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Texas House apparently headed in different direction on illegal immigration issue
A bill an influential Republican filed may put the lower chamber on a collision course with the more conservative Senate.
Posted By Enrique Rangel
AUSTIN – What a sharp contrast.
While the Texas Senate is considering tough immigration legislation – including the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry filed – which have immigrant rights advocates and civil libertarians alarmed, in the House it may be an entirely different story.
Rep. Byron Cook, chairman of the influential House State Affairs Committee and a top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus, filed a bill that – if the Legislature approves it and Gov. Greg Abbott signs it into law – would allow some undocumented immigrants to get driving permits.
The Corsicana Republican, who has represented his East Texas district for 12 years and has chaired State Affairs for the last three sessions, said he filed House Bill 4063 for pragmatic reasons.
“Right now, we have tens of thousands of people driving the roads in the state of Texas and we don’t know who they are; we don’t know where they live; (and) it is likely they don’t have insurance,” Cook said. “So, it would be a much better policy to have these folks run through the database; make sure they don’t have criminal offenses; have them fingerprinted so we know who they are; where they live and more important for all of Texas: to make sure they have insurance because right now these folks are, for the most part, driving without insurance.”
Though Cook and some members of his panel said HB 4063 faces an uphill battle in the overwhelmingly conservative Republican Legislature – especially in the Senate where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the president of the chamber, made illegal immigration his top campaign issue – it is legislation that had to be filed, even if it fails.
“The reality is that we have the texting ban bill, this is going to the third try and it is probably going to be successful,” Cook said in reference to the bill his House colleague Tom Craddick, R-Midland, filed again this session.
“So, I think we have thoughtful issues like these and continue to advance because one day it is likely that this legislation will pass,” he said. “If you go out and talk to constituents around anybody’s district, when you frame the way I just described…it is a requirement that, overwhelmingly, people support.
“They don’t support a driver’s licenses for undocumented, but they do support overwhelmingly a conditional driving permit that has requirements.”
In addition to passing a background check, if HB 4063 becomes law, applicants would have to prove they have lived in Texas for at least a year and the permits would have to be renewed annually.
Rep. Jessica Farrar, who sits on Cook’s 13-member committee, said the fact that he is a Republican, chairs the panel plus is close to Straus, means the bill will get serious consideration, at least in the House.
“He is from an area where you don’t have a lot of Hispanics,” Farrar, D-Houston, noted.
“I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but I think his constituents are feeling the effects of being in collision with uninsured drivers,” she said “It is significant that a member of the leadership, an Anglo who isn’t from the border, who isn’t from Houston” filed this legislation.
A tough sell
While the measure has strong support from the Texas Association of Business and other influential groups that usually support Republicans, GOP legislators such as Reps. John Frullo of Lubbock and John Smithee of Amarillo said Cook will have a tough sell because HB 4063 would reward lawbreakers.
“My view is that it would be very difficult to get the bill passed in the House or the Senate,’ said Smithee, a member of State Affairs since Cook became chairman in the 2011 session.
“I couldn’t say that it won’t get out of committee, but I just don’t see it making it all the way to the floor,” Smithee said.
Though Frullo said he feels the same way, he acknowledged that with Cook as the author of the bill, the proposal stands a better chance than similar legislation Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, has filed unsuccessfully since the 2003 session.
“One of the most important factors of any legislation or of an amendment is: who is the author?” Frullo said. “So, that puts a lot of credibility into what is being done.
“We know how the person looks at issues, we know what his constituency is, we know what his district is and people look at that when they look at a particular bill,” said Frullo, a member of State Affairs in the 2011 and 2013 sessions.
In addition, “Chairman Cook is a well-respected colleague,” Frullo stressed. “He runs a very important, very powerful committee and he is a very influential member.”
Longtime Austin watcher Bill Miller said Cook’s bill also highlights the fact the House and the Senate may be on a long anticipated collision course.
“I think there is internal conflict, there always is,” said Miller, one of the best known political consultants in Austin.
“There are different points of view,” he said “There are some people who, I guess, are more progressive in their views toward immigration than others.
“Others don’t want to do anything at all and when you have those two ideas meet, yes, they are in conflict with each other.”
Harvey Kronberg, editor of the political newsletter Quorum Report, called Cook’s proposal “courageous” because he knows that Patrick and other tea party favorites in both chambers will do everything possible to derail the legislation if it goes to the House and Senate floors.
For Cook, getting strong opposition from fellow Republicans is not new.
In the final days of the 2007 session, the most tumultuous since Republicans gained control of both legislative chambers in 2003, Cook urged Craddick, who was then the speaker of the House, to step down.
“Mr. Speaker, please consider stepping down,” he said after a Republican-led effort to oust Craddick had failed.
“Please don't put this body through 18 months of hell,” he said. “Your re-election will result in a bloody, brutal and I believe non-productive 81st session”.
The rebellion against Craddick continued during the interim. However, shortly before the 2009 session began, Cook, Straus and nine other House Republicans – including Delwin Jones of Lubbock – convinced most of the 64 Democrats to vote for Straus.
Straus ousted Craddick and the San Antonio Republican is now in his fourth two-year term as the leader of the 150-member chamber.