Georgia business groups speak out against state legislation

Georgia’s business community is raising concerns about a pair of measures that would restrict who may get state driver’s licenses and how they may get them.

This is at least the second time Georgia business groups have spoken out this week about controversial state legislation.

Legislation that critics feared would let businesses discriminate against gays — by citing religious beliefs — appeared to founder this week after meeting opposition from the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Now attracting scrutiny is Senate Resolution 1031, which proposes to amend the state constitution and make English Georgia’s official language. SR 1031 would also require that the state’s driver’s license tests be given only in English. The state now offers its road rules tests in 11 other languages.

In issuing its statement about SR 1031, the Metro Atlanta Chamber said foreign investment and international trade have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in Georgia and pumped billions of dollars into the state’s economy.

“Our members believe administering Georgia driver’s license exams in multiple languages is key to ensuring that international investors, students, diplomats, and other guests can safely understand and obey our traffic laws as they work and study in our state,” the chamber stated in response to questions about the measure from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Also pending in the state Legislature is Senate Bill 404, which would ban Georgia driver’s licenses for people who don’t have legal status in the U.S. but who have been granted “deferred action” for humanitarian reasons. Deferred Action lets people temporarily remain and work legally in the U.S. Among those who are eligible for this relief are children who were illegally brought to the U.S., parents with seriously ill children, battered spouses and other crime victims.

The Georgia Restaurant Association said it is “critically important” for most deferred action recipients to get driver’s licenses.

“We feel that this not only facilitates their ability to work, support and care for their families, but to serve the public interest in having trained, tested and insured drivers on the road,” the association said in response to questions from the AJC about the bill.

SB 404 and SR 1031 did not make it on the Senate’s agenda for Monday, or Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to pass in at least one chamber. That has opponents claiming victory. But the chief sponsors are not giving up hope. Senate leaders could decide to add them later to Monday’s agenda or tack them onto other bills, they said.

Sen. Bill Heath, a Republican from Bremen and SB 404’s chief sponsor, took aim at Washington, saying “it is the federal government’s responsibility to provide national security and seal our borders against invasion by undocumented aliens whose intentions in this land are unknown.”

“While there are many unjustified federal programs, national security is not one of them and Georgia must step up to fill that gap when the federal government fails our citizens,” Heath said in a prepared statement by email.

Critics are predicting Georgia will find itself in a legal thicket if the state enacts Heath’s bill. After instituting similar driver’s license bans, Arizona and Nebraska became embroiled in lawsuits brought by civil and immigrant rights groups. Both cases are still pending.

It’s unclear precisely how many people SB 404 would affect in Georgia.

But 10,882 people who have received deferred action through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have applied for Georgia driver’s licenses and state ID cards since 2012, according to the state Driver Services Department. The state agency wasn’t able to immediately say how many of them were approved.

People on both sides of the debate should recognize those who have been granted deferred action are legally present in the U.S., said Michael Olivas, who teaches immigration law at the University of Houston.

“It actually transforms their legal status from being unauthorized to being lawfully present,” said Olivas, a board member with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, is sponsoring SR 1031. His proposed constitutional amendment would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber before it could be placed on the ballot for voter approval. State law already makes English Georgia’s official language, though the code permits government agencies to issue forms in other languages.

“If it comes to the (Senate) floor, it will pass overwhelmingly,” Balfour predicted about his measure. “And if it goes before the people, 75 percent to 80 percent of the people will vote for it.”

Hala Moddelmog, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said her group has been speaking out in keeping with its agenda against bills “that threaten our reputation as a global hub for business.”

“We have also worked each year against measures that do little to improve safety or security but send a negative message to the international business community,” Moddelmog said in a prepared statement. “We do so to protect the growing contribution global commerce means to our economy.”

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