Republicans on Tuesday were pushing new ID requirements for Texas voters, one of a string of bills that conservative legislators have put on the fast track in the state Legislature.
The bill, which would require a photo ID for most voters, came up for a debate in a House panel after clearing the Senate in January. Voters over age 70 and disabled voters would be exempt.
The bill's passage into law is all but certain despite claims by Democrats and civil rights groups that the legislation would erect new hurdles for minorities and the poor. Republicans say it's needed to combat voter fraud.
Voter ID is one of several issues this week sure to warm the hearts of conservative activists -- and frustrate Democrats who are essentially powerless to stop them. On Wednesday, lawmakers will hear testimony about legislation designed to crack down on illegal immigrants in so-called "sanctuary cities," and the House will debate legislation requiring women to get a sonogram before having an abortion. The Voter ID legislation was first bill out of the Senate, and the sonogram bill is the first one scheduled to hit the House floor.
"I'm always amazed that the folks who campaign on limited government, their first two priorities are more government," said Rep. Pete Gallego, a West Texas Democrat. Gallego said the both the voter ID and the sonogram bill would require the Legislature to spend money on discretionary programs at a time when appropriators are looking for every available dollar to plug a budget shortfall as high as $27 billion.
Gov. Rick Perry put voter ID, abortion restrictions and the sanctuary cities bill on the fast track by declaring them "emergency" legislative priorities at the beginning of the session in January.
Rep. Larry Taylor, head of the House Republican Caucus, said the social conservative legislation was not providing a distraction to the work on the budget.
"They are emergency items as designated by the governor," Taylor said. "The appropriations process is continuing. It's not slowing that down at all."
According to the House author of the voter ID legislation, GOP Rep. Patricia Harless, the $2 million needed for training and implementation of the bill would be paid for entirely with federal money. Harless proposed adding an exemption for disabled Texans and allowing voters to use a handgun license that had not expired more than two months before being used at a polling place.
Republicans are pushing voter ID bills across the country. The one in Texas mirrors a law passed several years ago in Georgia.
"The point of the bill is to deter and detect fraud, increase the public confidence in the voting process and make it no more burdensome than the actual act of voting," Harless said. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, testifying before the House committee, said that since the legislation took effect there, "we have not disenfranchised anyone . . . especially any minority group."
The legislation, as currently drafted, would require voters to present a valid form of state or federally issued photo identification. A driver's license, personal ID card, military ID, passport or concealed handgun permit would be accepted.
Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Fort Worth, said the legislation was designed to discourage marginal voters -- generally Democrats -- from casting ballots. He said Republicans were hoping to "skim that off the top" in order to win close elections. The voter ID legislation was left pending in committee Tuesday night after several hours of testimony.