The 85th session of the Legislature opened as scripted Tuesday, with an unopposed Joe Straus selected to a record-tying fifth term as House speaker and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick leading the Senate through a day of pomp and ceremony.
The speeches, handshakes and hugs gave way to afternoon open houses in Capitol offices, creating a holiday mood that hid, at least for one day, strains that are already forming over looming fights on a tight budget and hot-button issues such as transgender bathrooms, abortion, immigration, school policy, religious practice and more.
In the House, Straus was given a pass Tuesday when he didn’t face opposition from hard-line GOP conservatives for the first time in his tenure as speaker.
Elected as speaker by acclamation, the San Antonio Republican reiterated his desire to improve the scandal-plagued Child Protective Services agency.
“Home ought to be a place of love and support, not abuse and violence,” Straus said. “We’ve begun improving Child Protective Services, but our work is far from finished. We can all agree that protecting children is one of the state’s most basic and important responsibilities.”
Straus joined Gib Lewis, who was speaker from 1983-93, and Pete Laney, 1993 to 2003, as the only House speakers to serve five terms.
Among the legislators who spoke in favor of Straus’ nomination was Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, who had cast one of 19 votes against Straus when he was challenged in 2015 by then-Rep. Scott Turner. Keough told House members that he admired how Straus weathered criticism with “statesmanship” and acted to help the House as a whole.
Straus’ speech showed his pragmatic brand of politics.
“Compromise has become a dirty word in politics, but in reality it is how we find common ground and achieve the common good,” he said. “And it is a good word in this House.”
While there is always tension between the House and Senate, a key dynamic of the 2017 session will be the interplay between Straus’ desire to accomplish nuts-and-bolts governing priorities, such as fixing CPS, and Patrick’s push for a wish list of socially conservative causes, such as cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” allowing public money to be spent on private schools and banning transgender-friendly bathroom policies.
Tuesday, however, was a day of bipartisan bonhomie as the Senate kicked off the 140-day session with a ceremonial two-hour gathering that welcomed three newcomers, including Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway.
Joined by freshman Sens. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and Borris Miles, D-Houston, Buckingham stood at the front of 16 senators who faced election in 2017 to take the oath of office from Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
The moment, Buckingham said later, was “amazing.”
“It’s a big responsibility. We’re just looking forward to serving,” she said.
Gov. Greg Abbott was the featured speaker in both chambers, avoiding policy statements or requests for action as he focused instead on the themes of responsibility and integrity.
Speaking first in the upper chamber, Abbott reminded the 31 senators that the accomplishments of the 2017 Legislature will help determine the future of a state where “anyone from anywhere has a chance to come here and succeed,” a place where “generations of Texans have persevered through countless tribulations with the typical Texas character.”
“We may bring different political perspectives, but we unite under one Capitol dome in a cause that is bigger than any one person or any political party. It’s the cause that makes Texas far more than just a state. It’s the cause that makes Texas a passion,” Abbott said.
Surrounded by family members gathered around their desks, senators also selected Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to serve as the body’s president pro tem, filling in for Patrick and acting as governor when Abbott and Patrick are out of state at the same time.
“It’s a great honor,” Seliger said after members of both parties spoke in favor of his selection.
Recalling the awe he felt when he first arrived in the Senate almost 13 years ago, Seliger said, “I can honestly say today that I’m not one less bit impressed, awed and inspired.”
The coming days will feature more housekeeping matters as both chambers approve the rules they will operate under this session, and Patrick and Straus announce committee assignments. Abbott also will deliver more substantive remarks in his State of the State address.
Tuesday, however, was devoted to ceremony, including the formation of committees to herald the start of the session.
To honor the custom, senators sent two small committees to inform the governor and the House that the Senate had organized and was ready for business. When the House-bound committee crossed the Rotunda, however, they learned that their duty would go unfulfilled.
The House had adjourned a short time earlier.