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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

Driver's license flap could hurt Michigan's ability to attract jobs

DETROIT - Nobody doubts that Michigan, the state with the worst unemployment rate in the nation, badly needs jobs.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proven she is perfectly willing to dash to the airport and fly off to Germany or Bhutan if she thinks there's a reasonable chance of bringing back even a hundred jobs.

But in the latest episode of "the government that couldn't shoot straight," Michigan's two highest-ranking Republican officials dealt the state a temporary blow that may prove a lasting setback to attracting jobs and foreign investment to Michigan.

They managed to rule that nobody could get a driver's license who wasn't an American citizen living full time in Michigan.

In other words, they seemed to be saying, "Forget attracting foreign investment to Michigan. Forget trying to recruit that nuclear physicist from Sweden or that brain surgeon from Canada."

They might have well sent a message rippling around the world: Don't even think about coming to Michigan.

And though the legislature has now belatedly "fixed" the problem, the rest of the world doesn't necessarily know that.

This all started two days after Christmas, when the legislature was in recess and the press was paying scant attention.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox issued a long, complex, and convoluted ruling that would have an almost immediate and devastating effect.

"You ask whether the Michigan secretary of state is required to issue a driver's license to an illegal alien living in Michigan."

Thousands of words and many legal citations later, Mr. Cox concluded that "it is my opinion, therefore, that only a resident of Michigan may be issued a Michigan driver's license."

In Michigan, opinions by the state attorney general have the force of law unless the legislature acts to change them.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is not herself a lawyer but is charged with determining who qualifies for a driver's license and who doesn't. And she ruled that the attorney general's ruling didn't just apply to immigrants, but to anyone in Michigan.

Nobody, she said, except citizens of the United States who live in Michigan, and a few green card holders, could get drivers' licenses.

Not legal immigrants. Not international students. Not medical specialists who come here to practice for a year or two.

Not international business executives, even if they are interested in coming here to open a new plant.

Nobody other than born-and-bred Michigan residents.

That stunned, shocked, and dismayed everyone from the various chambers of commerce to the University of Michigan.

How would Michigan be able to recruit new investment, new brainpower, and new jobs if a considerable percentage of new workers arriving were ineligible to get a license to drive to work?

Mr. Cox later said the secretary of state had misinterpreted his ruling; that he only meant it to apply to illegal immigrants, not people we wanted to be here.

"Well, that's not what our attorneys said," Ms. Land replied.

Indeed, the ruling itself is complex and, to a layman, confusing. It almost seems to be saying that residents of other states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania can't get drivers' licenses in Michigan.

Why, I wondered, didn't the secretary of state pick up the phone and call her fellow Republican, the attorney general, and ask what he had meant to say in the ruling?

"We have lawyers and I let lawyers talk to lawyers," she said.

The truth is that the attorney general and the secretary of state don't like or trust each other very much.

They each arrived in Lansing on New Year's Day, 2003. Thanks to term limits, each will be out of a job at the end of 2010. Both are ambitious, and may well end up running against each other for the GOP nomination for governor two years from now.

In other words, neither has any incentive to make the other look good. The secretary of state thought the best thing to do was to have the state legislature quickly pass a law fixing the problem.

That might make sense in a normal time. But nothing seems to be easy in Michigan anymore. Republicans in the state Senate decided to try to package fixing the driver's license mess with bills bringing the state into compliance with the federal "Real ID" program.

Democrats didn't want to rush into that. Eventually, the Real ID effort was shelved, and on Feb. 15, Governor Granholm signed a bill fixing the driver's license mess or so state officials think.

Yes, the bill will enable the secretary of state's office to once again give licenses to the more than 400,000 foreign workers and university students in the state. That is, it will - eventually.

"We haven't got all the rules worked out quite yet," Secretary Land said. "But we are taking names and applications and hope to process them soon."

Meanwhile, as the governor said, the driver's license flap has given the state a "black eye" and raised new doubts about the state's sophistication, savvy, and ability to compete.

You'd really find it hard to make this stuff up.



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