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Guest Column: The GOP Flipped on Tuition Issue, but Perry Hasn't

Gov. Rick Perry’s defense of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants now seems out of step with the GOP mainstream. But that wasn't the case 10 years ago. It's the Republican Party that has moved — not the governor.

by Mark P. Jones
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Somewhat overlooked in the attention heaped upon Gov. Rick Perry's immigration position in the wake of recent weeks’ GOP presidential primary debates is the reality that in 2001, Perry was joined by virtually the entire Republican membership of the Texas Legislature in supporting legislation allowing undocumented immigrants who meet a series of requirements (e.g., be a Texas high school graduate, a Texas resident, and agree to apply for permanent residency when eligible) to pay in-state tuition at Texas public institutions of higher education.

Perry’s decision to defend rather than repudiate the legislation has had the immediate effect of dangling the self-described piñata closer to his bat-swinging presidential primary opponents. If we look back at the legislative politics, or lack thereof, surrounding the passage of the bill in 2001, we see just how far to the right the GOP has moved on immigration issues.

The Texas Legislature in 2001: Today’s conservatives embraced a “Texas Dream Act”

In 2001 the Republican Party enjoyed a narrow majority over the Democratic Party in the Texas Senate (16 to 15), and was in its last session as the minority party in the Texas House, with 72 seats to the Democratic Party’s 78. The final version of HB 1403 was amended and passed by the Senate on May 21, 2001, voted on for a second time in the House (which concurred with the Senate’s amended version) on May 24, and signed into law by Perry on June 16.

In the Senate, the bill passed by a 27-to-3 vote, with 12 Republicans and 15 Democrats in favor, and three Republicans against. Seven of the 12 Republicans who supported the bill continue to serve today in the Texas Senate, with three (Sens. John Carona, Troy Fraser and Florence Shapiro) among only eight senators (out of a total of 19 Republicans) to receive awards for their legislative voting record from the conservative watchdog group Empower Texans. Also voting yes was Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, who was then a senator.

The final version of the bill received even stronger Republican backing in the House, with 64 Republicans joining 66 Democrats to vote yes (130 total) versus only two dissenting votes (both Republicans). In the vote on the original version of HB 1403 on April 23, 67 Republicans joined 75 Democrats to approve the bill, with one Republican voting no. Ten years later, 23 of the 64 Republicans (along with two Democrats who would later switch to the Republican Party) who voted yea on the final version of the bill continued in office, as did two Republicans who voted for the bill on April 23 but were absent on May 24.

These legislators are some of the Texas House’s most conservative members (based on both the Empower Texans 2011 Legislative Scorecard as well as the Baker Institute’s 2011 Liberal-Conservative rating), including former House Speaker (2003-09) Tom Craddick, Sid Miller, Leo Berman, Phil King, Dennis Bonnen, Wayne Christian and Bill Callegari. All were classified by both Empower Texans and the Baker Institute as among the most conservative third of the Republican delegation in the 2011 Texas House. Furthermore, five additional representatives who supported the bill (Gary Elkins, Charlie Howard, Lois Kolkhorst, Geanie Morrison and Burt Solomons) were considered by both Empower Texans and the Baker Institute to be among the most conservative half of the 2011 Republican caucus.

Berman is especially well known for his hawkish stance on immigration. In 2011 he was the author of several bills in this area, including one patterned on Arizona’s SB 1070 and others which proposed to end birthright citizenship and to make English the state’s official language. In addition, one of the Republican representatives who voted for HB 1403, Kenny Marchant, now represents Texas in the U.S. House, where he is located in the most conservative decile of the House membership by

The difference a decade can make

The contrast between the near-universal Republican support for HB 1403 (94 percent of the Republican legislators cast yea votes, and only 6 percent voted nay) in 2001 and the present attacks in 2011 on Perry for his past support of HB 1403 underscores how the median position within the Republican Party on immigration changed during the past decade. It also reflects somewhat the distinct historical and societal context in which the immigration debate occurs in Texas compared to elsewhere in the country.

Back in 2001, Perry’s support for this legislation was fully within the mainstream of the Texas Republican Party, and in many (though not all) respects of the national Republican Party as well. Ten years later, what is considered mainstream within the GOP nationally (as well as within the Texas GOP) clearly has changed, with a sharp move to the right within the party on the topic of immigration.

What a decade ago was a consensus position on the issue of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants is now seen as an outlier position at the liberal end of the Republican ideological spectrum. As a result, Perry’s decision to not refute his past position on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants (i.e., to not engage in a flip-flop), and less the decision itself, is what has principally left him open to attacks from his opponents.

His refusal to modify his stance has provided ammunition to his Republican primary opponents in their attempt to portray him as being outside of the Republican mainstream on immigration due to a decision which, at the time Perry made it, enjoyed near-absolute consensus within the Texas Republican Party.

Mark P. Jones is the Fellow in Political Science at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.

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