Without Perry, Texas Legislature opens new era of GOP power

Texas state Rep. John Raney, R-Bryan takes the oath of office with his fellow representatives in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. The 2015 Texas Legislative session began Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas state Rep. John Raney, R-Bryan takes the oath of office with his fellow representatives in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. The 2015 Texas Legislative session began Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN (AP) — Texas legislators returned to work Tuesday without Gov. Rick Perry at the helm for the first time in 14 years, vowing to slash taxes and ease gun laws under new Republican leaders and facing little resistance to one of the most conservative agendas in the nation.

Open-carry supporters slung AR-15s over their shoulders outside the Capitol. A tea party newcomer replacing Democrat Sen. Wendy Davis — who became a national sensation after standing nearly 13 hours in pink sneakers to filibuster abortion restrictions two years ago — purposefully chose different footwear: cowboy boots embroidered with “Stand for Life.”

Both symbolically made it clear which party is firmly in charge for the next 140 days.

Republican Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, who won’t be sworn in as the state’s 48th chief executive until next week, was an observer at a largely ceremonial opening day. Perry was a no-show but will address the Legislature a final time Thursday, then clean out his desk and turn his full attention to a possible 2016 presidential run.

That’s when the biggest power shift in Texas politics in a generation will really take hold.

“There was clearly a mandate based on the national elections and based on the elections here in Texas,” said Republican state Sen. Konni Burton, who won the seat Davis abandoned to make her failed run for governor.

Every major statewide office changed hands in November — a nearly unprecedented level of turnover — and Republicans claimed every post in landslide victories. The last job up for grabs was settled in one of the few actual orders of business on the first day, when Republican House Speaker Joe Straus overwhelmingly won a fourth term as Texas’ third-in-command.

But that Straus even drew a challenge from Republican Scott Turner, a second-term representative and former NFL player, hinted at a major tension facing conservatives this session: other conservatives.

A wealthy San Antonio lawyer, Straus has long been targeted by tea party members who view him as a country-club Republican and too moderate. House insurgents bent on ousting Straus withered in previous sessions, but this time, they demanded a speaker vote for the first time since 1975.

Straus clobbered Turner 127-19 — then took a jab at his ultraconservative antagonists.

“Small members sought to divide us up with misleading and personal attacks,” Straus said. “But you cannot effectively govern this House by dividing it.”

GOP infighting is likely to flare again this session. Being closely watched are dealings between the House and Senate, which has a new far-right leader in incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a strident talk radio host who ousted business-backed incumbent David Dewhurst.

Beyond party politics, Republicans have another challenge: falling oil prices that complicate plans to cut taxes and ease congested Texas highways. Lawmakers will have billions of new dollars to spend, including $7.5 billion leftover from the current budget, but the slowdown in Texas’ energy sector is a source of anxiety.

Oil has been trading below $50 a barrel for the first time since 2009, and the state comptroller warned that oil production and regulation tax revenues could drop by up to 14 percent. The outlook has dimmed the prospect of significant tax relief that many Republicans ran on, but Straus said after his victory that tax cuts are a priority.

Border security, expanding where and how Texans can carry guns and whether to allow parents to use state money for private school vouchers are also big issues.

Abbott has mostly stuck to broad policy issues such as education and transportation. The former Texas attorney general, who sued the Obama administration 30 times over what he called federal overreach, also wants to curtail local ordinances like plastic bag bans — which invited grumbling that now the state is intruding where it doesn’t belong.

Outnumbered Democrats, who enter this session even weaker than two years ago, will now begin fighting to avoid being marginalized.

“We’ll deal with that. We’ll work hard,” longtime Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffrini said. “Actually, we’ll work harder because we’ll be fewer.”

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Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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