SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he supports tougher penalties for companies that hire undocumented workers, but said it's likely not a debate for a special legislative session.
The governor also stopped short of agreeing with some lawmakers that Utah should adopt an Arizona law recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that calls for companies to lose their business licenses if they're caught with illegal employees.
"That would have a very significant negative impact on the economy, when it's maybe only a handful of people that maybe need to be fired or jettisoned and replaced," Herbert said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7.
Instead, the governor said, the state should work with the federal government to come up with a way to fine employers.
"That attacks their bottom line and sends a strong message you cannot with impunity hire illegals knowingly, and yet will not have an overarching negative effect on the economy," Herbert said.
Because of those issues, he suggested he's reluctant to call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the proposal. "These issues typically warrant a full session, not just a special session," the governor said.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said he is already preparing legislation in the hopes of getting it passed as soon as possible.
Sandstrom and other opponents of the controversial guest-worker bill passed last session, HB116,HB116, have said they fear the program, set to take effect in 2013 or sooner if a federal waiver is granted, will attract illegal immigrants to the state.
Last Saturday, delegates to the state Republican Party convention narrowly approved a resolution calling for lawmakers to repeal HB116. Herbert, who signed the guest-worker bill, said Thursday he still supports it.
"I still believe it was a step in the right direction," the governor said. But he acknowledged the bill is likely to be revisited by the 2012 Legislature.
"There is a recognition that HB116 is a beginning. It's not an end. We have two years, over two years, before it takes effect," he said. "So there's opportunity to improve it."'
Sandstrom said his bill, which would require all businesses to use a federal verification system to check the immigration status of new hires, could settle some of the concerns surrounding the guest worker bill.
Once HB116 takes effect, it will include a new state verification system. The state already requires companies with 15 or more employees to use the federal system known as E-Verify, but there are currently no penalties for noncompliance.
"I don't want the 2012 session to be dominated by immigration bills again. We've got too many other things to worry about," Sandstrom said. "I just don't want to see us beat each other up in 2012."
Herbert said nationally, immigration has become an issue no one is willing to address. "You don't want to be targeted," he said. "You don't want to be the kind of the Lone Ranger out there leading the fight and finding there's nobody with you."
But the governor, who's up for re-election next year, said he does not feel he's been targeted by the Republicans that backed the repeal resolution.
"Not at all," Herbert said. "I don't think people are as divided as probably some would like them to be. Certainly, the 2.8 million people of Utah need to be considered and represented. It's not just a few delegates."
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