AUSTIN — Texas legislators opened their 140-day session Tuesday poised to debate how to pay for public schools, decide whether to drug test unemployment recipients and possibly confront a mounting water crisis under the strain of a rapidly growing population.
Hot-button issues over abortion access and gun laws also were expected to generate widespread attention during the 83rd legislative session, which featured a unique political backdrop due to the high number of newcomers.
The Texas House elected San Antonio Republican Joe Straus as Speaker by acclamation after the only challenger, David Simpson of Longview, dropped out of the race. The election took place in the opening hours of the 83rd Legislature on Tuesday.
The speakership is one of the most politically powerful offices in Texas.
With 43 freshmen in the 150-member House — the most in four decades — it will be one of the most inexperienced Legislatures in recent history. Still, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst are out to reassert their power following failed runs for bigger offices last year.
As they have for a decade, Republicans run the show in Austin with commanding majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats were able to snag the handful of seats needed in November to break up the GOP supermajority in the House, but the pink hues of the state Capitol remain dominated by the underlying red-state nature of the politics inside the building.
Republicans still rule Texas, and the leadership intends to push the state even further to the right. Dewhurst has said he wants Texas to be "the most fiscally and socially conservative state in the country."
Perry said Tuesday that a booming Texas economy and rosier state revenue picture should not lead to greater spending. Addressing the state Senate, Perry said lawmakers should continue limiting the size of government and "take a look at tax relief."
Perry already is trying to lay out a conservative agenda for state lawmakers, calling on them to continue to place tight controls on state spending, even after historic cuts in 2011. He also said they should back measures that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation and drug testing for welfare and unemployment recipients.
Many lawmakers expect a particularly conservative session since Perry has said he is considering running for re-election in 2014 and seeking the presidency again in 2016.
Ellis County Republican Party secretary Tommie Worthy said this was the sixth time she has made the two and a half hour drive from her home in Avalon to Austin for the Legislature's opening day, and she hopes the tea party won't spark too much infighting.
"They have some good ideas but they don't know how to put them to work," Worthy said. "They don't have any structure. They don't know how to conduct themselves in public, and they don't listen to facts. They don't really have any idea how to govern."
Jane Vineyard, who made the trip with Worthy from nearby Waxahacie, said "unity is what you hope for so that we can all work toward the common goals of our state. But we may not get it."
Rains moved an interfaith service from the steps of the state Capitol to a fourth floor chapel where about 50 people gathered to hear prayers from different faiths in English and Spanish.
"In this 83rd legislative session, may the halls of this house of justice resound with programs that help the widow and the orphan, that help everyone find their footing and maintain themselves as each of us strive to lift up every voice," said Neil Blumofe, a senior rabi at Agudas Achim in Austin.
Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, told those assembled that what lawmakers "do reflects our values, who we are."
"Whether we say God or Yahweh or Allah or whatever name we use to describe that higher power that which is beyond ourselves, we invite that in and ask that to help us do the best that we can," Howard said. "To give us the guidance, the support, the knowledge to sometimes step out of the way in terms of our ego and do what is best for the citizens of our state."
The two-year state budget is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass and will be the focal point of the session as Democrats fight to restore money cut from public education in 2011 and try to push back against any further cuts in health care programs for the poor, disabled and elderly.
The comptroller has set $101.4 billion in available spending for the next two-year budget cycle — which Democrats say is a healthy enough forecast to reverse the slashed spending of two years ago — but Republicans are already signaling they want to hold the line on spending.
Other top issues for 2013 include public education, water conservation, gun rights and cancer research.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Chris Tomlinson contributed to this report.