AUSTIN, Texas — The 88th session of the Texas Legislature kicked off on Tuesday morning with its usual array of pomp and circumstance and an optimistic outlook as lawmakers step into a session with a $32.7 billion surplus.
Lawmakers won’t be able to spend all of that surplus — the budget is constrained by at least two spending limits — but it didn’t stop groups from getting their requests in early.
Out in the rotunda of the Capitol extension — often referred to as the fishbowl — Texas AFT was making its case for higher teacher pay and fewer class-size waivers hours before the legislature convened. Supportive lawmakers like Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, who is drafting a bill to give teachers a $10,000 pay raise, joined the small contingent.
“I am proud to stand with the teachers of Texas to declare the 88th legislative session the public education session,” Hinojosa said, adding that schools were in crisis. “We act or we don’t act. We do or we don’t do. What we do will be pivotal to the future of our public schools.”
While Hinojosa talked, retired state employees were fanning out in the hallways of the Capitol and its extension, knocking on office doors to talk about a cost-of-living change. The last time state retirees saw an increase in their benefits was 2001.
“We get lumped in with the teachers,” says one in a trio of visitors, wearing a 2021 lobby day shirt for the Texas State Employees Association. “We’re not the teachers. We’re different.”
Families, supporters and advocacy groups all arrived for opening day. Finish the 5, a coalition of the Texas Center for Justice & Equity, has a megaphone on the South Steps of the Capitol, calling on lawmakers to close the final five youth prisons in the state. Just up the walkway, the interfaith group Texas Impact was hosting an interfaith service on social justice that included a Buddhist prayer for unity from Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston. Inside the Capitol, Texas Values, the conservative pro-family coalition, has joined hands to pray in the Capitol rotunda.
Jonathan Covey, who leads Texas Values, says the group will be at the Capitol every day to advance faith, family and freedom. The group started the day shooting a video to promote the group’s priorities for the legislative session.
Here are some of the statistics about the current group of state leaders: The House is divided between 64 Democrats and 86 Republicans. A total of 26 members of the House are freshmen. Forty-six are women. In the Senate, it’s 12 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Five members are new. Eight are women.
Gov. Greg Abbott, as is tradition, addressed both the House and Senate chambers on opening day. Abbott, who is facing a budget surplus, said he’s never been more excited coming into a legislative session. It’s also a session where Texas will have more money than it can spend.
“More than any other year, we are situated with an extraordinary opportunity to not only address the needs or challenges of our fellow Texans, but also to advance both the state and the lives of our fellow Texans, more than any other session that we’ve ever had,” Abbott said.
On the first day of any session, both chambers adopt rules. The House elects its speaker. The Senate names a president pro tempore, who would take over the duties of the lieutenant governor when the lieutenant governor is absent. Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, was named this session’s president pro tempore in the Senate. A number of colleagues lauded him for his devotion to his family and his commitment to the chamber.
Over in the House, a challenge to the current Speaker of the House Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, ended in a 143-3 vote in Phelan’s favor. Phelan outlined several priorities in a speech to his colleagues: extending postpartum Medicaid coverage for mothers; addressing safety threats at the border; investing excess revenue in property tax relief and infrastructure; and fighting against the sexualization, exploitation and indoctrination of Texas children.