Bad Bills



House Bills 254 & 261

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler

On Feb. 18, Texas Employers for Immigration Reform held a debate between Reps. Leo Berman, a Tyler Republican, and Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat. Afterward, Harry Joe, an immigration lawyer with the Dallas-based Winstead firm, approached Berman with questions about legislation he had discussed. The exchange took a turn for the worse, within earshot of a Dallas Morning News reporter. Joe called Berman “despicable” and “evil,” and Berman replied by telling Joe, a Chinese-American, to “kiss my ass” and “go home.”

“I don’t think he meant, ‘Go home to your house in Preston Hollow,'” Joe later told the Observer.

The bill in question, House Bill 254, would require illegal immigrants to live in “sanctuary cities.” Joe’s interpretation: “He wants to round them up and force them to live someplace.”

Don’t bother attempting to fathom the logistics and cost of such an operation, because not even Berman expects HB 254 to get anywhere.

“I was trying to make a point to the mayors of self-declared ‘sanctuary cities’ in Texas, who are in clear violation of U.S. and state law,” Berman says, “that if you want to support illegal aliens, we’ll send them all to your city. I think my point has been made.”

Still, reports that Berman has withdrawn the bill are erroneous. “I haven’t withdrawn it,” he says. “I’m just not going to push it. There’s a big difference.”

Berman isn’t letting sanctuary cities off the hook. “There’s a second bill,” he says, “and that one we’re going to push.” That second bill is House Bill 261, which doesn’t include the term “sanctuary cities,” but cuts off state funding to local entities that match the definition of the term in HB 254.

“Sanctuary city” is not a legal designation. HB 254 defines it as “a municipality that adopts a resolution declaring that the municipality does not discriminate or deny municipal services on the basis of a person’s immigration status and that all persons are treated equally regardless of immigration status.”

“These cities know who they are,” Berman says.

Austin, whose City Council declared it a “safety zone” in 1997, would surely be included. A 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service also listed Houston and Katy as sanctuary cities. Dallas and San Antonio, which bar police from asking people about their immigration status unless they’ve been charged with a crime, would likely make the list.

Berman’s proposals are two of eight bills the representative has filed to make life difficult for undocumented immigrants. Others would deny immigrants’ children U.S. citizenship, keep them out of state colleges and universities, and require documentation for public school students.

The ACLU hopes to dissuade aggravated state legislators from making immigration policy, which historically has been the responsibility of the federal government. “We understand that state and local municipalities are frustrated,” says Laura Martin, policy analyst with the Texas ACLU, “but this fails to get at the root of the issue, which is federal inaction.”

-Reeve Hamilton


Senate Bill 300

Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston

No one can accuse Dan Patrick of linguistic inefficiency. In Senate Bill 300, Patrick manages to reverse five school mandates by striking eight words and adding just 27 to the Texas Education Code.

Patrick’s bill would overturn the rule, in effect since the 1980s, requiring elementary classrooms to maintain a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio. Rather than capping each class at 22 students, Patrick’s bill would allow districts to have a campuswide average of 22 students per teacher. The bill would also increase the number of schools exempt from the 22-to-1 rule. Currently, districts that have received an “exemplary” rating from the Texas Education Agency are exempt from many school mandates, including the elementary class size limit. SB 300 would also exempt districts rated as “recognized.”

“Any measure that seeks to water down the 22-to-1 student ratio would be a grave disservice to our students,” says Larry Comer, spokesman for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “Trying to manage 22 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds is enough in and of itself. It’s already difficult for teachers to have one-on-one time with students who need help.”

Court Koenning, Patrick’s spokesman, says the mandates are cramping school districts’ styles. “School districts should have the flexibility to do what they think is in the best interest of their districts and the taxpayers,” he says.

The bill would also reverse two energy-efficiency mandates passed in 2007. One requires schools to reduce energy consumption by 5 percent each year for six years, beginning in 2007; the other requires schools to use the most energy-efficient lightbulbs they can find.

The issue, says Koenning, is cost. Several school districts in Patrick’s district had to spend a lot of money to comply with the measures, he says, particularly Klein ISD. Klein energy manager Allan Scott says the district was indeed “one of the worst” energy-wise before it began to comply with the mandates. So far, Klein has spent more than $1 million meeting the energy-consumption goal, not counting the several million dollars needed to complete the lighting retrofit.

That investment is not without a payoff: In the 2007-08 school year, the Klein district used 8 percent less electricity than the year before, and saved about $1 million on electric bills. In the Austin ISD, which completed a lighting retrofit earlier this decade, facilities director Paul Turner says the schools are paying roughly $3 million less on utilities than five years ago-despite rising electricity costs. The lighting, he says, is “low-hanging fruit”-and a critical change, since lighting accounts for 30 to 40 percent of a district’s electric bill.

Patrick’s legislation takes aim at one other mandate: the requirement that districts conduct school-bus evacuation training for students and teachers. Koenning says Patrick wants this requirement stricken because some districts with few or no buses have had to rent buses and hire trainers to comply with the law. The senator, he says, is just looking out for the districts’ bottom lines.

“There’s no question that these [mandates] can be cumbersome and expensive,” says Joe Bean, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “The way to deal with this is not to remove these sensible requirements, but to revise the school funding so we can pay for them.”

And that, folks, is an issue for another day.

-Susan Peterson


House Joint Resolution 52

Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney

In the opening days of the current session, Senate Republicans made it clear they don’t want traditional consensus-building rules to stop them from passing pet legislation like Voter ID. They know how difficult getting a two-thirds “supermajority” can be.

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Ken Paxton is among the Republicans trying to create new supermajority rules. The motivation? Fear of taxation.

Paxton’s House Joint Resolution 52 proposes a constitutional amendment requiring a four-fifths majority in both chambers to create an income tax or, down the road, to increase the tax.

“Not having a state income tax attracts businesses and qualified workers to our state,” Paxton says. “Texas’ economy continues to grow at a time when most other states, particularly those with a state income tax, are suffering. In order to maintain our competitive edge, I have filed HJR 52 to make the passage of a state income tax even more difficult in Texas.”

Fellow Republicans Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco and Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas have filed similarly spirited legislation, HJR 30 and HJR 16, respectively, requiring supermajorities for increasing the franchise tax. Branch calls for four-fifths, while Anderson sets his sights on a two-thirds supermajority.

There is a model for such measures: California, which requires a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes, and even to pass a budget. There, supermajority requirements have tied legislators’ hands as they’ve tried to respond to a $42 billion budget shortfall. In a December editorial, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “We’ve been reticent to fully support an end to the supermajority requirement. That’s over. It has become abundantly clear that California can no longer function with a supermajority requirement.”

Though its situation isn’t as dire as California’s, Texas is no stranger to budget shortfalls. And there are already multiple hurdles to enacting an income tax. Voters would have to approve a personal income tax in a state referendum; they’d also have to OK any subsequent increases in the tax rate.

Rep. Tan Parker, a Flower Mound Republican, floated a proposal in the last session requiring a two-thirds majority to approve an income-tax referendum. The nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities wrote at the time that the proposal would “introduce an unnecessary additional barrier to voter consideration of a personal income tax, undermining the principle of majority rule.”

-Reeve Hamilton