House Democrats put up one final fight against the voter ID bill but begrudgingly saw it move one step closer to the governor’s desk today.
Adoption of the conference committee report passed the lower chamber on a 98-to-46 vote, but not until Democrats balked at what they alleged were “secret meetings” Republicans held on one of the most controversial bills of the session.
The bill, SB 14 by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, would require that voters present a state-issued ID when casting a ballot. It’s gone through a number of versions, the latest of which was presented to lawmakers today. State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, the House sponsor, introduced a last-minute resolution to “go outside the bounds” of the conference committee and amend the final version of the bill to include matters not discussed in conference. There were two issues at hand: a free state-issued ID to be used only for voting purposes, and adding language about exemptions to photo IDs based on religious beliefs. The exemption for religious purposes drew minimal debate and says individuals are exempted from the provision if they attest under penalty of perjury that they have consistently declined to be photographed since they began practicing their beliefs.
House Democrats, however, immediately sprung to the floor to debate the provision of the free ID, officially called the Election Identification Certificate. They asked Harless when exactly the issue was debated and whether or not there was a public notice posted. She said she and Fraser’s staff sent a letter to the Texas Department of Transportation and said she was “not advised” if the conferees met with the Texas Department of Public Safety. But, Harless added, the issue of a free ID had been debated before.
“I don’t think this is a new concept," she said. "It’s just got a new title on it."
The issue then turned to how much the ID was going to cost. During the floor debate on the bill in March, Democrats called a point of order arguing the free-identification provision would adversely affect the Texas Mobility Fund, which derives a portion of its funding from driver’s license and state-ID fees. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said gutting the fund was unconstitutional if the bill did not specify what other means would be used to supplant the lost revenue. This time around, however, there was no clear cost associated with the free ID, and Harless said it would only affect a small portion of the population.
Anchia wasn’t buying it and kept pressing the issue. He said when speaking against the bill that Republicans would never let a Democrat push for a vote on a bill with an ambiguous fiscal note, especially during a sour economy and a looming multibillion-dollar state deficit.
“If we said ‘let her rip,’ we’d be laughed off this microphone,” he said.
Following a 99-to-45 vote, the resolution passed. The conference committee also elected to exclude an amendment adopted on the House floor that would have allowed voters to present their tribal IDs at the polls.
“[Tribal IDs] do not have a singe standardized form,” said Harless, adding that there is no current evidence that the affected population does not have access to a state-issued ID.
The conference committee did preserve an amendment excluding from the provisions victims of natural disasters (except droughts and heat waves), provided they vote within 45 days of the disaster in question. The committee also approved raising the penalty for illegal voting from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony, and also increased the penalty for attempting to vote illegally from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony.