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Texas lawmakers return short on cash and with early discord

Jan. 10, 2017 at 6:23 p.m.
Updated Jan. 10, 2017 at 6:23 p.m.

Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, stands before the opening of the 85th Texas Legislative session in the house chambers at the Texas State Capitol after he was re-elected for a fifth consecutive term, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN (AP) — Likely budget cuts and a Donald Trump presidency loomed over the return of the Texas Legislature on Tuesday amid a worsening child welfare crisis and top Republicans promising anti-LGBT bathroom laws similar to what brought upheaval in North Carolina.

Already there are signs of tensions to come. Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate hand in a statehouse constantly drifting to the hard right, marked his election to a record-tying fifth term in his powerful post with a call for civility over Trump-style politics.

Straus didn't mention the president-elect by name, or proposals that would require transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. Driving those efforts are Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who campaigned for Trump and has scoffed at warnings from business groups of economic repercussions.

Companies, touring bands and sporting events boycotted North Carolina after GOP lawmakers last year passed a transgender bathroom law.

Straus appeared to take a veiled swipe at copycat efforts in Texas in his opening speech to the overwhelmingly Republican House.

"This state should invite economic activity, not turn it away," Straus said. His spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about whether the comment was about the bathroom measures.

Transgender rights will be far from the only fight in the Texas Capitol between now and June. A prolonged oil slump has left Texas short on cash for the next two-year budget — at a time when the state must fix a foster care system that a federal judge ruled unconstitutionally broken, and public school funding that the Texas Supreme Court says is only barely constitutional.

Texas is as much as $6 billion short of the money needed just to keep the status quo, according to budget experts and Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who says spending cuts are now certain. Texas has not been forced to make budget cuts since 2011, when a much bigger shortfall amid the Great Recession resulted in lawmakers cutting $5.4 billion from public schools.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott urged lawmakers to put aside their differences this time around, but they are unlikely to do so, and the biggest battles may not be partisan flaps but conservative infighting.

Democrats haven't won a statewide election since 1994 and have been vastly outnumbered in the Legislature for most of the last decade. Democrats picked up four seats in the 150-seat House in November, but Republicans still hold a commanding majority. Republicans control the Senate 20-11 and have muscled through rule changes in recent years that deny Democrats the ability to block many bills.

Perhaps no spending issue is more urgent than the state's troubled foster care system, which has seen rising rates of children dying of abuse and neglect. In December 2015, a federal judge found that children were leaving the state system "more damaged than when they entered" and some lawmakers are pushing to boost salaries and hire more case workers.

Other issues loading up the agenda include Republican initiatives on school vouchers, an immigration crackdown on so-called "sanctuary cities" that don't require police to enforce federal immigration policies and further restrictions on abortion providers. Texas lawmakers are also waiting to see how Trump changes border security — including whether he follows through on promises to build a wall on the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The relationship between Abbott, Straus and Patrick will be watched closely every minute after that, though.

Abbott, who enters his second session as governor, can lay out his priorities in a series of "emergency" issues and the designation would allow lawmakers to push those bills to the front of the line if they want to. Straus has shown little interest in Patrick's push on the bathroom bill or tax cuts.

Patrick, who faced speculation he could be eyeing higher office, has already worked to tamp down any hint of rivalry with the governor. Patrick declared Monday he would seek re-election in 2018 and would not challenge Abbott in the primary next year.

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