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Driver's License Bill Clears Legislature but Faces Veto

August 28, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Rushing to end their 2004 session, lawmakers defiantly ignored Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's objections Friday and voted to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who pass a criminal background check.

The California Senate narrowly passed the measure, 21 to 14, and the Assembly followed, 42 to 35. The bill now goes to the governor, whose aides said Friday night he would veto it despite new provisions that Democrats promised would prevent criminals and potential terrorists from misusing the documents.

"This bill meets every expectation, every concern that the governor raised," said Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the measure's author. "We've met it, and we expect that he's going to be honorable and honor his word."

The passage came a year after Democratic lawmakers enacted a similar law -- only to repeal it after Schwarzenegger spoke against the law during the campaign to recall former Gov. Gray Davis. Despite changes, the bill still does not satisfy the governor.

During Friday's impassioned debate, which echoed last year's fight, Republicans said the issue had been resurrected as a partisan whack at Schwarzenegger. "This is just a take-it-or-leave-it to the governor and you are going to say he broke his word," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta).

Schwarzenegger and Democrats had spent the entire session talking about a palatable compromise on the politically charged topic. But negotiations proved fruitless as the two sides could not agree on whether there should be a visible symbol on licenses identifying the holder as a noncitizen.

"The only option is to have a distinguishing characteristic to make sure a license can't be used as identification but can be used as a document to drive," said Margita Thompson, the governor's press secretary. "And therefore the governor can't support this legislation, because national security is of paramount concern."

As they sought to wrap up the year's business, rushing through hundreds of bills -- including a plan Schwarzenegger opposes that would allow electricity companies to build more power plants -- lawmakers briefly put aside partisan differences to commemorate retiring colleagues, who included the last class of senators who preceded the era of term limits.

Schwarzenegger showed up in the Senate chamber -- something governors almost never do -- to honor retiring lawmakers.

"My father-in-law says to me always, being a public servant is the greatest profession you can have," Schwarzenegger told them, referring to Sargent Shriver. "He's right. I have learned that in the last nine months I have been here in office. I think about all the work you have done over the years; it's extraordinary."

Schwarzenegger singled out the chief Democratic negotiator, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), by saying: "He treated me with such kindness, and also explained to me how things worked. So he was kind of like a teacher and also like an adversary in some cases too."

Schwarzenegger gave Burton a jacket and a film script titled "Into the Bleeping Sunset," an allusion to the Senate leader's frequent interjections of off-color language. "Gotta love him," Burton said as Schwarzenegger left the room.

But the bipartisan warmth quickly dissipated when the driver's license bill came up a few hours later, providing a divisive conclusion to Schwarzenegger's first legislative session.

Friday's vote represented the latest turn in an issue that tapped into the consuming California topic of illegal immigration. After twice vetoing such measures, then-Gov. Davis last year agreed to extend driving privileges to illegal immigrants.

Schwarzenegger seized on the issue during the recall campaign, and after his victory the Legislature reluctantly agreed to repeal the law in December rather than risk having it voided by a ballot initiative.

Schwarzenegger said then that he looked "forward to working" with lawmakers "in January during the regular legislative session to find a sensible solution to this issue," one "that's tied to background checks and all that."

In May, Cedillo offered a proposal that contained the key elements of the plan the Legislature approved Friday.

Unlike last year's law, the revised measure would require illegal immigrants to pay the cost of fingerprint background checks and the license, totaling $141.

Cedillo also included a number of efforts intended to be conciliatory toward critics who said having licenses would make undocumented immigrants think they could serve on juries, vote or buy a gun: The bill would ensure that the names of illegal immigrants not be sent to court clerks for jury pools, and would provide all licensees with a form underscoring the prohibitions.

Schwarzenegger's alternative of a special mark on the licenses was rebuffed by Latino lawmakers, who said it would encourage discrimination and mistreatment, and was akin to the yellow stars the Nazis made Jews wear.

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