ALBANY — The lobby for New York's business leaders has embraced a proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to acquire state driver's licenses, contending it will improve highway safety and result in more motorists being properly insured.

The Business Council of New York is known more for speaking out on measures that have an impact on New York's tax climate than taking a stand on social issues.

But the council's president, Heather Briccetti, explained that the so-called "Green Light" legislation "sends a signal to Washington that comprehensive immigration reform is a necessary business issue."

She also said that allowing immigrants in the country illegally to qualify for licenses is "the right and decent thing to do."

REVISED BILL

While a Siena College poll earlier this year showed that 61 percent of New York voters oppose the legislation, advocates contend the state's mood has shifted since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer ignited a storm of controversy in 2007 by pushing to allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses.

State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-the Bronx, a prime sponsor of the measure, said this week he believes there is now enough support in his chamber to get the bill approved.

He and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, D-the Bronx, said the bill has been revised to address objections from police executives who have been concerned that the initial legislation restricted law enforcement from accessing information in the state motor vehicle data base.

"It was never the intention to interfere with local law enforcement’s common practice to enforce traffic laws," Crespo said.

OUTSPOKEN CLERKS

But Peter Kehoe, director of the New York Sheriffs Association, told CNHI his organization is concerned about language in the bill that appears to limit the ability of police officers to review motor vehicle records. He said he hopes to urge further revisions when he has conversations with lawmakers.

"We're not opposed to the concept as long as law enforcement is not hampered in its duties," Kehoe said.

The State Association of County Clerks is expected to register its views on the legislation within the coming week. Several clerks have been outspoken in opposing the legislation, including Joseph Jastrzemski of Niagara County, John Zurlo of Clinton County and Kathy Sinnott-Gardner of Otsego County.

Jastrzemski said Thursday he views the legislation as "unconstitutional."

Motor vehicle departments operated by county governments would be required to process the license and registration applications from undocumented immigrants, just as state-run DMV offices would.

PROGRESSIVE LEANINGS

Nevertheless, the measure has picked up public support in pockets of upstate, notably in Ulster and Tompkins counties, both known for having progressive leanings on national immigration issues.

One of the state's most prominent voices in support of the measure, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, had been a vociferous opponent 12 years ago when Spitzer promoted the idea.

Undocumented immigrants already qualify for driver's licenses in 12 other states and Washington, D.C.

New York advocates predict the state will generate some $26 million in new revenue and will see a decrease in hit-and-run incidents if immigrants are allowed to get licenses as well as insurance for their vehicles.

FOR UPSTATERS

New York has an estimated 750,000 undocumented immigrants over the age of 16, most of them residents of the New York City area, which has a robust public transportation system.

With the legislative session heading into its final three weeks, advocates are contending there is a great need for expanding license eligibility so upstate immigrants can drive to their jobs and get groceries for their families.

Many of the immigrants are farm laborers. The State Farm Bureau has stayed on the sidelines during the current debate.

Email Joe Mahoney:

jmahoney@cnhi.com

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