House representatives will decide today whether driver's license tests should only be given in English.
Similar legislation was introduced in 2009 and 2010, and this year's vote could set the tone for illegal immigration debates for the 2011 legislative session.
Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, introduced House Bill 72 on Jan. 25, and it passed through the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee with an 8-2 vote Thursday. After it passed through the Rules Committee on Monday, the bill goes to the House floor today.
"With some road signs going digital, it's no longer just look at a symbol and understand what it means," Mills said. "You need to be able to understand the digital readouts going over your head."
The bill would require permanent residents to take driver's license exams in English, and temporary residents can still take the test in 14 different languages for 10 years. The road sign test is currently given in English.
Mills supported similar legislation last year, Senate Bill 67, which passed the House and Senate but "ran out of time" and didn't make it to the governor's desk for a signature.
"There was a minor disagreement about one of the clauses, and it didn't get defeated but ran out of time," he said. "Many people believe it was defeated, but it was not."
This year's bill was also sponsored by Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, chairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Calvin Hill, R-Canton, and Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas. If the House approves the bill, it heads to the Senate for review.
The legislation faces opposition from several advocacy groups that say the bill will hurt economic development efforts to attract foreign business and investors.
"Asian Americans are an integral part of our state, both socially and economically," said Helen Kim Ho, executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center in Georgia. "Our business and community leaders are united against such a bill because limited-English proficient Asian American citizens and legal residents of Georgia stand to hurt the most if HB 72 is passed."
During the 2010 legislative session, more than 40 business associations, Chambers of Commerce, advocacy and social services groups signed a joint news release urging the legislature not to pass SB 67. Several groups are joining forces again to protest this year's bill.
"While we are in the throes of one of the worst
economies ever, and in the face of a $1.3 billion state budget shortfall, we need our legislators to focus on proposing laws that will help and not hurt jobs and our economy," Ho said.
"Asian American leaders are particularly concerned about the growing anti-immigrant image of Georgia and the inevitable impact that this image will have on our state's ability to attract, recruit and retain Asian foreign business development."
Mills and other supporters say the bill would back up the General Assembly's move in 1996 to make English the official language of Georgia.
"Georgia must strengthen its official English law because Georgia foolishly allows state driver's license exams to be given in 14 different languages," said ProEnglish board member Phil Kent of Atlanta. "Not only is this a violation of Georgia's official English-in-government law, but it poses a clear safety hazard to Georgia motorists."