SACRAMENTO — A compromise bill that would enable illegal immigrants to acquire a California driver's license -- but also charge all motorists an estimated $330 million a year in higher license fees -- shot through a pivotal Assembly committee Wednesday without discussion or public testimony.
On a 16-to-7 party-line vote, majority Democrats on the Appropriations Committee overwhelmed Republicans to send the proposal to the full Assembly for a vote, expected as early as today.
The Senate was braced to do the same and forward the bill to Gov. Gray Davis.
Davis, who had vetoed two similar versions of the bill by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) at past sessions, did an about-face and announced last month at a rally held to oppose the Oct. 7 recall election that he would happily sign the latest bill.
The reversal caught even Cedillo by surprise.
But how the program would be financed received virtually no public discussion, especially the proposed fee increases on all drivers, some of which would double to raise $160 million in the first six months of next year and approximately $330 million each full year thereafter.
Cedillo called the proposed fee increases a "very modest cost" that would make California's streets and highways safer and give citizens a greater "sense of security." According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, effective Jan. 1, the cost of a first-time driver's license for passenger car operators would go from $12 to $24. Renewals would be boosted from $15 to $24. The cost of duplicate licenses would be raised from $12 to $19, and state identification cards would go from $6 to $20.
Unlike tax increases, which must be approved by at least two-thirds of the Legislature, fee increases can be enacted by a majority vote. This means Democrats could pass them without votes from minority Republicans.
At previous sessions of the Legislature, leading police chiefs and sheriffs -- close allies of Davis -- had opposed the license bills as a threat to public safety. They noted that some terrorists in the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, were licensed drivers in this country.
But sources said the deal came together when Davis, at the urging of Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, inserted into the driver's license bill a long-sought high-tech fingerprinting system that officials said would instantly detect fraudulent license applicants, whether they were legal or illegal residents. The system also would provide a vast new databank of motorist information that would give police a new tool to track down drivers who commit crimes.
Davis originally proposed the fee hikes in his state budget bill in January.
At the time, they were advertised as a way to help ease the state's fiscal crisis by beefing up the severely weakened motor vehicle account. However, DMV and legislative sources said the proposed fee increases would now be shifted to financing the proposed fingerprinting system.
The proposed fee increases are included in a separate bill that is pending in the Senate. Although the measures are not formally linked, Cedillo and Chairman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) of the Assembly Appropriations Committee said an agreement had been reached to finance both the driver's license program and the fingerprinting system with increased license fees.
Cedillo said he believed that drivers would accept higher license fees as a reasonable price to pay for safer highways and a new databank for law enforcement purposes.
The Department of Motor Vehicles last ordered a general driver's license fee increase in 1992, from $10 to $12 for a first-time license, a spokesman said.
Opponents of the driver's license bill, including those demanding a tighter California-Mexico international border, argued that to allow people who are in this country illegally to get a driver's license merely would reward lawless behavior and cheapen the credibility of the California license.
But it was somewhat of a surprise that a bill that had been so extensively amended did not get a full hearing in the Appropriations Committee. It was brought up as the last item of business from a long agenda and approved without discussion or testimony from members of the public who might be affected by the bill.
In response to reporters' questions, Steinberg at first defended the procedure as necessary to meet the demands of Davis administration officials who were pressing for immediate action. Later, he agreed that the issue should have been given a more thorough public airing.