Texas Legislature heads to special session

JIM VERTUNO,Associated Press WILL WEISSERT,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lawmakers bid a breezy farewell Monday to the legislative session, but before they had time to pop the cork on any celebratory champagne Gov. Rick Perry summoned them right back to work.

Mere moments after the House and Senate adjourned at the end of their 140th day, Perry decreed that a special session was beginning later that same evening. That gives legislators 30 more days to pass laws, starting with approving new voting maps that have been the subject of federal court cases.

“There is still work to be done on behalf of the citizens of Texas,” Perry said in a proclamation.

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The call was little surprise. Rumors have swirled for days that the governor would pull the trigger on a special session, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wrote him a letter asking that the time be used to tackle such conservative pet issues as new abortion limits, pro-gun bills and school choice.

Already America’s longest-serving governor, Perry hasn’t said if he will seek a fourth full term in office next year or perhaps run for president again in 2016 — but his calling a special session may indicate he’s not yet ready to exit the political stage.

Perry can add more items later, but the initial call will focus on approving redistricting maps drawn for the 2012 election by federal judges, after minority groups challenged the ones passed in 2011 by the Legislature discriminatory.

Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, the Senate Democratic leader, said lawmakers should leave redistricting alone until it is settled in court. As for other issues that may be added later, “This should be about more than a Republican primary,” Watson said.

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The regular session was dominated by bipartisanship, as more money flowed for public schools and infrastructure improvements, and a booming Texas economy ushered in heavy new state spending.

The Legislature approved a budget that restores much of the $5.4 billion slashed from K-12 education in 2011 and gives state employees a 3 percent raise. A historic drought and skyrocketing population also prodded lawmakers to develop a new $2 billion state water plan. There were tax cuts, too, but not the $1.9 billion Perry wanted.

The coming days could be far more contentious. Dewhurst set the tone by saying in his letter to Perry that he plans to abandon traditional rules in the 31-member Senate so the Republican majority has an easier time muscling through priority bills.

“The Legislature was unable to pass a number of important bills intended to protect and expand the freedom of Texans and cut the size and scope of government,” wrote Dewhurst, who oversees the Senate.

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Asked about how Democrats might react to his suspending of the rules, the lieutenant governor replied: “I expect to see some pushback.”

That kind of sentiment was reminiscent of January, Republican lawmakers descended on the Capitol promising to ram through some of the most conservative measures ever seen in this already fiercely red state. Although that largely didn’t happen, they may now get their chance.

More than 60 House conservatives signed a separate letter asking the governor to add-anti-abortion bills to the special session call. Rep. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican and tea party favorite, said he was excited to have the last day of the session turn into the first day all over again.

“We’ve asked him to add a bunch of stuff,” Hughes said of the governor, “and he’s indicated he would.”

But others said they hoped the regular session would have accomplished more. Like fellow tea party Republican Rep. Van Taylor, of Plano.

“In our last session, we had some important successes, for the Second Amendment, for life, for voter ID, sanctuary cities, and there’s really no effort to make measures like that happen this time,” Taylor said.

He was referring to 2011, when anti-abortion and pro-gun bills sailed through, as well as a measure requiring voters to show picture identification when heading to the polls. An effort to have police ask about the immigration status of people they detain, the so-called “sanctuary cities” proposal, did not pass two years ago.

“There was a resounding conservative majority and I’m just disappointed that we didn’t make the steps that we could have made,” Taylor said. “I think an opportunity has been lost.”

The last-day mood was lighter among many other House members, who lined up to thank their staffs from the floor before Perry’s announcement. There also were group pictures of all kinds. One was based on occupation — all House members who are attorneys — and another dress code, featuring those who donned seersucker suits.

“They look nice. I just didn’t know they made those for men,” Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton quipped of his male colleagues in the summer suits.

The House Republican Caucus elected Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin as freshman of the year, while the Democrats tapped Eagle Pass Rep. Pancho Nevarez as theirs.

The House also awarded the Legislative Medal of Honor to U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Darryn Deen Andrews of Cameron, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, was elected pro tem, meaning he becomes acting governor when Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewhurst are out of state.