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In 150-0 vote, Texas House backs Speaker Joe Straus for fifth term

By ALEXA URA and PATRICK SVITEK
Jan. 11, 2017 at 4 a.m.

Tourists gather Tuesday around the Lone Star in the Capitol rotunda about an hour before the 85th Texas Legislature kicked off.

For the first time since he was elected House Speaker in 2009, Joe Straus walked into the lower chamber on Tuesday without a clear leadership challenger.

And two years after facing a rare contested vote for Speaker, Straus was re-elected unanimously by House members on the opening day of the 85th Legislature for a record-tying fifth term. He joins former House Speakers Pete Laney and Gib Lewis for the longest tenures presiding over the House.

Following the 150-0 vote, Straus took the oath of office and made clear in a speech to a packed House chamber what his legislative philosophy would be for the upcoming session.

"Compromise has become a dirty word in politics," Straus said. "It's a good word in this House."

Straus has long been criticized by some in his party as being too moderate, drawing primary challenges from Tea Party candidates. But he's easily held onto his San Antonio-based seat.

Straus' easy re-election as House speaker Tuesday was a departure from 2015, when he faced a Republican challenger from Scott Turner of Frisco who forced the first contested vote for Speaker since 1975. All but 19 House members voted for Straus that year.

Among those members who backed Turner two years ago was Republican state Rep. Mark Keough of The Woodlands, who this year reversed course and seconded Straus' nomination as Speaker. In his speech to the chamber, Keough recalled that earlier fight in lending his support to Straus.

"I watched as he was aggressively argued against by, in many cases, great men much younger than him...and the scriptures rang out to me again - Do not rebuke an older man," Keough told the chamber. "Speaker Straus stood there and he took it and he acted with a statesmanship and a concern for the whole House that I was blown away."

State Reps. Linda Koop, R-Dallas, and Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, also seconded Straus' nomination Tuesday.

In his address to the House, Straus laid out his legislative priorities, including investing in the state's mental health system, fixing the "broken" school finance system and reforming the embattled child welfare system.

"In the months ahead, we will come to this chamber to deliberate thousands of your ideas," Straus said after taking the oath of office. "We will have moments of levity and tension and unity. We will disagree on some legislation and agree on much more."

And in what could have been veiled jab at a so-called "bathroom bill" proposed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Republicans, Straus encouraged the House to consider policies that "invite economic activity" to the state and "not turn it away."

Senate Bill 6, one of Patrick's legislative priorities for this legislation session, would require transgender Texans to use bathrooms that match their "biological sex" in some buildings. Business groups and LGBT advocates have warned that anti-LGBT legislation, including Senate Bill 6, could lead to a costly economic fallout in Texas.

Patrick, for his part, issued a statement noting he has already laid out 25 priorities for the session.

"In all our deliberations, maintaining our conservative principles and protecting Texas values will be our top priority," Patrick said.

The upper chamber, which also gaveled in on Tuesday, elected Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to serve as president pro tem, a ceremonial position that puts him second in line for the governorship. Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, nominated Seliger for the post, and the nomination was seconded by four other senators: Kirk Watson, D-Austin; Charles Perry, R-Lubbock; Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls; and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

In similar, brief remarks to both chambers, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was looking forward to another "historic session" in which lawmakers tackle the state's big issues. He'll lay out his own legislative priorities in the coming weeks in a State of the State speech to a joint session of both chambers.

Here are other issues to watch as the 85th session begins:

Women's Health

Texas legislators have already filed a number of abortion-related bills, including proposals that would require the burial of fetal remains, end insurance coverage for abortion and ban "dismemberment abortions," a procedure anti-abortion advocates say involves removing an unborn baby from the womb limb by limb. The state is in court this month for a final decision on its already existing fetal remains burial rule and for a hearing in a lawsuit over whether it can kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

Department of Family and Protective Services

Amid continued fallout from a 2015 ruling by a federal judge that Texas' foster care system violated children's constitutional rights, lawmakers in December have already authorized a $150 million infusion for the Department of Family and Protective Services to hire 829 new caseworkers and give $12,000 raises to current staff. And in November, court-appointed special masters released a report recommending an overhaul of CPS work culture, including decreased caseloads and more training and mentorship to help new hires. In addition to funding, lawmakers will have to keep an eye on the ongoing federal court battle.

Gun rights

Texas took two big steps forward for gun rights last session when lawmakers passed both open carry and campus carry legislation. Some conservative lawmakers are pushing for the state to go even further this session and pass "constitutional carry," which would give all Texans the right to openly carry a firearm - with or without a permit. While Patrick said Monday he does not know whether there is enough support for such a measure, he is prioritizing a bill that would reduce fees for carry licenses.

Alexa Ura, Marissa Evans, Jay Root, Aliyya Swaby, Johnathan Silver and Kiah Collier contributed to this report.

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