Senate President Michael Waddoups said Thursday he was “surprised” a bill seeking to repeal Utah’s driving privilege card for undocumented immigrants passed out of a committee and is eligible to be debated on the Senate floor.
It was an unexpected development given that earlier this week, House leadership smothered a bill to replace the state’s guest-worker law and another that would have imposed harsh sanctions on employers hiring undocumented immigrants.
The sponsor of the driver privilege card repeal, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said he held out little hope that SB170 would go anywhere after his other measure to do a straight repeal of Utah’s guest-worker law was killed in committee two weeks ago.
His presentation to the committee Wednesday — the last day for committee hearings — lasted less than 30 seconds.
“They knew the bill,” he said later. “We did this last year.”
The driving privilege card was passed in 2005 and allows undocumented immigrants to legally drive in the state. It was steered through by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who argued it was a safety measure by allowing people who would be driving anyway to obtain auto insurance.
But Urquhart said the existence of a driving privilege card makes Utah a magnet for illegal immigration.
“So it comes to the floor and I think we’re going to have a good debate on it,” Urquhart said. “And I will work it hard.”
But the proposal has big hurdles to overcome, and Waddoups was unequivocal in his view of what should happen to it.
“So far, I have no inclination at all to think [the driving privilege card] should be repealed,” Waddoups said.
The bill’s advance to the floor caught others off guard, too.
Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, was so sure the measure was dead, he didn’t even bother sending out an email to his usual listserve letting them know about the hearing.
And it was a last-minute decision for him to attend, having looked at the makeup of the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee and noted that each member had last year voted in favor of HB116, the guest-worker bill.
“I figured it had no chance,” Mortensen said. “It was at the bottom of the list and I didn’t think they’d even get to it.”
In fact, the committee was dangerously close to losing its quorum when Urquhart made his presentation.
With just three of the five members remaining, Urquhart said he was still convinced it was going down.
But Sens. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, and Stuart Adams, R-Layton, defied conventional wisdom and it passed 2-1, although Knudson said he most likely would vote against it on the floor.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, is a member of the committee, but was absent when Urquhart’s bill came up. He was surprised at the outcome.
“I guess that shows you that, as hard as we try, we don’t always have our hand on the pulse of our body and the individuality of it,” Jenkins said. “You try to read people’s minds and ... you take your best guess.”
Even if it wins approval in the full Senate, SB170 would still have to clear the House, which has shut down immigration reform bills for the session.