senate that would require abortion providers to have hospital privileges within 30 miles of an abortion facility. Dewhurst said that Senate Democrats, who are in the minority in the chamber but have enough votes to block bills from coming to the floor are standing in the way.
"Since 2003, I have passed all of our pro-life bills that we have made a priority," Dewhurst said. "The majority of the people of the state of Texas are pro-life and appreciate those efforts."
Dewhurst also said he wants to keep pushing lawmakers on school choice bills. He noted that the Senate already passed a bill allowing the greatest expansion of charter schools in nearly 20 years and said the chamber will likely pass in the next few days a bill that gives parents more power to shut down failing public schools.
Dewhurst suggested he still may want to push for a Senate plan for school vouchers that would allow parents to use tax money to send their children to private schools. An anti-voucher vote in the House last week sent a clear message that the chamber was likely to kill any such plan, but Dewhurst seemed interested in pushing it anyway.
"I'm going to push for as much choice for parents as we can get," Dewhurst said. "We still have a lot to do. ... At the end of the day, I try to focus on doing what's right and not counting votes in the other chamber. I don't want to see kids caught in failing schools."
Following the December massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, several Texas lawmakers proposed measures meant to allow licensed gun owners to carry loaded firearms on school grounds. But none of those measures have yet passed in either chamber.
Dewhurst lauded bipartisan and near unanimous votes last week to require drug testing for some applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits.
On spending, Dewhurst envisions using about $2 billion for a revolving water fund in which the state loans money and is paid back. He said he wants to talk more with transportation officials — who have said they need about $4 billion more per year — before committing to what the state should spend on roads from the Rainy Day Fund.
That appeared to be a step back from a Senate Republican plan unveiled last week that would dip into the reserves for as much as $6 billion.
"We need to see what our ultimate needs are," Dewhurst said. "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get your there."
Back in February, Dewhurst provided the spark that lit the most contentious issue of the session so far: the battle between University of Texas System Regents and UT-Austin President Bill Powers, who is believed to be fighting to keep his job.
Dewhurst's emotional defense of Powers on the Senate floor, in which he accused unnamed regents of waging a campaign of "character assassination" against Powers, led to legislative hearings and efforts by lawmakers to scale back the powers of the regents, who are political appointments of the governor.
"I like President Powers. I just could not resist standing up and saying I don't like what's going on," Dewhurst said.
Actions by the Legislature, including demands for confidential documents from the regents and its votes to curtail their authority, suggest that legislators are trying to save Powers' job.
When asked if Powers, who has clashed with regents over tuition, graduation rates and other issues, should keep his job, Dewhurst said, "I'm going to have to leave that decision to Bill Powers and the regents. I think he's is greatly underestimated as a reformer ... I think he's gotten a bad rap."