House Speaker Joe Straus wins fourth term, gun rights advocates out in force on opening day



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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas legislators returned to work Tuesday without Gov. Rick Perry at the helm for the first time in 14 years, vowing to slash taxes and ease gun laws under new Republican leaders and facing little resistance to one of the most conservative agendas in the nation.

Open-carry supporters slung AR-15s over their shoulders outside the Capitol. A tea party newcomer replacing Democrat Sen. Wendy Davis — who became a national sensation after standing 13 hours in pink sneakers to filibuster abortion restrictions two years ago — purposefully chose different footwear: cowboy boots embroidered with "Stand for Life."

Both symbolically made it clear which party is firmly in charge for the next 140 days.

Republican Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, who won't be sworn in as the state's 48th chief executive until next week, was an observer at a largely ceremonial opening day. Perry was a no-show but will address the Legislature a final time Thursday, then clean out his desk and turn his full attention to a possible 2016 presidential run.

That's when the biggest power shift in Texas politics in a generation will really take hold.

"There was clearly a mandate based on the national elections and based on the elections here in Texas," said Republican state Sen. Konni Burton, who won the seat Davis abandoned to make her failed run for governor.

Every major statewide office changed hands in November — a nearly unprecedented level of turnover — and Republicans claimed every post in landslide victories. The last job up for grabs was settled in one of the few actual orders of business on the first day, when Republican House Speaker Joe Straus overwhelmingly won a fourth term as Texas' third-in-command.

But that Straus even drew a challenge from Republican Scott Turner, a second-term representative and former NFL player, hinted at a major tension facing conservatives this session: other conservatives.


RIFLE RALLY

Just outside the Capitol grounds, gun rights advocates held a small rally in support of bills that would allow the open carry of handguns without a license. About a dozen men carried rifles and waved flags. Despite its gun-friendly reputation, Texas is one of only six states that ban open carry of handguns — and lawmakers have filed several bills to allow it.

Pablo Frias of Arlington stood in the cold with a black AR-15 rifle slung over his right shoulder and a black bullhorn in his left hand.

"This is my most dangerous weapon right here," Frias said of the bullhorn. "The truth sets people free. In a world of lies, the truth becomes illegal. Our most important weapon is our voice and we defend it with the Second Amendment."

The group also set up a tent to demonstrate a machine that finishes out the lower receiver of an assault rifle. Come and Take It America President Murdoch Pizgatti said the group hoped to let the public use the machine, but were warned by federal officials Monday night that would be illegal because they are not licensed firearms manufacturers.

"We were going to let people participate in making history by being the first ones to manufacture firearms at the Texas Capitol," Pizgatti said.

The machine takes about two hours to finish out gun pieces, and made a low grinding noise when it carved through metal — a sweet sound for Come and Take It spokesman Matthew Short.

"Sounds like freedom," Short said.


CRADDICK MAKES HOUSE HISTORY FROM HOME

Midland Republican Rep. Tom Craddick became the longest-serving member of the Texas Legislature when he was sworn in for his 24th term in the House. Craddick has been in the House since 1969, and will have served 48 years by the time his latest two-year term expires.

But Craddick starts his new term at home. He's been laid up since back surgery in December and took the oath of office from state District Judge Rodney Satterwhite in Midland, surrounded by his children and grandchildren instead of his fellow lawmakers at the Capitol.

He missed the vote to install House Speaker Joe Straus to his fourth term. Craddick served as House Speaker from 2003-2007, but was ousted by Straus.

"I will be in Austin as soon as I am cleared to travel," Craddick said.

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WHAT'S ON DECK

The first week is a short one. Outgoing Gov. Rick Perry will address the Texas Legislature for a final time Thursday, and then lawmakers are out until the inauguration of Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Jan. 20.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"By the way, Dez Bryant did catch that ball." — Republican Rep. Jeff Leach, digressing from his speech to House members about why Scott Turner should be speaker.

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