Historic drive in Carson City


CARSON CITY

As Gov. Brian Sandoval prepared to put his pen to the official copy of Senate Bill 303 in the old Assembly chamber on the second floor of the Capitol Friday, he declared it “a very historic bill for the state of Nevada.”

And so it was.

The bill — carried primarily by Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, but co-sponsored by 32 other lawmakers of both political parties — would allow illegal immigrants to get “driver authorization cards.” The cards would require immigrant drivers to take a driving test, pay a fee and carry insurance, but couldn’t be used to obtain state benefits or as proof of identity under the federal REAL ID Act.

For Sandoval, Nevada’s first Hispanic governor, the bill is a public safety issue. Immigrants are driving now, often illegally and without insurance. The bill would take a stab at solving that problem.

But for Denis, the governor’s signing ceremony was the culmination of an eight-year battle to get a relatively modest proposal through a state Legislature that was at first unwilling to even hear it.

“It’s just an exciting day for our community, and I’m very proud to have been a part of it,” Denis said after briefly being overcome with emotion.

Some might wonder why: SB303 seems to be a relatively common-sense, straightforward solution to a problem that’s been left unsolved and unaddressed by the federal government despite years of trying.

Denis knows about years of trying: When he first introduced the idea, it didn’t go very far. “This is the kind of legislation we couldn’t even get a hearing on eight years ago,” Denis said.

But he persisted, kept getting re-elected and kept telling his constituents that voting matters. And on Friday, he proved it.

“This is the most important issue to the Latino community, when we go out there and say your vote really does make a difference,” said Denis, holding one of the pens Sandoval used to sign the bill. “This is a perfect example.”

It’s also an example of Denis’ preferred approach to legislating, which is patiently building a bipartisan consensus around an issue rather than engaging in bare-knuckled political knife fighting. To be sure, Republicans also attended the bill signing, including Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Henderson, and Assembly Minority Leader Pat Hickey, R-Reno. After the signing, Roberson, who has sparred with Denis in the media and on the Senate floor over other issues, strode up to his Senate colleague to give him a hearty embrace.

“You feel the moment in history that this is,” Hickey said.

Why? Because there’s still no shortage of people in Nevada who oppose giving people who entered this country illegally anything whatsoever. It’s more common in Nevada to see legislation that targets the immigrant community — denying state scholarships to immigrant children, for example — than legislation conferring a benefit. In order to pass SB 303, Republicans and Democrats had to stand up to that strong anti-illegal immigrant sentiment, something not without political risk. (A minority of 10 lawmakers — conservative Republicans all — still voted against SB 303.)

Of course, the bill does nothing to advance the cause of comprehensive immigration reform, or a pathway to American citizenship that many illegal immigrants seek. That proposal is being debated in Congress. But Denis says national efforts become easier as state lawmakers take action such as the driver authorization card.

“They [the public] are starting to see Latinos aren’t any different than anybody else,” Denis said. That is, they have to drop their kids off at school, run errands and pick up groceries, tasks that require driving. Immigrants who get legal permission to drive — and insurance — help everyone by bringing accident costs under control.

But in the end, it’s about more than that. It’s about an eight-year struggle that ended in a governor’s signature, and a struggle for recognition and respect that continues.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.