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Will the Sanctuary Cities Bill Survive the Senate?

They won’t give names, nor will they engage in a game of hypothetical vote counting, but Senate Democrats will say the coalition forming against the state’s proposed sanctuary cities bill isn’t what observers would expect.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, speaks to an aide after the Senate session on May 16, 2011.

They won’t give names, nor will they engage in a game of hypothetical vote counting, but Senate Democrats will say the coalition forming against the state’s proposed sanctuary cities bill isn’t what observers would expect.

“Some people who you might be instinctively counting as a ‘yes’ vote may end up having a problem with the bill,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “That’s part of the overall give-and-take discussion on the bill.”

Watson’s assessment is based on concerns some members have that the bill — which would prohibit cities, counties and other governmental entities or special districts from adopting policies that prevent law enforcement from asking persons lawfully detained or arrested if they are in the country legally — would damage the relationship law enforcement officers have with their immigrant communities. The issue is one of six given "emergency" status by Gov. Rick Perry, who hoped early consideration would keep it out of the crush of end-of-session legislation.

The argument was one of several that were unpersuasive to the Texas House, which passed the bill, HB 12 by state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, on a party-line vote May 10. The Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security will take up the bill today after the Senate adjourns, committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said earlier today. The senator said it may be the committee’s last scheduled hearing of the session. Spirited opposition to the proposal is expected, as happened months ago when the bill was first laid out and opponents showed up in droves, donning “No HB12” buttons and filling out witness cards to speak against it.  

If Watson is wrong, or the Republican senators he had in mind do not attend the committee meeting (there are five Republicans and four Democrats), it will likely vote the bill out to the full Senate. That’s where some members say the measure may stay for the rest of the session.

“There are some Republicans probably that would not like to see that bill come over, while some probably do support it,” said state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, the chairman of the Senate Hispanic Caucus. “But I think this late in the game, with some of the more important issues, obviously the budget and school finance, it would slow down those other bills.”

If the Senate adheres to tradition and follows its two-thirds rule, Democrats can stop the measure by blocking it from consideration. The Senate debates bills on the floor in the order they come in. Going out of order requires a two-thirds vote. Uresti said he’s confident the 12 Democratic senators will unite against the bill and block it from coming to the floor. Senate Republicans who want to see the bill advance, albeit in an unorthodox way, can do what they did with the budget and strategically set the bill so it comes up on a “House” day. Two days each week, House bills come before Senate bills and the two-thirds vote isn’t necessary.

Uresti said that was possible but doubted members had the stomach, or the energy, for an all-out brawl.

“All the members get along and once in a while there are bills that can be divisive,” he said. “I would submit that I don’t think the members want anything that could be divisive over the next two weeks on such a controversial issue.”

If HB 12 dies in the Senate, proponents of the measure will likely look for another bill to serve as a vehicle. Attention could then turn again to Williams. He’s filed SB 9, a homeland security bill loaded with controversial measures, including requiring all law enforcement agencies to adopt the federal Secure Communities program. The bill also would institute stronger penalties for a laundry list of felonies and codify proof-of-citizenship requirements for driver's licenses and state-issued IDs. It would also establish an automatic license-plate reader pilot program for vehicles used by Department of Public Safety officers.

The bill was laid out before the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety on Tuesday, and lawmakers seized the opportunity to take advantage of its broad caption, “relating to homeland security, providing penalties," to attach to it a hefty list of related measures. Among the additions are a statute relating to the use of the federal electronic verification system known as E-Verify, a provision that the state’s agriculture department assess on a regular basis the impact of border violence on rural communities, and a bill that would establish a DPS southbound inspection point near the border.

But Williams said during debate on SB 9 that sanctuary cities is a separate matter and he would not allow the issue to appear as an amendment to SB 9. He reiterated his opposition Monday.

“My word is my word, I am going to so what I said I would do,” he said. Watson and Uresti also back Williams and say they believe what he says.

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