The first day of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature was long on ceremony and short on news. In the House, Joe Straus won his third consecutive term as Speaker after a much-hyped challenge by David Simpson fizzled (though not without a personal privilege speech by the East Texas Republican, in which he complained that members had faced “arbitrary retribution” from the Speaker’s office). The Senate’s opening session was also free from drama—aside from a brief fainting episode (the poor staffer is fine, though she may never live it down)—as the chamber approved its rules without comment and unanimously elected Leticia Van de Putte as president pro tempore.
Governor Rick Perry spoke to both chambers and urged legislators to exercise fiscal discipline despite the state’s improving financial picture.
Both floors of the chambers were filled with folding chairs to seat the lawmakers’ families, including a large number of small children clad in tiny suits and shiny dresses. Seated in one of those chairs in the Senate was former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who was attending as a guest of Ken Paxton. (Asked by a reporter whether he was happy to be in Texas, Santorum said that he was because it is the state that best exemplifies the American spirit.)
In his opening remarks to the Senate, Perry mentioned that during a meeting in his office earlier Tuesday morning, his son Griffin gave Santorum a sweater vest—his signature clothing item—branded with Texas A&M’s logo. “Wear it with pride, Senator!” Perry told the crowd.
Perry then launched into the meat of his remarks, but was interrupted when a staffer fainted and hit her head. From the podium, the governor called on the three senators who are doctors—Charles Schwertner, Donna Campbell, Bob Deuell—to provide medical care. After it was clear the staffer had simply fainted and would recover, Perry quipped “I have not had that kind of impact on anyone in a long time.” He then added, “When you talk about raising taxes on the people of the state of Texas, it causes some to swoon.”
The governor then struck a more serious tone about state Comptroller Susan Combs’s Monday announcement that the state has an estimated $101.4 billion to spend in the 2014-2015 biennium, representing a huge jump from her $72.2 billion estimate from last budget cycle.
“We have to remember that Monday’s revenue estimate represents not a chance to spend freely, but an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the very policies that have made Texas economically strong in the first place,” Perry said. “It’s also a chance to put our fiscal house in order for the years to come.”
And that will be where the battle is fought this session, between those lawmakers who want to hold the line on taxes and cut spending, and those who want to restore deeps cuts made to public education and allocate revenue to issues like water and infrastructure. Now that the ceremonies are out of the way, the Lege has 139 days to wrestle with those topics of importance.