Ed Sterling

AUSTIN - The 81st regular session of the Texas Legislature convened Jan. 13.

On a voice vote, House members unanimously elected state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, as speaker. Straus succeeds Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, in that powerful role.

Craddick, a House member for the last 40 years, will continue to represent his district. He was first elected speaker in 2003 and was reelected to the post in 2005 and 2007. His three sessions as speaker were contentious. For example, Craddick’s refusal to recognize members who sought to question his authority sparked bipartisan dissent.

When Craddick succeeded Hale Center Democrat Pete Laney as speaker in 2003, Republicans had a 26-seat majority, 88 seats to the Democrats’ 62. After the general election last November the GOP majority had eroded to only two seats, making the split 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats.

Now, with a near balance of major party membership in the House, Straus suggested in his acceptance speech that members should work closely on the state agenda regardless of party affiliation: “Our challenges this session are great, yet our opportunities are endless,” Straus said. “Together, we will build a House where members have an opportunity to express their views and a chance to do something great for their districts and for Texas.

“We will create an atmosphere where everyone’s voice can and should be heard: a place where we respect each other’s points of view, Democrat and Republican, urban and rural, liberal and conservative.

“I know we will disagree at times. On a daily basis, we will debate. These disagreements and debates are necessary because the end result will be stronger and better laws.”

The full House also met Jan. 14 and 15 and adjourned until Jan. 22, giving members who wanted to, ample time to attend the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

Senate starts with disagreement

While a congenial spirit permeated the House Chamber in the days after the election of Speaker Straus, the atmosphere in the Texas Senate was comparatively raspy.

Senate rules normally require that 21 members (two-thirds) of the 31-member body consent to allow a bill to be heard. But 18 of the Senate’s 19 Republican members voted to change the rules so that only 16 votes - a simple majority - would be required to introduce legislation.

The one Republican who joined Democrats in voting to retain the traditional rule of requiring a two-thirds’ vote was Sen. John Carona of Dallas.

Now, even if Democrats vote as a bloc, they will not be able to prevent certain bills from being introduced.

In the debate on the rule change, Democrats expressed concern over “voter ID” legislation that was pushed by Republicans last session and will come up again this session. Voter identification legislation proposes to require voters to present their driver’s license or other state-issued picture ID card in addition to their voter registration card at the polls.

Last session, Democrats fought voter ID legislation, arguing that it unfairly burdens the poor, minorities and older Texans.

The Senate adjourned and will be back in session Jan. 26.

Comptroller estimates revenue

For its 2010-11 budget period, state government can expect to have $77.1 billion in funds available for general-purpose spending, Comptroller Susan Combs said earlier this month.

This represents a 10.5 percent decrease from the corresponding amount of funds available for 2008-09, she said.

General revenue-related tax and fee collections in 2010-11 likely will reach $76.7 billion, with tax revenues accounting for 89 percent of the total.

About 65 percent of state tax revenue will come from the sales tax. Other significant sources of general revenue include motor vehicle sales taxes, the franchise tax, the natural gas tax, insurance premium taxes, and lottery proceeds.

In addition to the general revenue-related funds, Combs said, the state stands to collect $91 billion in federal receipts and other revenues dedicated for specific purposes and cannot be used for general-purpose spending.

State revenue collections from all sources and for all purposes should total $167.7 billion.