A St. George lawmaker has put on hold a debate on an omnibus piece of immigration legislation as he continues to work to make it palatable to religious and business organizations.
Describing the planned changes to SB81 as "word-smithing here and there," Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, said he wants to make the bill "a really fine piece of legislation."
The Senate vote has been rescheduled for Thursday morning. The bill would create barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public benefits.
Lane Beattie, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said he's involved in an ongoing discussion with Hickman about potential support for SB81 but said "there would have to be changes."
The chamber is part of a coalition of business, nonprofit and religious groups that has endorsed another measure, SB97, which would create a task force to study the immigration issue.
"We believe a study is very, very positive," Beattie said. Still, he added, the chamber's support for SB81 is a possibility.
That possibility started, Beattie said, when Hickman amended the bill to remove "critical" provisions that would have repealed a law allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition and that would have required high rates of income-tax withholding for some employers.
Hickman pointed to tweaking a provision on who can be issued identification as an example of the changes he has in mind.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said Hickman has done a good job balancing compassion with the rule of law as he's crafted his legislation by "hitting at the core but rounding off the edges."
Valentine said that the bill likely has enough support to pass the Senate, but not a veto-proof majority.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "has expressed reservations about some legislation regarding immigration in their current form," and while meeting with Democratic lawmakers Tuesday said he'd contemplate vetoes, said Lisa Roskelley, the governor's spokeswoman. Specific details weren't discussed, she said, and the governor had indicated he hoped work would be done to make those bills useful legislation.
Hickman said he hoped the governor would "consider the fact that citizens of this state overwhelmingly want something done."
Hickman also said he's been working to satisfy the concerns of religious leaders, including those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To that end, Hickman said he plans to modify a provision creating a class A misdemeanor for harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants to ensure it doesn't prevent churches from performing their normal duties.
"It's always been my intent to mean harboring or transporting for commerical purposes ... not going to church or the grocery store," Hickman said.
The LDS Church hasn't met with Hickman and it hasn't taken a position on any specific immigration legislation, said church spokesman Robert Howell.
However, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy has urged lawmakers to take a "more thoughtful, factual, not to mention humane, approach" to immigration legislation. And Elder Russell M. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve has, as a member of the Alliance for Unity, opposed the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented college students. That provision has been removed from Hickman's bill but passed the House as a stand-alone measure, HB241, which now awaits a Senate hearing.
In a statement Tuesday, the church said that Ballard represents the LDS Church as a member of the Alliance for Unity.
"The alliance is a group of respected Utah civic, business and religious leaders," the statement said. "Under the alliance policies, its views are not binding on the institutions its members represent. The church has taken no position on HB241."
However, at least some supporters of the proposed task force say Hickman will be hard pressed to garner their support.
Pastor Steven Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church said he doubts Hickman's changes will garner his support, saying "the bill in itself is promoting a climate of fear."
Judi Hilman, executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, expressed concerns that SB81 could have unintended consequences when it comes to health care, such as preventing eligible U.S. citizens from obtaining public benefits.
"We should be sitting down and looking at longer-term solutions to these issues," Hilman said.
Thursday's debate will come after senators have time to consider comments made by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both R-Utah, who on Tuesday told lawmakers that comprehensive reform isn't likely any time soon.
"I doubt we'll be able to do much in this election year," Hatch said. And Bennett said it could be five years before the Congress again takes up the issue."That is absolutely frightening to me,"Hickman said. "The federal government is so neutered on this issue. ... That's the reason the states have picked this up, because we're frustrated over the inaction of our federal government."