ATLANTA - The Senate approved legislation Thursday that would stiffen penalties for motorists caught repeatedly driving without a valid Georgia license.
The bill, which passed 38-13 and now goes to the House, would make the crime a felony on the fourth offense within five years. Violators would face one to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500 to $5,000.
This is the second year in a row Georgia lawmakers have debated the measure.
It was criticized last year as a thinly veiled attempt to target illegal immigrants. Then, after the General Assembly passed the bill, Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed it over concerns that it could affect newcomers to Georgia who don't get their driver's licenses within 30 days of moving into the state.
But the bill's sponsors worked with the governor's staff on a rewrite that addresses that issue, said Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta, who introduced it in 2007 and again this year.
Under the new version of the legislation, first-time violators could have the charge dropped upon showing the court hearing the case proof of a valid Georgia driver's license.
"If you have the ability to get a Georgia license, we're not going to punish you," Wiles said.
The bill's potential use as a weapon against illegal immigrants didn't come up during Thursday's debate on the Senate floor.
But opponents raised other objections, including whether it would be used against temporary residents of Georgia, either from other states or other countries, who have no intention of settling down here.
"If a person doesn't want to live in this state, they don't want a Georgia license," said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain.
Butler, who is black, also argued that the bill would increase racial profiling of motorists by police officers.
But Sen. Ronald Ramsey, D-Decatur, another black lawmaker, said he saw too many drivers with no licenses or suspended licenses appear in his court during the seven years he served as a municipal judge.
"It is a great offense ... for people to consciously get in a car day in and day out and drive without a license," he said. "I have put people in jail for far less."
The Dustin Inman Society, an anti-illegal immigration group based in Marietta, worked last year to get the bill passed and continued to support it this year.
The organization is named in honor of a local youth who was killed in a crash involving a driver who was in the country illegally.
In other action Thursday more directly related to illegal immigration, the Senate passed a bill to prohibit so-called "sanctuary cities" in Georgia.
Some cities in other states have adopted policies preventing their officials or employees from passing along information on the immigration status of any person they come across to the federal government or law enforcement agencies.
The legislation passed 45-8 and now goes to the House.
Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@ rockdalecitizen.com.