JEFFERSON CITY — A bill that would require driver's tests to be taken in English was sent to the House by a 5-4 partisan vote in the Rules Committee.
Republican lawmakers said the bill is a matter of public safety, not a discrimination tactic. Bill sponsor Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said the English requirement would make for safer drivers and decrease risk for emergency workers.
"If there is a mishap or a problem, it is important to be able to communicate with emergency workers and officers and such in a very timely basis," Nolte said.
Nolte said there are 320 languages spoken in the U.S. and that it is "unfathomable" to try to accommodate to all of them. Oklahoma encountered this problem when its Department of Public Safety refused to administer Iranian immigrants a driver's test in their native Farsi language. The state faced a lawsuit and has since dropped foreign language test options.
"The idea is we need to be able to communicate and assimilate people coming into this country," Nolte said.
Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake St. Louis, agreed and said it is an issue of public safety when drivers cannot speak English or read street signs.
"You know driving is a privilege and not a right," Gatschenberger said. "If it is important enough for (immigrants) to come here, then it is important enough for them to know the language."
Some Democrats charge that the bill will serve instead as a discrimination tactic.
Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, said the bill is "mean-spirited."
"I understand they are trying to say it is a public safety thing, but I don't buy that," said Meadows.
Meadows said the bill would discriminate against Missouri citizens and would penalize the people who are "here doing the right thing."
"We all came from somewhere. My parents came from Ireland and Germany," Meadows said. "I can only imagine how it would have been for them if something like this had been in place."
Meadows said the legislature should focus on laws that would punish illegal immigrants and not Missouri residents who are in the country legally.
"Let's not punish those who are here legally doing the right thing," Meadows said. "Let's punish those who are here illegally and those corporations who hire those people illegally."
Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said the bill would have a negative fiscal impact on the state. Colona said he predicts legal immigrants who cannot pass their driver's test might drive without insurance.
"At the end of the day, when you are encouraging people not to get a driver's license and not to get insurance, it will roll downhill and cost the state money in public assistance in the long run," he said.