AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Gov. Rick Perry and fellow state Republicans spent the last six months flexing their political muscle and emerged from the Legislature's 30-day special session boasting significant victories, while sidestepping two notable defeats.
Lawmakers left town Wednesday after voting to cut $4 billion from public education in the final piece of deep state budget cuts over the next two years, approved new congressional districts for the 2012 elections and reforms to the state hurricane insurance association.
But two of Perry's priority items — an illegal immigration enforcement bill and a measure to curtail invasive body searches of air travellers — failed to pass. Still, the outspoken state leader who is considering a presidential run congratulated Republicans for using their massive numbers in the House and Senate to pass an agenda fueled by tea party conservatives.
"The decisions made were difficult, but lawmakers should take pride in the fact that they did what families all across Texas are doing: living within their means," Perry said, touting the fiscal conservative message that has become his hallmark.
After landslide elections in 2010, Republicans held a 101-49 supermajority in the House and a 19-12 edge in the Senate.
With those numbers behind him, Perry pushed the Legislature to pass a balanced budget without raising taxes. The result was a $15 billion reduction that prompted protests that lawmakers were cutting too deep in social services and education in the $172 billion overall spending plan.
Republicans shoved aside Democrats to pass several of Perry's priority items, including a measure requiring pregnant women seeking an abortion to first have an ultrasound performed, a bill requiring voters to present photo identification before casting ballots and a "loser pays" bill aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits. Perry and Republicans knew they had limited time to use their unprecedented power.
Republicans' 101-member majority in the House likely won't last beyond 2012 when new voting districts will pit several GOP lawmakers against each other and Democrats are expected to pick up seats in new districts dominated by Hispanic voters. Even if they aren't likely to grab a majority, more seats in the House would give Democrats a fighting chance to block Republican bills.
Democrats and teachers groups warned the education cuts could lead to firings of thousands of teachers and school staff and rising local property taxes to make up the difference. The cuts sparked several teacher rallies and harsh words from liberal groups, who argued the state should use an estimated $10 billion in reserve funds, a move Perry flatly rejected.
"This Legislature will go down in the history books as the worst for public education in a generation," said Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. "Now it's time for legislators to go home and explain to their communities why they voted for or against these historic education cuts. I imagine they will be a few uncomfortable town hall meetings."
Even some Republicans acknowledged the school cut was a tough vote. Several Republicans representing rural districts voted against the measure on Tuesday before turning around an hour later to pass it. Democrats said the Republican agenda was fueled by the political ambitions of Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who is considering a run for U.S. Senate.
"The regular and special session were dominated by 'red meat' partisan wedge issues that divide Texans at a time we should be working together to secure our future," said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie. Democrats made desperate bids to block Perry's agenda but had few weapons at their disposal.
Voting rules in the regular session gave Democrats just enough votes to block a bill allowing concealed handgun license holders to bring their weapons into college classrooms. Perry was forced to call the special session when a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, killed the school cuts bill without of a Senate vote.
But even that move was only temporary as Perry called the special session the next day.
Democrats got a boost from some unusual allies to block the immigration enforcement bill.
Perry and the Republican leadership wanted to give police more authority to ask people they detain about their citizenship status. Perry said it would help police crack down on crime by illegal immigrants. Hispanic Democrats called it racist and a tool to harass Latinos.
The immigration bill passed the House in the regular session and a new version passed the Senate in the special session. But it lost momentum when business groups typically allied with Perry lobbied to kill the bill without a final vote in the House in the final days of the special session.
The airport pat-down bill also died in the special session without a final House vote. Perry and the House blamed Senate Republicans, who in turn told Perry to back off and blamed the House. Perry then flew to California to give a speech and fuel more speculation that he'll run for president.
"It took a little longer than any of us wanted, but we're finally closing very successful and productive, although difficult, legislative sessions," Republican House Speaker Joe Straus said