Panel OKs Repeal of License Law

Times Staff Writer

The Assembly took its first step Tuesday toward fulfilling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's demand that the Legislature repeal an unpopular law that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

The Assembly Transportation Committee voted 15 to 0 to pass two identical bills that would repeal the law that former Gov. Gray Davis signed in September in the midst of a campaign to recall him from office.

The full Senate voted 33 to 0 Monday to repeal the law, and the full Assembly is expected to take final action on a repeal next week.

Within minutes of being sworn in as governor last week, Schwarzenegger called the Legislature into special session to prevent the law, which would allow people to get driver's licenses even if they lacked a Social Security number, from taking effect in January. Polls show that a strong majority of Californians oppose the law, and Schwarzenegger has complained that it could allow terrorists and fugitives to obtain licenses.

The votes to repeal are an unusual about-face for Democrats, who dominate the Legislature. Just a few weeks ago, many had supported the bill, SB 60, by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). Cedillo has worked since 1998 to write a law that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses -- and promised his wife before her death last year that he would finally succeed. But on Tuesday, Cedillo asked the Assembly committee to repeal his hard-fought law.

"Personally and politically, this is not an easy thing to do," Cedillo said.

But he promised to return in January with a new bill containing security measures supported by Schwarzenegger.

"The governor and I have made a commitment to passing a law to license all drivers," Cedillo told the Transportation Committee.

He later elaborated that he and Schwarzenegger have not discussed any details, but that the governor has promised an open discussion about the issue.

Cedillo's law is now the target of a Republican-led referendum campaign, with signatures being gathered to ask voters in March to overturn the law. Cedillo said it was not likely the law would survive a referendum.

"There'd be no value in validating its unpopularity in the spring," he said.

Assembly member John Dutra (D-Fremont), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, told Cedillo, "I assure you, sir, that if it wasn't for your presence here asking for our cooperation in repeal of this bill, we would not do it."

He and six other Democrats on the committee who had voted in June to pass SB 60 voted Tuesday for a bill by Sen. Rico Oller (R-San Andreas) to repeal it: Patty Berg of Eureka, Christine Kehoe of San Diego, Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge, George Nakano of Torrance, Nicole Parra of Hanford and Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills.

Several other Democrats either missed the vote or abstained from voting on the Oller bill: Wilma Chan of Alameda, Judy Chu of Monterey Park, John Longville of Rialto, Jenny Oropeza of Long Beach and Simon Salinas of Salinas.

Republicans had originally rejected Cedillo's bill, and on Tuesday they endorsed both the Oller bill and an identical version by Assembly member John Benoit (R-Palm Desert).

Longville said he would have voted to repeal SB 60 if Cedillo had won a commitment from Republicans in the Legislature, not just the Republican governor, that they would consider a replacement bill.

He said he still believes the arguments against the Cedillo bill lack much merit.

But, Longville said, "I'd be willing to go along with a compromise, because I've discovered I'm not always right.... When there's overwhelming disagreement, I'm willing to compromise a little."

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