English-only Driver Tests Proposed
Hank Shaw, Pioneer Press, twincities.com, Apr. 6
Driving tests in Minnesota would be given only in English under a Republican-backed proposal that drew nearly two hours of testy debate on the House floor Monday.
Minnesota currently offers the written driving test in English, Spanish, Hmong, Russian, Vietnamese and Somali, but an amendment to this year’s transportation bill sponsored by Marshall Republican Marty Seifert would change that.
Seifert’s proposal came as a surprise because he had not sponsored a bill on the topic, nor was it heard in committee. Seifert said he decided to offer the amendment after he received an e-mail on the subject Thursday.
Democrat-Farmer-Labor lawmakers cried foul, calling the idea un-American, anti-immigrant, anti-business — many employers rely on drivers who haven’t mastered English — and a horrible legislative precedent.
Seifert said limiting the tests to English would save money and reduce the number of accidents on the roads. He did not provide evidence to support this, nor has the state Finance Department had the chance to determine if it would cost or save any money.
The idea of limiting drivers only to those who can read and write in English isn’t new. Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna proposed the measure last year, and a Mexican immigrant fought Alabama’s English-only driving law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001.
The immigrant lost that case when the high court ruled that only the federal government, not an individual, could sue the state for discrimination.
Several other states, including Utah and Arizona, also have English-only driver’s tests. Oklahoma did until this year, but added Spanish because too many non-English speakers were driving without licenses.
Minnesota should learn from that experience, said St. Paul DFLer Carlos Mariani. “This is totally counterproductive,” he said.
Minneapolis DFLer Karen Clark pointed out that Minnesota’s multilingual tradition dates back at least to 1862, when the state printed its laws in English, German, Swedish and Norwegian.
“We don’t want to turn away from that proud tradition,” Clark said.
Willmar DFLer Al Juhnke said the proposal would hurt business for the farmers in his area, who hire workers with limited English skills to drive trucks and other farm equipment.
But Rochester Republican Bill Kuisle said modern drivers need advanced English skills so they can read the scrolling electronic message boards around construction zones and in bad weather situations.
“The times are a-changing,” Kuisle said. “I hope this doesn’t get into a racial thing, and maybe Representative Seifert’s amendment goes too far, but we need to address the issue with the changing technology out there.” According to the state Public Safety Department, Minnesota drivers who take the written test in other languages still must understand basic English for their road tests because their instructors give them directions in English.
Mariani and House Minority Leader Matt Entenza suggested the Republicans were developing a disturbing trend of policies harmful to immigrants and minorities, such as a proposal Seifert offered last week that cut more than $20 million in desegregation money from St. Paul and Minneapolis schools.
“This is an election tactic to divide people,” Mariani said. “This is about race and language and immigrants — bad stuff comes from this.”
As the debate extended into the late afternoon, several DFLers tried to end the day’s session so Jewish members could leave for Passover. The moves failed, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum accused them of filibustering to delay a vote on the matter.
Entenza later admitted as much, saying he did not want to let the GOP slip in both the English-only proposal — as well as another amendment that would privatize the Metro Transit bus service — without a full hearing.
Debate is scheduled to continue at 8 a.m. Wednesday.