Texas lawmakers get to work at ‘the very beginning of a very monumental time’

Visitors and guests line up in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol to enter the House Chamber for the beginning of the 86th Texas Legislative session.
Visitors and guests line up in the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol to enter the House Chamber for the beginning of the 86th Texas Legislative session. AP

The Texas Capitol took on a little Cowtown flair Tuesday.

As House and Senate members were sworn in to office on the first day of the 86th Legislature, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and former state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth were among the familiar faces visiting to show their support.

In the Senate, Republican state Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound wielded the gavel to call the upper chamber to order and guide the first session.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick “is not going to be able to join us today,” Nelson, dean of the Tarrant County delegation, told those gathered in the crowded chamber. “He was called for an important meeting at the White House (to talk about) issues critical to Texas.

“When the White House calls you to go to Washington, you go.”

In the House, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth was among those to speak in support of House Speaker-nominee Dennis Bonnen, who was unanimously elected to lead the lower chamber.

“It’s a very exciting day,” said former Fort Worth City Councilman Sal Espino, now director of government services for Trinity Metro, who was among the Tarrant County supporters at the Capitol. “It’s a great day.”

Lawmakers know they have a lot of work ahead of them in the next 140 days, but they took time Tuesday to share smiles, hugs and handshakes, acknowledging the hard fight many had to claim the seats they now hold.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott congratulated lawmakers on winning their elections and noted that Tuesday marked “the very beginning of a very monumental time.”

That’s because, he said, “we will solve school finance reform and property tax reform in Texas this session.”

Tuesday was not the day to propose how to do that.

But the message Abbott sent to all lawmakers was lauded by many.

“People who care about property taxes and public education sent Beverly (Powell) to Austin,” said J.D. Angle, a Fort Worth political consultant, referring to Tarrant County’s newest state senator. “Too many sessions have come and gone with the wrong focus.

“This set a tone.”

Texas Senate work

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who lived in Fort Worth before he was elected to statewide office, was among those visiting with senators before the session began at noon Tuesday.

Once the chamber was called to order, Powell — the Burleson Democrat who ousted Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, in last year’s election for Senate District 10 — stood with other senators to take the oath of office.

“It was a wonderful, overwhelmingly emotional experience,” she said later. “I have a very strong sense of the responsibility that comes with this job.”

Tarrant County’s Senate delegation also includes Republicans Nelson, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Brian Birdwell of Granbury.

“We came to celebrate for Beverly,” said former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, who visited the Senate chamber. “It’s nice for the voters of Fort Worth and SD 10 to have a state senator focused on the needs of Texas and Tarrant County.”

Davis said she stopped by the Senate to cheer on Powell and celebrate the beginning of a new session.

“I’m really hopeful we are starting out a session on a tone of hopeful work,” said Davis, who said she was happy to see Nelson guide the chamber on the first day.

Senators elected Democrat Kirk Watson of Austin as the new president pro tempore, which means he guides the Senate when the lieutenant governor is absent.

Excitement in Texas House

In the House, a dozen Tarrant County members were among those sworn in to office before they chose their first new speaker, Bonnen, in a decade.

Bonnen, the longtime deskmate of state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said he was “humbled by the opportunity to serve you as speaker.”

Several Tarrant County area lawmakers gained key posts in the House as well.

Two Fort Worth Republicans will serve in the House Republican Caucus leadership, Stephanie Klick as vice chairwoman and Craig Goldman as secretary. State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, meanwhile leads the House Democratic Caucus.

“There is a certain energy and excitement in the Capitol I haven’t experienced in my previous three sessions,” Goldman said. “I feel we are going to have a historic session that will change Texas for the better for generations to come.”

Money matters

During this session, which runs through May 27, lawmakers will consider thousands of bills, ranging from ending Daylight Saving Time to legalizing marijuana.

The only bill lawmakers must pass during the session is a budget to fund the state over the next two years.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday that the Legislature has about $119 billion in revenue — an increase of about 8 percent over the 2018-19 biennium — to craft the state budget for the next two years.

That estimate means that lawmakers might be able to make serious headway in the top two priorities named by Abbott and other lawmakers.

The “revenue estimate shows that the Legislature should fund a significant, added investment in public education, which in turn would reduce pressure on property taxpayers,” Turner said.

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.