License bill heads to House floor on 14-3 vote

3 panel members, including Sen. O'Connor, reserve their rights


FOR THE SECOND STRAIGHT session, a legislative committee advanced legislation with 14 votes in favor that would allow undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses.

This time, the bill appears certain to proceed beyond the committee stage to a vote in at least one chamber.

A day after House Speaker Ronald Mariano announced that he planned to bring the immigrant licensing bill to the floor next week, the Joint Transportation Committee favorably reported the bill with a 14-3 vote along party lines.

The three votes against pushing the bill forward came from the panel’s only House Republicans: Rep. David DeCoste of Norwell, Rep. Steven Howitt of Seekonk, and Rep. Norman Orrall of Lakeville.

A Mariano spokesperson, who provided the breakdown to the News Service, said 14 members of the panel voted in favor of advancing the bill while two others reserved their rights.

The spokesperson declined to identify the two members who opted against taking a position, citing House rules that call for House-specific panels to release only the names of lawmakers who vote in the negative alongside an aggregate total of how many voted in the affirmative or withheld their votes.

Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, the committee’s only Senate Republican, confirmed  he was one of the two lawmakers who reserved their rights.

O’Connor said he has “serious concerns with this policy in particular” and thinks it constitutes “weighing in on things that should be done at the federal level.” He said he often declines to take a position during committee polls on controversial bills.

“I wanted to continue to see the debate transpire,” O’Connor said. “The real vote that matters is what’s going to happen on the floor of the House or the floor of the Senate.”

The same trio of House Republicans and former Republican Sen. Dean Tran voted in the negative two years ago, when the Transportation Committee first advanced a similar version of the bill with a 14-4 vote. However, the legislation never emerged for a vote in either chamber in the 2019-2020 lawmaking session.

The Transportation Committee’s redrafted bill would allow residents without proof of lawful presence in the United States, including individuals ineligible for a Social Security number, to obtain a license if they have sufficient alternative documentation that proves their identity, date of birth, and residency in the Bay State.

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Supporters say the measure will improve public safety by ensuring that undocumented immigrants — many of whom might choose to drive today without a license — undergo proper road testing and education before getting behind the wheel.

Senate President Karen Spilka has previously voiced support for the proposal.

“I believe that for public safety reasons, even just if you look at it alone, we should pass it,” Spilka said in a September 2019 radio interview. “We have people that are driving — they’re going to keep driving — that don’t know the rules of the road. They have accidents. They run from them because they don’t have insurance. They don’t have a license, they’re afraid of being deported.”

“There’s like 14 other states that have done this and the sky hasn’t fallen,” Spilka added in that interview.

A majority of representatives and senators co-sponsored the original versions of the bill (H 3456 / S 2289), referred to as the Work and Family Mobility Act, though it remains unclear if Mariano will be able to line up enough votes to constitute the two-thirds majority needed to override a potential gubernatorial veto.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
Baker has said he opposes the push to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants, but has not publicly threatened to veto the bill.

Democrats wield supermajority margins in both chambers. The House — currently down to a total of 158 members due to two vacancies — has 128 Democrats, 29 Republicans and one independent, while the Senate has 37 Democrats and three Republicans.