Lawmakers prepare for busy 83rd Texas Legislature

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by MARK WIGGINS and MICHAEL MOORE

KVUE

Posted on January 7, 2013 at 7:05 PM

AUSTIN — From education to health care, abortion to immigration, lawmakers will have plenty of issues to address when the gavel strikes and the 83rd Texas Legislature officially goes to work.

For State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin), that work will focus on two key areas.

"Workforce and water," Workman said at his Capitol office.

Part of improving the workforce in Workman's view means getting students better prepared for college or a career after high school, and he is working on legislation to help.

Workman said his planned career path initiative aims to help guide students and help them make decisions about where they might want to go after high school.

"For so many years we focused on college readiness to the exclusion of career readiness," Workman said. "What I'm hoping to do is to change the paradigm among our public school system and try to re-focus some effort on getting students ready for life after high school — whether that means college or whether that means a job."

The issue of clean and reliable water is one of increasing concern to lawmakers as the state continues to struggle with record drought.

"I'm signed onto a bill by Rep. [Lyle] Larson (R-San Antonio) that will take a billion dollars out of the Rainy Day Fund to kind of kick-start some water projects," Workman said. "So we'll have to figure out the best use of that money if we can get it passed."

State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) said his focus will include a bill to reform the redistricting process by handing the task over to an independent commission, as well as restoring funding for public education, which absorbed some $5.4 billion in cuts during the 82nd Texas Legislature.

"That will be, I think, the biggest area where we really try to define ourselves as a state," Strama said. "Are we going to invest in our future? Are we going to invest in our children? Are we going to try to be world class in the 21st century? Or are we going to continue to cut to the bone, fail to restore the cuts we made last cycle, not invest in the growth we're experiencing in our student population and not prepare for the future?"

The last legislative session was defined, in part, by sweeping budget cuts; but improved revenue estimates heading into this session could give lawmakers more to work with. The result could be a different kind of fight.

"In some ways, it's going to be more difficult when there's a bit of a surplus, because we're going to have a whole lot more people coming asking for money," Workman said. "We need to work on the public schools; we need to get their funding back where it was. We need to work on mental health. We've got to do something about water. And so there's going to be a lot of demand on the funds that are there."

The legislature will also include a record number of freshmen — many of them tea party candidates who toppled Republican incumbents during a heated primary season.

Despite signs of fragmentation within the national GOP following the November election, Strama believes Republicans will be encouraged to pursue more sharply conservative legislation in Texas.

"In Texas, for a lot of Republican politicians, I'm afraid the lesson was: 'Don't let what happened to [Lt. Gov.] David Dewhurst happen to you,'" Strama said. "'Don't get beat by somebody who comes out of nowhere but kills you to your right.'"

"We'll be waiting to see what the feel of the chamber is with so many new members," said University of Texas professor and Texas Politics Project Director James Henson. "We're going to see that dynamic shaping the kind of legislation that comes through. We're going to see, I think, the usual raft of high-profile, very conservative bills, and we'll see which of them pass and which of them don't."

Henson said one of the first things to look for will be whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry declares any emergency items.

The governor has a lot of time recently touring the state to promote various objectives, including a $10,000 degree for Texas students and a "fetal pain" law to reduce the number of weeks during which a legal abortion can be performed.

"The governor in the last session used the power to declare emergency items to drive the agenda early on, with things like the sonogram bill, voter ID and sanctuary cities most prominently in the last session," Henson said. "So I think a lot of people are waiting to see if the governor is going to take the initiative in that again."

While the undercurrent of the 2011 session revolved around speculation over a possible presidential run for Perry, similar undercurrents are to play a role in the new session.

While Henson suggests Perry's political clout may have suffered from his unsuccessful White House bid, he said the governor may look to shore up his conservative bona fides through more legislative projects in 2013.

"I think one of the issues to watch is immigration," Henson noted. "It was one of the few areas where the governor had a tough time in the last session. The sanctuary cities bill ultimately did not pass, even though the governor had put a certain amount of political capital behind it."

The 83rd Texas Legislature convenes noon Tuesday at the Texas State Capitol.

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