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Business Council backs controversial immigrant driver's license bill

ALBANY – The state’s largest business lobbying group today is coming out in support of New York granting driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

The Business Council of New York State, which represents companies that employ a total of 1.2 million people in the state, is among the organizations backing the so-called Green Light legislation.

“It’s pretty basic. It’s that we think it’s a good idea for people to have a driving test before they drive and the license itself provides an opportunity to have insurance and their cars properly registered," Heather Briccetti, the Business Council’s president, said in an interview this morning.

It’s unusual for the business group to get involved in social justice causes at the Capitol, but Briccetti said the issue caused no internal controversy because the Green Light bill is not a part of a pathway to citizenship.

Briccetti said the group’s interest in the issue is also not about employment matters. Some supporters have said allowing immigrants to get driver’s licenses will benefit employers, such as farmers, that have hired people in the country illegally.

“This is just an interim step in my mind. At least we can ensure that people who are driving are subject to a test and can now get tickets, have points applied to a license or be suspended. … It would, at least, reduce to some degree (the number of) uninsured drivers," Briccetti said.

Briccetti said some of the council’s insurance company members might benefit from the legislation by having more insured drivers, but just marginally. “It’s not a huge windfall," she said of added revenues for insurers.

“I know it’s controversial, but it is a relatively modest proposal," she said of the legislation.

Asked if the Business Council’s support on this issue might help it win over some legislators on other policy fights it is engaged in at the Capitol near the end of the 2019 session, Briccetti said: “I think, sadly, probably not.”

The group is pushing against efforts to enact a single payer health insurance system and a measure to require companies to pay local prevailing wage levels – which are often higher – to construction workers on private projects that receive any kind of public financial incentives.

The Business Council has 2,400 member companies across the state, as well as local chambers of commerce and trade associations.

"The Business Council's support of the Green Light legislation shows that as many of New York's businesses rely on immigrants to fuel their workforce, it only makes sense that in areas like upstate where mass transit is not a convenient option, we must make it easier for hard-working immigrants to get to their jobs,'' said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer began an effort to let immigrants in the state illegally obtain driver’s licenses. The idea was dropped two months later under intense opposition from some law enforcement groups and county clerks, who fought Spitzer’s efforts at local DMV offices run by the clerks.

Some county clerks, sheriffs and others are pushing back against the new driver’s license plan. Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns has said he won’t process license applications from people who immigrated to the United States illegally.

Twelve other states and Washington, D.C., allow such immigrants to get driver’s licenses. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the pending license bill is one of his 10 priority issues he wants the Legislature to resolve before the session ends on June 19.

Advocates for the license bill acknowledged the Business Council’s decision to enter the immigration-related battle comes at a key time at the Capitol. “There is no more that we can do. We’ve done everything possible," State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said of efforts to address various concerns raised about the legislation.

Paul Vukelic, president of Try-It Distributing, a beer, spirits, wine and nonalcoholic beverage distributing company based in Lancaster with business in 30 upstate counties, said Wednesday he supports the bill for reasons similar to the Business Council. Vukelic is also vice chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

“I certainly don’t want people driving that don’t have licenses or haven’t been properly trained to drive," said Vukelic, who estimated he’s got 500 employees on the road each day distributing beverage products.

“For me, it’s really a safety issue for my people being on the road," he said. His company does not employ immigrants without the necessary immigration documents, but Vukelic said the issue is particularly important in upstate communities where public transportation is far less comprehensive than in New York City.

Advocates say about 265,000 people would apply for driver’s licenses if the bill is passed. They have also estimated, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, an Albany-based left-leaning think tank, that the state would bring in $57 million in additional licensing and registration fees.

But the bill’s detractors – whose many concerns include letting such immigrants obtain licenses with less documentation than citizens now must show – dismissed the Business Council’s involvement in the matter. State Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, took to Twitter soon after news about the group's involvement began spreading at the Capitol.

“Over 60% of New Yorkers oppose giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. The Business as usual Council comes out in support of it. The Albany establishment at its finest," Ortt wrote.

In a later statement, Ortt said New York is one of the nation's least business-friendly states – fueled by taxes, regulations and affordability issues and not because of a lack of drivers licenses for immigrants living in the state illegally. "Their support of this regressive dogma is not surprising – it only highlights that they are beholden to the politicians in charge, not the hard-working business owners of this state,'' Ortt said.

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