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Analysis: Texas Legislature flushing sanctuaries, from cities to bathrooms

Texas legislators — along with everyone watching them — expected to lock horns over transgender Texans and the bathroom bill. But the raw debate over sanctuary cities legislation could be the hallmark of this 85th Legislature.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Ft. Worth, at the beginning of floor debate on Senate Bill 4 — the "sanctuary cities" bill — on April 26, 2017.

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Bathrooms were supposed to be the big and messy social issue of the legislative session, but the sanctuary cities legislation that passed the House last week is certainly a candidate for the hallmark issue of the 85th Legislature.

Like the result, hate the result, whatever: The sore feelings, fears, anger at and empathy for immigrants and minorities that surfaced in the debate over Senate Bill 4 will permeate the last month of this session like smoke through a brisket.

Maybe the two issues will share the spotlight: Transgender Texans seeking sanctuary from bullies in public restrooms, and Hispanics and other minorities seeking sanctuary from immigration enforcers prowling for non-citizens.

The divisions on SB 4 were clear from the start; lawmakers have been working on “sanctuary cities” legislation for several sessions without finding consensus. But one provision in particular — the “show us your papers” amendment — encapsulated the entire controversy.

The sore feelings, fears, anger at and empathy for immigrants and minorities that surfaced in the debate over Senate Bill 4 will permeate the last month of this session like smoke through a brisket.

It’s why this bill — which might leapfrog another controversy like regulating transgender Texans access to bathrooms in public buildings — is the one people will be talking about later. It directly affects more people than the bathroom bill. It puts a spotlight on police, effectively asking the body politic to keep a positive or negative hawks-eye view on law enforcement. It might even matter to voters, marking the politicians who voted for and against it in their primaries and general elections next year.

How do we know this?

First, the victors weren’t exactly dancing in jubilation when it was over. They won the fight, passing a bill that would ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Texas; allowing police to question the immigration status of people they legally detain; and subjecting police chiefs and sheriffs to misdemeanor charges for failing to cooperate with requests from federal authorities, or for not honoring requests from immigration officials who want noncitizen inmates held.

The bill on sanctuary cities was on Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of the four things he wanted more than anything else from this Legislature, along with a resolution calling for a convention of states to change the U.S. Constitution, new ethics laws for state officials and employees and repairs to child protective services.  

Oh, happy day, right? That’s not how they’re acting. At the end, this was a subdued group of victors.

Second, at a moment when you might expect to see people clamoring for credit, members on both sides were slinking around blaming each other for the passage of the bill in general, and for the addition of one provision — the “show us your papers” amendment. Some Republicans tried to hang the blame on Democrats who turned down a “deal” that would have killed the amendment in return for them pulling down dozens of amendments of their own. Some Democrats blamed a handful of their own members who refused to take that deal and back away from the fight — no matter whether most Democrats wanted them to or not.

The amendment passed 81-64. Whatever the spin, the credit or blame — a point of view assessment — belongs to the 81 members who voted in favor of the amendment. You might extend that blame or credit to the 94 members who voted to approve the final bill with that amendment included.

The final result was generally predictable. House leaders decided to leave the legislation to “the will of the House,” a way of saying they would add or subtract whatever the members wanted, without trying to steer the result to a particular outcome.

On a bill like this one, with a conservative majority  taking votes under the watchful eyes of political consultants and primary election voters, that all but guaranteed the House would move in the direction of the Senate’s full-strength version of the legislation from their own lite version.

They moved far enough that the Senate might just approve of their work instead of asking for a conference committee to hammer out what now appear to be relatively minor differences.

However it really went down, whoever folded or stood up or took a stand or slinked away, this bill and its amendments passed because most of the members of the House — Republicans, overwhelmingly — wanted to add these ideas and policies to state law. The “deal” the majority offered is easier to understand as an ultimatum: Drop much of your opposition and we’ll drop this one provision. The Democrats didn’t make the deal, but they’re not the reason the papers amendment was added, or that the bill passed.

No reason to blame the losers on top of everything else.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Senate doesn't like the House's hit on the Rainy Day Fund. The House doesn't like the Senate's delay of a deposit into the state's highway fund. Neither wants to raise taxes. But all is not yet lost — unless they want to fight about it.
  • Some Texas lawmakers want to kill the franchise tax that so many businesses hate. So far, so good. But it might leave a hole in the state's pocket when it inevitably comes time to rebalance the state's financing for public schools.

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Immigration State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Sanctuary cities Texas Legislature