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January 14, 2011 - Session Watch

Legislature opens with a dose of optimism and reality

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

The 82nd Texas Legislature convened on Jan. 11 with a lot of pomp and circumstance, a victory for civility in our political discourse and sobering news about the budget and partisan challenges that lie ahead.

On the Senate side, my colleagues and I elected Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, as president pro tempore, a largely honorary position that will allow him to serve as governor for a day when Gov. Perry and Lt. Governor Dewhurst are conveniently out of the state.

In the House, Speaker Joe Straus turned back a challenge from within his own party to win a second term as speaker. The San Antonio Republican overcame a shameful campaign of mudslinging by opponents who questioned his character, distorted his record and even made an issue of his Jewish heritage.

In his acceptance speech, Speaker Straus took the high road, telling his colleagues: "I want Texans to look at the House and see leaders who can debate the most contentious issues of the day in a spirit of respect and civility."

For me, the speaker's re-election was a victory for all fair-minded Texans who believe that we can disagree without being disagreeable. I hope his words are taken to heart in the days ahead.

On the eve of the first day, Comptroller Susan Combs issued her revenue forecast for the next two-year spending period, and the news was even worse than many expected. Combs said $72.2 billion in general revenues will be available to spend in the next biennium — almost $15 billion less than the current period.

Some are downplaying the shortfall, but the real numbers tell a different story. To continue our current level of services — in other words, to maintain our commitment to public and higher education, child protection, public health and safety, seniors, veterans and the disabled — the deficit is more than $27 billion.

Gov. Perry has ruled out any tax increases, and, inexplicably, any use of the state's Rainy Day Fund, which contains more than $9 billion. The fund was created for difficult times just like this. It is unavoidable that some painful budget cuts will have to be made. That's why it would be irresponsible to leave this fund untouched in the midst of so much need.

Sadly, other issues have taken the lead. Under the Texas Constitution, the Legislature can't act on a bill during the first 60 days of the session unless the governor declares an emergency. In the earliest days of the session Gov. Perry fast-tracked the course for two bills — on sanctuary cities and imminent domain. Perhaps later our children will become a priority.

The 82nd Legislature began on a note of optimism, with the election of two good men to leadership positions in the House and Senate. That's great, and I'll take it. But the comptroller's news about the budget, and the brush off it got from some, put a focus on the stark reality that lies ahead.

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©2011 Carlos Uresti Campaign  •  A.M. Hernandez, Treasurer  •  P.O. Box 240431  •  San Antonio, Texas  •  78224