JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that would require driver's license tests to be administered only in English and eliminate versions currently offered in 11 other languages.
Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, who sponsored the measure, said all drivers need to understand English to be able to read road signs and follow driving laws.
But critics said the legislation could discriminate against new legal immigrants who have not yet mastered English because driver's licenses are used for many other purposes, such as voting or getting a job.
In addition to English, Missouri currently administers driver's license exams in Bosnian, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Given first-round House approval by a voice vote, the legislation would allow tests only in English or American Sign Language. The bill needs one more House vote before going to the Senate.
Nolte said that, under the current system, the state could face lawsuits alleging that it favors one language over another in only offering the test in 12 languages. He cited a 2007 case in which an Iranian couple had accused the state of Oklahoma of discrimination because it did not provide them a license exam in their native Farsi.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Civil Rights ruled in April 2010 that the Oklahoma case was not one of discrimination on the basis of national origin.
An estimate included with Nolte's legislation projects that the state will save about $52,000 in the coming fiscal year by eliminating printed versions of tests in 11 languages and computerized versions in seven of the languages.
Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, said drivers should learn English as part of their transition to American culture.
"Driving is a privilege, not a right," Parkinson said. "Part of that privilege is to take the test in English."
Some lawmakers said non-English speakers would still drive cars, even if they couldn't pass a test in English. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said other licensed drivers wouldn't be able to recover damages from immigrant drivers without a license because they also wouldn't have insurance.
"The question really is: How much of your constituents' money do you really want to put at stake?" Kelly asked.
"I'm concerned that this bill would be an effective disenfranchisement of other people from all over the world," said Rep. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis.
Sifton said his district has a high concentration of Bosnian immigrants, some of whom are still learning English.
Nolte said that legal immigrants should understand English well enough to pass the license test because he said they would need to learn it to pass the U.S. citizenship exam.
Democrats emphasized the legislation's potential economic impact as well. Republicans, who largely supported Nolte's bill, have said drawing businesses to the state is a key part of the state's economic recovery.
Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, said the legislation approved Wednesday might discourage businesses from moving to the state if they bring foreign workers with them.
"When Missouri shows its bigotry so plainly on its House floor, it doesn't do anything to attract more jobs," she said.