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Correction: Texas Legislature story

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AUSTIN, Texas — In a story Jan. 14 about the opening day of the Texas Legislature, The Associated Press erroneously referred to House Speaker Joe Straus as a lawyer. He is a businessman.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Without Perry, Texas Legislature opens new era of GOP power

Texas Legislature returns to work: Straus wins 4th term as House speaker, Perry cedes stage

By PAUL J. WEBER and JIM VERTUNO

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — Without Gov. Rick Perry at the helm for the first time in 14 years, the Texas Legislature returned Tuesday under new Republican leadership that vows lower taxes and looser gun laws but is also confronting party infighting and plunging oil prices that threaten conservative promises.

One gun rights group slung AR-15s over their shoulder outside the Capitol, while another clashed with a lawmaker inside. A tea party newcomer replacing Democrat Sen. Wendy Davis — who became a national sensation after standing nearly 13 hours in pink sneakers to filibuster abortion restrictions two years ago — purposefully chose different footwear: cowboy boots embroidered with "Stand for Life."

Taken together, it was symbolically 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.

A wealthy San Antonio businessman, Straus has long been targeted by tea party members who view him as a country-club Republican and too moderate. House insurgents bent on ousting Straus withered in previous sessions, but this time, they demanded a speaker vote for the first time since 1975.

PHOTO: Visitor line up in the Texas Capitol to enter the House Chambers for the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Visitor line up in the Texas Capitol to enter the House Chambers for the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Straus clobbered Turner 127-19 — then took a jab at his ultraconservative antagonists.

"A small number sought to divide us with misleading and personal attacks," Straus said. "But you cannot effectively govern this House by dividing it."

Also interrupting the ceremonial pomp of the first day was an exchange between gun rights supporters and state Rep. Poncho Nevarez. The Eagle Pass Democrat is shown in a video posted online asking the group to leave his office while being called a "tyrant to the Constitution" over not supporting a proposed gun law.

In the two-minute clip posted by a gun rights activist, Nevarez is heard saying he will call security and seen having trouble closing his door on the group.

GOP infighting is likely to flare again this session. Being closely watched are dealings between the House and Senate, which has a new far-right leader in incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a strident talk radio host who ousted business-backed incumbent David Dewhurst.

Beyond party politics, Republicans have another challenge: falling oil prices that complicate plans to cut taxes and ease congested Texas highways. Lawmakers will have billions of new dollars to spend, including $7.5 billion leftover from the current budget, but the slowdown in Texas' energy sector is a source of anxiety.

Oil has been trading below $50 a barrel for the first time since 2009, and the state comptroller warned that oil production and regulation tax revenues could drop by up to 14 percent. The outlook has dimmed the prospect of significant tax relief that many Republicans ran on, but Straus said after his victory that tax cuts are a priority.

Border security, expanding where and how Texans can carry guns and whether to allow parents to use state money for private school vouchers are also big issues.

Abbott has mostly stuck to broad policy issues such as education and transportation. The former Texas attorney general, who sued the Obama administration 30 times over what he called federal overreach, also wants to curtail local ordinances like plastic bag bans — which invited grumbling that now the state is intruding where it doesn't belong.

Outnumbered Democrats, who enter this session even weaker than two years ago, will now begin fighting to avoid being marginalized.

"We'll deal with that. We'll work hard," longtime Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffrini said. "Actually, we'll work harder because we'll be fewer."


Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.


Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/pauljweber

Follow Jim Vertuno on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jimvertuno

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Story copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Texas state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio,  is congratulated after he was elected to Speaker of the House on the opening day of the 2015 Legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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