AUSTIN — During the week before the Jan. 11 start of the 82nd session of the Texas Legislature, the question of who would be the next speaker of the state House of Representatives hung heavy in the air and seemed to drown out other issues.
The normal procedure is for the 150-member House to choose a speaker on day one, right after roll call is taken, the oath of office administered, and House rules adopted. Nominations are made from the House floor, followed by seconds; a vote is taken and a speaker is elected.
But last week, the 101-member Republican caucus, despite objections by Democrats, moved toward conducting a non-binding “straw vote” for speaker on Monday, Jan. 10, ostensibly to get the matter settled a day early.
In the race for powerful post, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, a major force in pushing for the straw vote, meant to put himself up against the moderate, consensus-building incumbent Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio and the younger conservative Ken Paxton of McKinney.
The Straus and Paxton camps both claimed enough votes to win. At any rate, the matter was pending at the press deadline for this column. So, more about it will follow next week.
The matter of who would be speaker largely faded from public attention on Saturday, Jan. 8, when news of a shooting in Tucson, Ariz., seized the nation.
A gunman, apparently acting on his own, shot and grievously wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was meeting with constituents in a “Congress on Your Corner” event at a shopping center in Tucson.
The suspect, identified as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, reportedly shot Giffords in the head at close range with a 9 mm pistol. He also fired at others in the crowd, including U.S. District Judge John Roll, 63, who died in the shooting. Also among the dead were Giffords’ staff member Gabe Zimmerman, 30, and a 9-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green. Six people were killed and 13 others wounded in the shooting.
The suspect was taken into custody and is being processed by Arizona and federal authorities.
Republican Party of Texas state chairman Steve Munistieri issued a statement of condolence to Rep. Giffords, her family, and to the families of the other shooting victims. He offered a prayer for the speedy recovery of all who were injured or wounded and he condemned the shooter’s act “and any act of violence toward those who serve in elected office.”
Security issues again
The Jan. 8 shooting again raises the matter of safety for public officials, their staff, and ordinary citizens at public gatherings and in government buildings.
Last year, the Texas state Capitol received bomb phoned-in threats and a gunman fired random shots on the Capitol’s south steps. In 2008, an arsonist targeted the Governor’s Mansion, rendering the building unusable for its normal functions.
The state Capitol now has airport-style security at its four public entrances, but citizens possessing concealed handgun permits are allowed to bypass some of the screening procedures in place.
Program yields increase
The Texas Department of Public Safety on Jan. 7 announced a special enforcement program targeting impaired drivers during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays resulted in the arrest of 1,106 drivers across the state.
State troopers were out in force Dec. 21 to Jan. 1, looking for impaired or intoxicated drivers. Of those arrests, the DPS said, 442 were made by troopers whose patrols were funded through a $2 million Texas Department ofTransportation special mobilization grant that will run throughout 2011.
The extra funding will allow the DPS to have additional targeted DWI patrols during spring break, Independence Day and Labor Day in high-risk locations during the times when alcohol-related crashes occur most frequently.
“The special grant allowed us to stay out on the road longer, and arrest more drunk drivers,” said David Baker, assistant director for the Texas Highway Patrol.
Austin lawmaker shares budget idea
Last week, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, disseminated his suggestion that the final, negotiated state budget be subject to public scrutiny for five days before legislators vote on it. The usual period of time ordinary Texans get to look at the proposed budget, usually more than 1,000 pages long, is 48 hours.
Watson’s idea was embraced by a range of political factions.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 10, state Comptroller Susan Combs was expected to deliver a key element for the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee to develop the state budget: a state revenue projection for fiscal 2012-2013.