Texas Legislature begins new session

Opening day to feature more pomp than policy

AUSTIN, Texas - Updated at 2:41 p.m.:

House Speaker Joe Straus has marked his re-election as head of the chamber by offering what appeared to be a veiled swipe at a transgender bathroom bill cheered by top conservatives.

The San Antonio Republican told the Texas House on Tuesday that, "This state should invite economic opportunity, not turn it away."

Straus didn't specifically mention the Texas version of a bill approved to national uproar in North Carolina last year. It would ban transgender people from using public bathrooms of their choice.

Business groups say the bill could cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenue. Straus previously has suggested it's not a top priority.

But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Texas Senate, has vowed to fight for the bill at all cost.

Updated at 1:15 p.m.:

Republican Joe Straus will serve a record-tying fifth term as the powerful speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

Straus faced no competition Tuesday and won a unanimous 150-0 vote.

It was a sharp departure from previous sessions, when far-right conservative groups who criticize Straus as a moderate backed long shot challengers against him.

Straus is popular among both Republicans and Democrats, who see him an even hand and not a provocative firebrand like other GOP leaders. One legislator who tried to unseat Straus in 2013 even seconded his nomination this time.

Updated at 1:05 p.m.:

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has opened a Texas legislative session that will likely eventually feature bitter partisan battles by urging lawmakers to put aside their differences.

Abbott told the Senate on Tuesday:  "We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome."

Those words were conciliatory, but the coming 140-day session likely won't be.

A tighter-than-usual state budget and a potential policy showdown over a North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill are already raising tensions.

And things are likely to get even testier in the face of promises by the Republican majority to cut taxes and fix a broken child welfare system.

Updated at 12:40 p.m.:

A state representative who reneged on previous plans to resign amid a criminal investigation into misusing campaign funds has reported to the Texas House for the opening day of the legislative session.

Austin Democratic Rep. Dawnna Dukes arrived on the floor Tuesday escorted by the House sergeant at arms after the pledge of allegiance and national anthem.

Dukes was sworn in for her 12th term moments later. The Texas Rangers are investigating accusations she misused her legislative staff and campaign funds.

Dukes announced in September that she was stepping down at the end of 2016, citing medical concerns.

That announcement came too late for her to be replaced on the ballot and she was re-elected in November. On Twitter, Dukes now says her constituents didn't want her to resign.

Original story:

The House and Senate have gaveled in, formally beginning Texas' 140-day legislative session.

Lawmakers were taking oaths of office on Tuesday, but planned to concentrate more on ceremony rather than policy. The Legislature is prohibited from passing most bills in the early going, meaning little gets accomplished for the first few weeks.

Tensions could rise soon, though, over a cash crunch and North Carolina-style transgender bathroom bill championed by top conservatives.

The prolonged oil price slump has hurt state revenue, meaning the Texas budget approved this session could be tighter than previous incarnations.

Also sure to shape the session is President-elect Donald Trump and his policy moves. For starters, Trump's promises to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border may save Texas money in its border security budget.

An early order of business is a House vote for speaker. But unlike two years ago when he easily defeated a tea party-backed challenger, incumbent and San Antonio Republican Joe Straus should run unopposed for his sixth term.

The legislative session kicks off the newest opportunity for lawmakers to push their priorities for the state and create new laws.

Other top priorities include transportation and infrastructure, education and improving the state's foster care system and Child Protective Services.

Some lawmakers from San Antonio have filed bills that stem from issues facing the city, including annexation.

District 122 Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, filed a bill that aims to give residents a vote when it comes to annexation.

"We're simply asking that the city of San Antonio or any other municipality in the state, if they want to go out and start annexing property, they have to allow those folks a vote on whether they want to accept that or not," Larson said.

Larson and his fellow legislators will have to decide what to prioritize with a $105 billion budget, which is a smaller budget than the last session.

"It's a tough budget," Larson said. In 2011, we were $27 billion short, so it's all relative."

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers and control all Texas statewide offices.

Gov. Greg Abbott is entering his second legislative session since his 2014 election.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is in his second session overseeing the Texas Senate.

Editor's note: KSAT 12 News reporter Myra Arthur contributed to this story.

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