As the Texas Legislature kicked off its 140-day regular biennial session, the state’s top three leaders were touting the same message: Texas ain’t Washington.

Republican Joe Straus, just re-elected to a third term as House speaker, bragged that, “In the Texas House, we don’t put the Republicans on one side of the room and the Democrats on the other.”

Unlike Washington, “we work with our colleagues, regardless of party,” said Straus, who became speaker in 2009 with near-unanimous Democratic help to oust Republican predecessor Tom Craddick.

Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Texas Senate, said he’s “committed to keeping Texas fiscally and politically the complete opposite of Washington,” said Dewhurst.

Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican — like almost two-thirds of the House and Senate — is even suggesting cutting taxes, though with no specifics.

Perry, who may make another try for governor in 2014, and president in 2016, seems determined to cement his niche on the Republican right.

So while Democratic President Barack Obama wrangles with a harshly divided Congress, Texas leaders are doing just fine, the three leaders maintain.

But even while they contrast the situation in Austin with that in Washington, they’re about as divided on priorities in the state capital as they are in the national one.

Should they shrink government, cut taxes and count on people and businesses to make things work — as Perry says he wants?

Or will they plan for the future, and invest in people and infrastructure to meet the needs of a rapidly growing diverse population?

Straus presents a united front in appearances with Perry and Dewhurst, but is calling for Texas lawmakers to truly do their jobs.

In his opening-day remarks Jan. 8, Straus told the House that the president and Congress may face a fiscal cliff, but Texans must deal with a “demographic cliff.”

“Our rapid growth requires a steadfast commitment to the core responsibilities of government, such as a quality education, a reliable water supply, a healthy transportation system and an honest state budget,” Straus declared.

Texas has 5 million kids in public schools — and “more than 3 million of them are deemed economically disadvantaged, and almost 1 million of them speak limited English,” Straus said.

“The education of all our students,” in a seamless and flexible education system to produce workers to fit the needs of employers, “will determine whether Texas is a land of prosperity or lost opportunities,” Straus said.

“Manufacturers and employers in every sector say that they cannot find the skilled workers they need, because many Texans simply do not know how to access appropriate training,” Straus said.

Texas should bridge that divide, he said, “so that no young person feels destined to spend life drifting from one low-skilled, minimum-wage job to the next.”

Other legislators — Democrats and Republicans — warn that talk of a budget surplus and tax cut may be overly optimistic.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House higher education committee, said while trying to keep state government lean and taxes low, lawmakers also must “look at the math.”

They have to make up the $4.7 billion Medicaid IOU from 2011, and anticipate that much or more for the 2014-2015 budget, Branch said.

Then, figure on perhaps a billion or so for growth in the program to provide health insurance for the poor, and you’re quickly up to $11 billion or so to be taken care of before talking about tax cuts, Branch said.

“(I) f you can’t turn the lights on, if you don’t have water, if you can’t educate your child … at some point, just having light regulation and low taxation will not keep people coming here,” Branch said.


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