On a collision course over drivers' licences

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2007, 12:00am

New York

New York governor Eliot Spitzer made a promise when campaigning last year. He told immigrants he would allow them to apply for a driver's licence regardless of whether they were in the state illegally.

The gift was unwrapped last month when Mr Spitzer launched a policy that allows licence applicants to provide foreign identification, such as a passport or a birth certificate, instead of a social security card.

This is good news for the 152,000 people in the state who have been unable to renew their licences since 2003, when former governor George Pataki made the social security card a must, and to many more who haven't had a chance to apply for a licence for the first time.

But at a time when immigration and security are hot-button issues, the new policy has ignited a major controversy. Supporters think it will bring the undocumented community out of the shadows and make the roads safer. Opponents fear it will burn a hole in the public safety net and send a welcome note to illegal immigrants.

A recent poll showed 72 per cent of New York voters oppose the policy. The same poll showed the number of people who take a negative view of the governor's overall performance had risen to 36 per cent. This compares with 10 per cent when he took office.

'Spitzer is taking a very unpopular position,' said Henry Stern, president of New York Civic, a legislation consulting organisation. 'If I were him, I wouldn't make that move at this time when I'm having such a bad term with the legislature. It's not strategically wise.'

It certainly has been a difficult early period in office for Mr Spitzer. As state attorney general, he got major investment banks and other financial firms to refund millions of dollars to investors for various fraudulent or conflicted practices.

He took over as governor with a resolve to clean up the notoriously dysfunctional capital, Albany, where backroom dealing and wrestling between the governor, State Assembly Speaker and State Senate leader thwart progress.

'From day one, everything changes,' Mr Spitzer vowed on New Year's Day, when he was sworn in.

But the game rules in Albany are nothing like those on Wall Street. Ten months later, Mr Spitzer's 'day one' pledge has become a punch line in sarcastic pieces in the press. He has lost battle after battle to Democrat Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno.

'A spoiled rich kid throwing a statewide tantrum,' Mr Bruno once said of Mr Spitzer.

The battle got nastier this summer when, in an action Mr Bruno called 'political espionage', Mr Spitzer's staff were found to be improperly using police resources to collect information on Mr Bruno's use of state helicopters and then disclosing it to the media. It turned out that Mr Bruno hadn't crossed the ethical line, and a red-faced Mr Spitzer had to apologise.

The driver's licence policy has created a new battlefront.

'The policy gives a perfect opportunity for Bruno to go after him,' said Jeff Stonecase, political science professor at Syracuse University.

The Assembly Republicans have threatened to sue the governor if the policy is implemented next month. The Senate has indicated it will strangle the plan by withholding crucial funding.

The serious questions in the debate - like whether giving undocumented immigrants the chance to drive legally makes Americans more vulnerable to terrorism - are likely to get buried in a power struggle that is as much about personalities as politics.