Chad’s Morning Brief: 30 Days Left for Lawmakers in Austin, Immigration Bill Loopholes, and More
Here is your Morning Brief for the morning of April 29, 2013. Give me your feedback below and tune in to The Chad Hasty Show for these and many more topics from 8:30 to 11am.
1. Little Time Left in Austin (link)
Lawmakers in Austin have less than 30 days before the end of the legislative session. Many on-lookers and even some lawmakers are hoping to pick up the pace but if that's going to happen, it must happen soon.
Still, there’s a lot left on the to-do list: from paying for roads and water projects to passing a two-year state budget to deciding whether to expand Medicaid. Many key issues have passed the House or the Senate, but not both. Only 10 pieces of legislation have made it to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk so far. And, by law, the session ends May 27.
The biggest complaint in a session in which “Kumbaya” jokes are aplenty is the turtle-like pace of bills in the House compared with sessions past. House members are hearing about 61 percent fewer bills on the floor than they did at this point last session, according to statistics from the Legislature’s official website. As of Friday, about 400 bills were read on the floor, compared with about 650 at this point in 2011.
The Senate is moving more quickly, ahead of its pace last session. As of Friday, senators heard 107 bills on the floor, up from 88 at this point last session.
“Many of our major goals for this session — the budget, infrastructure, public education — have been passed out already,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.
He acknowledged that the absence of controversial, hot-button issues that dominated the 2011 session — voter ID, preabortion sonograms, airport security patdowns and more — has helped.
To speed its pace, the Senate this year has used work groups to resolve conflicts before they reach the floor, a method that some senators refer to as “shuttle diplomacy.” Senators divide into small groups to try to resolve disagreements, one by one. Proposals get shuttled back to the GOP and Democratic caucuses, and then are further refined to reach a compromise.
But the final weeks of the session are always fraught with potential blow-ups as deadlines loom, workdays grow longer and tempers become short.
“We may be singing ‘Kumbaya’ now, but that can change,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
In the House, Hunter, chairman of the agenda-setting Calendars Committee, said many legislators filed bills late this session, and a dearth of pre-filed bills contributed to slowing things down.
“It’s not anybody’s fault,” Hunter said.
Notably, many major pieces of proposed legislation — the kind of core responsibilities that House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said he would prioritize — have already been debated, Hunter said, pointing to the 2014-15 budget, supplemental appropriations for the current budget year, several sunset bills necessary to continue operations at key state agencies, and a water bill.
One of Straus’ primary critics, Michael Quinn Sullivan of the conservative organization Empower Texans, isn’t buying it. He said in a blog post this week that the speaker has bottled up controversial legislation because he doesn’t want “tea party freshmen to do their thing.”
“Whether it is protecting religious liberties or defending life, reforming the budget or cutting taxes, this Texas House is doing nothing. … Thanks to their legislative leadership, conservative House members are preparing to go home with no wins, no fights and not much of a record,” Sullivan wrote.
Personally, I have been pretty disappointed in lawmakers during this session. The Republican lawmakers talk a big game at home, but once they hit Austin nothing gets accomplished. Sometimes that can be a good thing, but in this session when we don't even have debates over school choice, campus carry, or open carry it's a bad thing.
2. Immigration Loopholes (link)
Does Senator Marco Rubio even know what he is promoting when talking about the Immigration Bill? It's a fair question to ask since almost everything he has been promoting isn't turning out to be true.
Members of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight have stressed that under their new immigration plan, currently illegal immigrants will have to wait more than a decade before achieving citizenship. Newly-legalized immigrants will be given a provisional status and “will have to stay in that status until at least ten years elapse and [border security] triggers are met,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News on April 14. “Then the only thing they get is a chance to apply for a green card via the legal immigration system.” The green card process would take additional years, meaning the road to full citizenship could take as long as 15, or even 18, years.
Unless it doesn’t. A little-noticed exception in the Gang of Eight bill provides a fast track for many — possibly very many — currently illegal immigrants. Under a special provision for immigrants who have labored at least part-time in agriculture, that fast track could mean permanent residency in the U.S., and then citizenship, in half the time Rubio said. And not just for the immigrants themselves — their spouses and children, too.
A second provision in the legislation creates another fast track for illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 — the so-called Dreamers. The concept suggests youth, but the bill has no age limit for such immigrants — or their spouses and children — and despite claims that they must go to college or serve in the military to be eligible, there is an exception to that requirement as well.
First the agricultural workers. The Gang of Eight bill creates something called a blue card, which would be granted to illegal immigrant farm workers who come forward and pass the various background checks the bill requires for all illegal immigrants. Instead of the 10-year wait Rubio described in media appearances, blue card holders could receive permanent legal status in just five years.
How does an illegal immigrant qualify for a blue card? If, after passing the background checks, he can prove that he has worked in agriculture for at least 575 hours — about 72 eight-hour days — sometime in the two years ending December 31, 2012, he can be granted a blue card. His spouse and children can be granted blue cards, too — it can all be done with one application.
There’s more. If an illegal immigrant is apprehended by authorities after the passage of the bill, and appears to qualify for blue card status, the law requires the Department of Homeland Security to give him a “reasonable opportunity” to apply for blue card status. He cannot be deported while his application is under review. Even if he is in removal proceedings, the bill says, the Secretary of Homeland Security is required to allow him to apply for blue card status, and immigration authorities are required to “terminate [removal] proceedings without prejudice.”
The bill’s supporters point out that the Gang of Eight would limit the period of time in which illegal immigrants can apply for a blue card. That’s true; the bill specifies that applications have to be filed in the year after the last of the rules enforcing the new immigration law have gone into effect. But the bill also gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the discretion to extend that period by another year and a half if she or he determines that “additional time is required” for the applications. The extension can also be granted for any other “good cause.”
The next step happens five years after the Gang of Eight bill is enacted. At that time, the legislation requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to change the blue card holder’s status to that of permanent resident if the immigrant has worked in agriculture at least 150 days in each of three of those five years since the bill became law. A work day is defined as 5.75 hours. Also, the immigrant can qualify for permanent residence with less than three years, of 150 work days each, if he can show that he was disabled, ill, or had to deal with the “special needs of a child” during that time period. He can also shorten the requirement if “severe weather conditions” prevented him for working for a long period of time, or if he was fired from his agricultural job — provided it was not for just cause — and then couldn’t find work.
So the road to permanent resident status that Rubio said would take a decade will take only five years for currently illegal immigrants who have done some work in agriculture. How many are there? Pro-reform congressional sources suggest the number could be 700,000 on the low end and 1.1 million on the high end. Congressional sources skeptical of reform say the number would be higher. No one seems to know with any certainty.
Then there is the other fast track, for the Dreamers. The Gang of Eight bill creates a special category for immigrants who came to the United States illegally before age 16. That applies equally to illegal immigrants who today are, say, 19 years old, or those who are 49 years old, or older. The bill gives permanent resident status to them, and to their spouses and children, after five years. To get that, they have to have completed high school or earned an equivalency degree. In addition, the bill says the immigrant must have “acquired a degree from an institution of higher education or has completed at least two years, in good standing for a bachelor’s degree or higher degree in the United States; or has served in the Uniformed Services for at least four years and, if discharged, received an honorable discharge.”
That requirement is often cited by Dream Act supporters to show the tough standards immigrants must meet. But the very next section of the bill outlines a “hardship exception” which says the immigrant may be awarded permanent legal status if he or she has not completed college, or not completed two years of college, or not served in the military. The immigrant who has done none of those things may still be fast tracked if he can “demonstrate compelling circumstances for the inability to satisfy the requirement.” The bill does not specify what those compelling circumstances might be; the discretion for such decisions lies with the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Like agricultural workers, it is not entirely clear how many currently illegal immigrants and family members would be involved in the Dream fast track, but the total number could be in the millions — a significant portion of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally today.
The bottom line is that in both cases, agricultural workers and Dreamers, the Gang of Eight creates significant exceptions to what Rubio claimed would be a long and arduous path to legal residency and then citizenship. Under the proposed bill, some illegal immigrants will navigate the path to citizenship much more quickly than others.
3. Shocking! Gambling Pretty Much a Dead Issue (link)
Lawmakers can't even be bothered to debate tax cuts and campus carry. Why would anything think that casino gambling had a chance in this session?
The latest push to expand gambling in Texas and bring a casino to Tarrant County appears headed toward defeat in the Legislature as most proponents concede that they are running out of time going into the final month of the session.
Supporters of plans to permit Las Vegas-style casinos and slots at racetracks say they are holding out hope but acknowledge stiff resistance in both chambers of the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Gambling advocates are already setting their sights on a possible special session in 2014 when lawmakers may be forced back to work to deal with a court-ordered restructuring of the school finance system.
"Certainly, the timer's running down for this session," said Russ Keene, spokesman for the Texas Gaming Association. "But we're very committed to the vision of destination resort casinos for the job creation and new tax revenue and new entertainment source for Texans."
Former state Sen. John Montford, chairman of Let Texans Decide, a coalition calling for a statewide election to present the issue to voters, said, "I think it's going to be an uphill battle."
Montford said an expansion of gambling has strong support among voters but conceded that "it hasn't been easy" building a case in the Legislature.
"The biggest trouble spot has been the cat-mouse game," Montford said.
"The House says they're not going to do anything until the Senate does something. And the Senate says if the House isn't going to do anything, we're not going to do anything.
"In the meantime, the people of Texas are being denied the right to vote on a very important matter. So that's been frustrating as well."
Sorry Montford, it's not a "very important matter" to anyone really. Even those who support casino's in Texas probably have other issues at the top of their legislative priority lists.
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