AUSTIN, Texas — Thousands of people jam-packed the Texas House chamber to witness the official opening of the 88th legislative session.
It’s a far cry from previous sessions impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.
This was different. Lawmakers and their families. Media representatives. Lobbyists. They were all back. Smiles. Handshakes. Hugs.
When the gavel sounded the opening of the 2023 session, something else huge welcomed lawmakers who took part in the ceremonial swearing-in: a major budget surplus. $32.7 billion.
Lawmakers immediately targeted items like property tax relief, mental health care (especially after the 2022 Uvalde elementary school massacre), teacher pay-raises and much-needed money to repair aging roads and water systems.
For the Coastal Bend, the area’s highest ranking House member Representative Todd Hunter outlined some important legislative items on his wishlist.
They include windstorm insurance reform, mental health and suicide prevention for veterans, oyster mariculture (investing in oyster industry) and pumping money into the music and film tourism industry.
“Why are we making movies about Texas in another state? Doesn’t make any sense. Let’s bring that economics to Texas. The music industry. It is great travel tourism. It’s something that everybody enjoys. Let’s make sure we are developing those laws is able to develop more in Texas,” said Hunter.
Lawmakers will meet for 140 days covering other issues like education, immigration reform, abortion (with exceptions). There are also bills filed aimed at legalizing restricted casino gambling and sports betting in the Line Star state.
Below is Tuesday's speech from Representative Dade Phelan (Beaumont). He is the 76th Speaker of the Texas House and is currently serving his fourth term as State Representative for District 21:
As I look out upon this distinguished gathering, I see 149 people - ordinary Texans - who are eager to get to work on extraordinary things. I am grateful to the majority of you who have honored me with your vote, but I am proud to represent all of you as Speaker of the 88th Legislature.
I also see your beautiful families, friends and supporters. Let us not forget the sacrifices they have made to get you where you are today. Texas appreciates you. Members - let us give them a round of applause.
For the newcomers here, our freshman class of 2023, congratulations. Words of caution - - please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, DC. After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like DC.
You are now in the Texas House of Representatives -- and part of a historic assembly. One hundred years after the first woman was elected to the Texas House, our membership now includes 45 women, the highest number ever.
All of us together represent 150 unique populations from cities, the suburbs and the countryside.
194,000 strong in each district. And while our districts are certainly unique, they have one thing in common: they have trusted us to be their voice. And this is what we will be over the next 140 days - one day at a time, one issue at a time, one bill at a time.
All of that work will be rooted in one of the most fundamental, necessary elements of this institution - - the Texas House rules. As the most deliberative body in this nation, our rules matter. My advice to new members is to know them, love them, and be certain we will enforce them. Because our rules keep the game fair, but they do not dictate the outcome. We will have divisions. Every session does. But that division does not have to define us.
So let the political fires that have raged compel us to come to the table for a solution, not flee from our responsibilities. There will be countless outside voices - - not from your district, and some not even from this state
- that seek to control our conversation, and they will be plenty loud. But the conversations that matter to us...the conversations that matter to our constituents... happen in here. They happen in this room.
In the Texas House, we do our work here, together. And when we do that, we just might be surprised to find out how much we have in common.
We can find our first patch of common ground in the most fundamental element of society - the family. If we are going to be a family-focused House, and I do hope we will be, we must take a long look at what matters to Texas families. Fortunately, everyone in here just spent the better part of a year on the campaign trail, hearing directly from our constituents.
Like you, I heard some very straightforward concerns from the families in my district. I have heard about the economy, inflation and the difficulty in making ends meet. Ever-increasing property taxes have led many to feel - year-in and year-out - that they are renting their property from the government. Like them, I believe that tax relief should be a priority.
Time and time again, we have seen the Legislature provide some form of property tax relief, but to make it lasting, we must do something about runaway appraisals. Taxpayers deserve better.
My constituents also talked about the need for quality healthcare at a reasonable price for families and businesses.
They appreciate the progress we made last session, tackling the cost of prescription drugs and health plans, pricing transparency, and improving outcomes for women and children - and they need us to do more. So, let us continue our momentum by giving patients greater control over their health care as well as better access.
In my travels, I also heard about Texans' desire for safe streets. During the 87th, we reset the national conversation on criminal justice. We showed it is possible to improve public safety while defending the rights of the accused and offering second chances when deserved. We lead the nation in decreasing incarceration rates, reducing recidivism, and facilitating reentry. We have proven you can be tough on violent criminals while also making the criminal justice system work better for nonviolent offenders. And that is what we will continue to do. We can work all day on these issues, but if rogue District Attorneys will not uphold the law, what progress are we really making? It is time to rein them in.
Our constituents also want roads that can move them in a timely manner from their home to their job, to their child's school, or their place of worship. Texans want a reliable supply of water, resiliency from flooding, dependable energy and high-speed internet across this great state. They want exceptional schools with exceptional teachers. With a once in a lifetime budget surplus, now is the time to put a down payment on the future of Texas.
To make this down payment even more critical - over a thousand people move to Texas every single day. They do not bring these investments with them. We all serve different regions, but we recognize these as common obligations.
Perhaps we have no greater task ahead of us than protecting those who will carry on what we have started - the children of Texas. I created the Select Committee on Youth Health & Safety last session to examine the issues facing our children. The threats to their safety are all too real: child trafficking, violence in schools, bad actors seeking to exploit their innocence, and social media companies that prey on the insecurities of children, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, sexualization, and indoctrination Members, we must stand up for the children of Texas.
Teachers and parents alike want safer schools, and our kids deserve them. Last May, the lives of 21 Texans - teachers and children - were stolen when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. We owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sensible, meaningful change.
I want to thank the families of Uvalde for inviting me to meet with them just last week. Having heard from them directly - and taking into account the findings of our investigative committee - we have insights to inform our decisions. This is going to be an especially tough conversation, but this body has proven capable of handling tough conversations in the past. I am confident we will do so again.
As we work to make Texas an even better place to raise a family, we must acknowledge there is true suffering in society, and we have to make things better for those families in the toughest situations. The most important thing to do, certainly, is to ensure our economy continues to generate quality jobs and meaningful wages. After all, an opportunity to provide for one's family is a powerful motivator, no matter where one is in life.
At the same time, let us not forget people who need more than just a job. Even with a vibrant economy, a single parent who can work, afford childcare, healthcare, transportation and housing, is indeed rare. How can we improve their lives and their children's futures? Tax-free diapers, wipes and other childcare supplies would be a great start, and so would ensuring health coverage for new moms that lasts - not sixty days, not six months but a full year.
Starting today, I represent Jasper County. Last week, I read a story about the local county hospital joining the 60% of rural Texas hospitals that no longer deliver babies. Mothers in rural areas now face hour-long drives for basic services. We should not leave this session without a firm commitment to reversing this trend. Because in my dictionary, the definition of "pro-life" includes ensuring access to affordable healthcare for all, especially Texas mothers and their babies.
To show the Texas House is committed to the maternal health of our own staff this session, I am proud to announce we are now offering additional resources to guarantee twelve full weeks of paid maternal and paternal leave for those working in this chamber this session.
Our names may be on the office door, but the men and women who serve in our capitol and district offices are the ones who do the heavy lifting. We must provide an environment that respects them and recognizes their value.
With rapid inflation, let us also retain them by finally increasing their salaries.
Making things better for all Texas families is how we deliver on the limitless potential for our state in every area, from gainful employment to public safety. That includes border security, which is certainly on the minds of our members, but especially for those who represent border communities.
We can all agree that our border towns have been bearing the brunt of Washington's failed immigration policies - some going as far as declaring themselves to be in a state of disaster. It is a legal and humanitarian crisis. Every Texas budget I have ever voted for has poured hundreds of millions, now billions, of dollars into the gap between federal policies and the realities on the ground. As stewards of every budget dollar, we must ensure our strategy not only fits the realities on the ground, but is truly, measurably effective.
We must also acknowledge the additional threats posed by a porous border. More than 1,600 Texans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021. That is 1,600 too many. Before more Texas families get that heartbreaking call, we must stop the cartels in their tracks. And we will
Members, though we may face many challenges this session, there will be even more opportunities. The work is hard, but it is worthwhile. The work is demanding, but it is noble. The work is necessary, and, because we have the privilege of doing it for the people of Texas, I know we will get it done together.
It is a privilege to serve as a member of this distinguished body, and I am once again humbled by the opportunity to serve as your Speaker. Thank you for this enormous honor and thank you for serving this great state. May God bless you and May God bless the great State of Texas.