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Immigration, gun rights on lawmakers' agenda

By Glenn Evans
Nov. 14, 2010 at 7 p.m.

Northeast Texas lawmakers hope to affect gun laws, abortion access and state participation in national health care reform in bills filed in anticipation of the 82nd Legislature convening Jan. 11 in Austin.

"They would ask everybody the same question," Tyler Republican Rep. Leo Berman said, describing his tweak to the Arizona immigration bill.

Berman's bill, which he plans to file Tuesday in Austin, orders law enforcement officers to ask the citizenship status of everyone they detain. An Arizona measure, that continues to draw headlines since passage in April, requires officers to have a suspicion someone is not a citizen before asking the question.

"We're taking out the officers' discretion," Berman said.

His immigration bill otherwise is largely patterned on Arizona's: No city may act as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants, and employers will electronically verify Social Security cards.

Berman also announced plans to file two other immigration-related bills Tuesday.

One of those would make English the official language of Texas, which he couched as a cost-cutter to help lawmakers handle a two-year revenue shortfall predicted as high as $20 billion.

"That will save the state millions of dollars in printing," he said.

Another Berman bill adds an 8 percent surcharge to cash wire transfers from Texas to Mexico, Central and South America. Berman said about $8 billion is sent south from the Lone Star State each year, and funds raised from the surcharge would be dedicated to health care for illegal immigrants who now depend on emergency room visits.

Berman's bills will join a handful already filed by other Northeast Texans, including tea party freshman Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview.

Simpson, who in January will assume the seat held by Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, took this past week bill filing opening seriously.

"I didn't know if I could pre-file," Simpson said this past week, noting he and other newly elected representatives are not yet sworn into office. "I went down (to Austin last) Monday morning at 6:15 and got 11th in line."

Simpson was holding three bills in that line: One expands the concealed weapons law to allow students to carry guns on campus at institutions of higher learning.

"That bill is not in the final shape that I want it in," he said, describing an opt-out provision he wants to give private colleges and universities.

The other two Simpson bills forbid the use of public money for abortions - one as an outright law and the other through a constitutional amendment to be put to the voters.

"I've told people that the first duty of government is to protect life," he said. "And both (bills) have to do with protecting life."

Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, filed bills this last week to require a two-thirds majority to raises taxes and gives Texas a path to opt out of the coming national health care requirement that everyone have health insurance.

"The essence of the Health Care Freedom Act is that the people of Texas can't be forced by government to participate in a health care plan," Hughes said. "This is a Texas response to the national health care legislation that was passed against the will of the American people.

"Bills along these lines have been filed or will be filed in 40 states, for sure," Hughes said. "The states are supposed to be labs for democracy, so Texas can try one thing and Michigan can try something else."

Hughes' health care opt-out does not include a proposed alternative,

"This bill is not so much that," Hughes said. "You're going to see other legislation filed ... to provide some real health care solutions."

Hughes' other measure would go directly to voters.

"It says the Legislature will not be able to increase taxes without a two-thirds vote," Hughes said. A simple majority can raises state levies now.

It was not a bill that drew headlines Friday for Sen. Kevin Eltife, though the Tyler Republican did file one measure this past week.

On Friday, he and Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, announced a tentative agreement to reduce the daily expense account lawmakers receive. That per diem is separate from lawmakers' $600 monthly salary and is for daily expenses the traditional citizen-lawmakers incur by leaving home every two years to spend 140 days in the capital.

Geren and Eltife, respective chairmen of the House and Senate administrative committees, are proposing to drop the per diem allotment from $168 to $150.

The proposal would save an estimated $400,000, more if the 82nd Legislature runs into extra sessions in summer. The per diem results in a $3.5 million expense in the House alone, according to reports published this past weekend.

The bill Eltife filed this past week goes after unscrupulous debt consolidation outfits that the senator says rob the public and give legitimate companies a bad name.

"What we're doing is basically trying to put some regulation in place to deal with debt settlement," Eltife said. "There are some definite horror stories. I know the attorney general's office has dealt with countless stories with these companies that take advantage of consumers and then leave the state."

Eltife said honest debt consolidators are asking for the regulation.

"The good companies want regulation," he said.



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