The Missouri House endorsed legislation Monday that would require driver's license tests to be administered only in English and would restrict interpreters for those who have trouble understanding the language.
The House's 91-59 vote marks the second year in a row that the body has backed such legislation. Debate on this year's measure mirrored that of last year's proposal, which died in the Senate.
Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, who sponsored the measure, said he is trying to bring the license exam law "into line" with the state constitution.
Voters approved a 2008 amendment to the constitution to make English the official language of state proceedings, but not necessarily the state's official language.
"I think that a lot of people thought (English) should be the official language of everything the state does," Parkinson said Monday.
He said immigrants would have to know English to pass a citizenship exam and that they should have to learn the language as part of their transition to American life.
"We're known as the melting pot, and my definition of "melting pot' is people who come together and assimilate into our culture," Parkinson said. "One thing that binds us all together is English."
In addition to English, Missouri currently administers driver's license exams in Bosnian, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Those versions would be eliminated under the House bill, which needs one more vote to advance to the Senate.
The legislation forbids any spoken language interpreters to translate the exam for people who don't speak English. It does, however, allow sign language interpreters for people who are deaf.
A fiscal estimate included with the legislation projects that the state would 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.
But critics said the benefits of those savings might be canceled out by the negative impact the measure could have on the state's economic development.
Democrats said the legislation could discriminate against new legal immigrants who have not yet mastered English. They said the measure could make it harder for those immigrants to get jobs or vote. Republicans, who largely support Parkinson'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 might discourage businesses from moving to the state if they bring foreign workers with them.
"We keep trying to fix problems that aren't there, and it's just to feed into hysteria about people who are not native-born U.S. residents who speak English as their first language," she said.
Some lawmakers said non-English speakers would still drive cars, even if they couldn't pass a test in English. Rep. Don Gosen, R-Chesterfield, said other licensed drivers wouldn't be able to recover damages from immigrant drivers without a license because they also wouldn't have insurance.
"I have concerns about whether this bill makes driving safer and that it might make it even more dangerous," he said. "Someone who does not speak English may be discouraged from even learning the laws and taking the test."
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said insurance companies would pass that cost on to all of the state's insured drivers.
"Everyone will bear the burden of this legislation," he said. "The result of this bill is a tax on Missouri citizens for xenophobia."