CARSON CITY — State Sen. Mo Denis remembers driving into the parking lot of a pharmacy at Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road several years ago when he saw a speeding car slam into the back of a car at the stoplight.
“The man literally got out of the car and ran,” Denis said. “I wondered why that would be. And that got me to thinking.”
Denis said he realized that the driver who ran was not in the United States legally, and feared that even a minor fender-bender would result in his deportation.
Denis, the Democratic majority leader from Las Vegas, and Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, said that ever since they were freshmen legislators their constituents have pleaded for legislation allowing people who are in the country illegally to acquire legal driver’s licenses.
“I remember a constituent told me, ‘I just want to drive legally so I can take my kid to a store and not have a cop stop me and deport me,’ ” said Kihuen, the only Nevada legislator born in Mexico.
What they came up with was Senate Bill 303, a driver’s authorization card bill that is supported by the Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses and by Gov. Brian Sandoval.
The bill has been approved in the Senate Finance Committee, which reviewed its costs. The state would make money off the cards because 60,000 people are expected to acquire them the first year. People would pay $22 a year for the card, which could not be used for identification purposes.
Denis expressed confidence Wednesday that the bill, which should come up for a vote in the entire Senate this week, will become law by adjournment June 3.
Nevada then would become the fifth state — joining Utah, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington state — to issue driving authorization cards to people illegally in the country. New Mexico and Washington grant full-fledged licenses to everyone.
Utah last year issued 36,000 driving privilege cards, which require applicants to prove their identities through birth certificates, individual taxpayer identification numbers, utility bills, pay stubs, passports and consular identification cards from Mexico or other countries. Nevada’s law is patterned after Utah’s.
“You just can’t walk into the DMV and obtain it,” Kihuen said. “We want to be sure you are who you say you are.”
Brad Benefield, media relations director for the Washington State Department of Licensing, said his state always has issued driver’s licenses to everyone. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the concern over security, it was common for state DMVs to issue licenses to all applicants, he said.
Nanette Rolfe, director of Utah’s Driver License Division, agreed. She said that before 2005, licenses were issued to all, but now people with Social Security cards receive licenses while others are issued driver privilege cards.
She said her state had to hire two additional workers to start the privilege card program. The Nevada DMV anticipates hiring 14 more people.
In New Mexico there are regular attempts to repeal the decade-old driver’s license law.
Republican Gov. Susan Martinez has charged that people from all over the world are flocking to New Mexico to obtain driver’s licenses even though they have no intention of staying. Martinez wants a law similar to Utah’s.
PRIVILEGE CARDS A COMPROMISE
Kihuen said he prefers full-fledged driver’s licenses for everyone, but that would not have gained the support of Sandoval and Republicans. So they agreed on a Utah-style approach.
As a member of a National Conference of State Legislature’s immigration committee, Denis met Utah Sen. Curt Bramble, who helped draw up the Utah driving privilege law. Bramble testified about the law at a committee meeting in Carson City.
Denis estimates about 60,000 people in Nevada will obtain the authorization cards in the first year after the program starts in 2014. That’s thought to be about half the number of people living in the state illegally who are of driving age.
The bill has no penalties for driving without a card.
Denis and Kihuen said the program will lead to safer roads and lower-cost insurance for all while showing that Nevada needed to act on immigration problems because of Congress’ inability to act.
The selling point is that Nevadans would be safer if people who are in the country illegally have to pass both written and driving tests to get an authorization card — and then buy liability insurance for the cars they own.
In Utah, studies show from 76 percent to 82 percent of the motorists with privilege cards also obtain auto insurance.
“This will help Nevada,” Denis said. “We will have safety on the roads and ultimately it will help the economy.”
“If they hit your car now, you pay the damage and our insurance rates go up,” Kihuen said. “But if they have an authorization card and cause an accident, their insurance covers the accident.”
At the same time, he expects card recipients will take more pride in the cars they purchase, buy newer cars and keep up with repairs. That will bring money into the economy.
Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, was the only senator to vote no on the driver authorization card bill when it passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Gustavson said he agrees the bill would lead to safer roads, but the “overwhelming” majority of his constituents oppose what they consider a special break to people who should not be in the United States in the first place.
Fellow conservative Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said she will support the bill because with more insured drivers on the road, there will be fewer accidents and insurance rates will drop.
But motorists counting on lower auto insurance rates should think again.
“The costs of auto repairs and other things factor in what the rates are,” said Nicole Mahrt, the director of public affairs for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “It is too difficult to make the conclusion that rates automatically will fall.”
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.