DALLAS (AP) — Texas Republicans will go into the 2013 legislative session with much of the same agenda as last year: tackle government spending, tighten immigration laws and discourage abortion. But this time, they'll have to do it without a supermajority in the state House.
The GOP won 95 out of 150 seats in the House and 19 out of 31 in the Senate, guaranteeing they'll have majorities in both. However, by failing to maintain their supermajority in the House, Republicans won't be able to suspend the rules and should the Democratic minority in either chamber take a trip out of state, they would lose a quorum to conduct business.
The first order of business will be to make up for a $4.3 billion budget deficit by March, when funding will run out for Medicaid, the health care for the poor, elderly and disabled. Comptroller Susan Combs has forecast $5 billion in unexpected revenue this two-year budget cycle, so covering the tab should be relatively easy.
The next two-year budget, though, will present a bigger challenge, with the Department of Health and Human Services expecting Medicaid costs to increase more than $7 billion. Lawmakers also will need to find cash for increased enrollment in public schools, something they did not pay for last session, resulting in a $5.4 billion reduction in school funding, the first such cut since the Great Depression.
More than 600 school districts have sued the Legislature for failing to meet their constitutional mandate to fund public schools. Most observers expect them to win that suit, but it could be years before the case works its way through the appeals process.
House Speaker Joe Straus, under attack by conservatives who want to replace him, issued a statement welcoming all the lawmakers back and laying out the trouble ahead.
"I look forward to working with all members of the 83rd Legislature to improve public and higher education, make our budget more transparent, maintain a strong business climate and ensure that Texas has the resources and infrastructure needed for further economic growth," Straus said.
While Democrats gained some seats, so did conservative Republicans who ousted some of Straus' closest allies. On Wednesday, more than 100 conservative party activists endorsed state Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola to replace Straus.
"Joe Straus has a record of supporting pro-gambling, pro-choice and fiscally moderate legislation," said Rick Green, of the Torch for Freedom Foundation and Wall-builders. "Texas deserves a conservative speaker that reflects conservative Texas values, and Joe Straus is anything but conservative."
So while Republicans may have lost the ability to push through their agenda, the Republican caucus will be more conservative and try to pass long-held goals, such as school vouchers that allow parents to spend public money on private schools and a requirement that local police investigate suspected immigration violations.
Democrats added seven votes in the Texas House, fewer than they hoped. But Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said the minority party will look to Straus to see if they should expect another highly partisan session, where Democrats are ignored, or whether he will seek bipartisan solutions to the big issues facing lawmakers.
"We should not be looking to the Republican freshman class for leadership. It should come from the top. The speaker should be a leader for the entire House," Fischer said. "If the input of Democrats is important for electing the speaker, then he needs to show that our input is important on other priorities."
If Straus should lose both tea-party Republicans and Democrats, he would have a difficult time winning re-election.
In the Texas Senate, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis fought off a statewide effort to drive her out of her Tarrant County seat, establishing herself as a growing star in the Democratic Party. She earned the ire of Republicans and the support of progressives when she launched a filibuster against a budget bill that cut funding for public schools and forced a special session.
She promised Wednesday not to hold a grudge and to seek out bipartisan solutions to the state's problem, while acknowledging that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, has promised a more conservative agenda next year and will still have 19 seats in the 31-member chamber to pursue it. Under the Senate's traditional rules, a bill needs two-thirds support of the chamber, or 21 votes, to make it to the floor for a debate, which means conservatives will have to compromise or change the rules.
"I am going to work with my Senate colleague on a bipartisan basis, there should be no time for grudge matches," Davis said. "We need to work together."