Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Berman in the middle of controversial voting, immigration proposals

Berman (R- Tyler) wants to cut off state benefits (like education & health care) to the children of undocumented immigrants who are born in Texas. He's among other right-wing folks that want the 14th Amendment re-interpreted. -Angela

Berman in the middle of controversial voting, immigration proposals
Retired Army officer doesn't shy away from a good fight

By By Laylan Copelin
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Rep. Leo Berman, a retired U.S. Army field artillery officer, is trained for a good, loud fight.

He'll probably get several. As the new chairman of the House Elections Committee, the Tyler Republican will be heard on issues ranging from voter fraud to requiring photo IDs of voters to moving Texas' primaries to February and campaign finance and ethics.

Outside his committee duties, Berman already has led on getting elderly and disabled Texans their share of school property tax cuts and hopes to steer Texas into federal court in a constitutional fight over state benefits for the children of illegal immigrants born here.

Berman spent 22 years in the Army, but the political bug bit after spending four of those years as a military liaison to Congress. When he retired, he returned to Texas. He lost a close race for Congress in 1978 to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, a prominent Democrat, before serving as mayor pro tem of Arlington. After moving to Tyler, Berman was elected to the Legislature in 1998.

A Brooklyn native, Berman is half of the Texas House's New York City Caucus, as he and the other half, Austin's Elliott Naishtat, like to joke.

Berman says he's about as conservative as Naishtat is liberal. But the two joined together last year — and again this month — to champion legislation giving elderly and disabled Texans the same property tax cuts granted to other Texans last year. The constitutional proposition concerning that oversight should go to the voters in May.

Berman said his proposal to move Texas' primaries from March to February might draw the most bipartisan support. The move is aimed at giving Texas more clout in the presidential election.

"Why should a state like New Hampshire or Iowa preclude Texas voters from having a bigger say in their party's nominee?" Berman asks.

The chairman favors a February primary even in non-presidential years to avoid confusing voters. He dismisses the notion that campaigning over the year-end holidays — and necessarily making for a shorter primary campaign — is a problem.

Berman also is concerned about voter fraud and the reliability of electronic voting machines.

His committee already has heard legislation to add a paper trail to the voting machines, a prospect Berman deems too expensive (unless Congress wants to pay for it) and is not the best solution to the human errors involved in programming and managing the machines.

"You probably shouldn't be buying something and attaching it to a machine no one has confidence in," he said.

Without action by Congress, Berman said, the Legislature should study the issue between now and the 2009 legislative session.

That makes Berman's colleague on the committee, Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, wince.

Burnam, who favors going back to paper ballots immediately, asks, "What price is democracy?"

The two also differ on the prospect of voter fraud in Texas.

Berman favors legislation requiring voters to produce photo identification at the polls.

"We don't know if illegal aliens are voting in Texas or not," Berman said. "But if we do nothing, we encourage fraud."

Burnam said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that the push for photo identification is a ploy to intimidate minority voters — as a national study by Rutgers and Ohio State university scholars suggested in research released last month.

"The problem is how my voters get turned away because their skin is too dark," said Burnam, who represents a district with a majority of minorities.

Berman dismissed the intimidation argument, saying photo identification is routinely required in daily life.

Although some lawmakers will be offering legislation to limit campaign donations by wealthy donors to $100,000 per election cycle, Berman said he's heard no complaints from his constituents or most members.

On the issue of legislative conduct, Berman said it "smells" that some lawmakers are using campaign donations to buy Austin homes in their spouses names. (Berman parks his motor home at Camp Mabry — a perk of being retired military — and said he wouldn't dream of using campaign money to buy his motor home.)

His most contentious issue, however, is likely to be Berman's quest to cut off state benefits to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled that the children are entitled education and health care.

"We're giving the children U.S. citizenship while (their parents) are breaking immigration law," Berman complained.

He admits he only has a 50-50 chance of passing legislation curbing state benefits and he know the law immediately would be challenged in federal court.

"That's exactly what we want!" Berman said.

He argues that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to apply only to the children of freed slaves. The more conservative U.S. Supreme Court, he believes, might reconsider the matter.

"If they go back and look at the law and the congressional record," Berman said, "it doesn't apply to foreigners."

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