A House panel on Tuesday gave a nod to a bill requiring public employers to use a federal electronic verification system to check the work eligibility of new hires.

The Public Utilities and Technology Committee voted 9-1 to send HB98 to the House floor for debate, after a hearing in which sponsor Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, portrayed the issue as one of identity theft.

Although Donnelson did not mention illegal immigration, the bill would be used to make sure employees are in this country legally. It is the first of several measures dealing with illegal immigration that lawmakers will consider this year and is also one of at least three that deal with employment verification.

Donnelson portrayed the problem of identity theft as "an extremely serious growing problem" in which parents with bad credit, child molesters and deadbeat parents are using phony Social Security numbers to avoid detection.

After the meeting, he declined to say whether the overwhelming support is a positive sign for other measures dealing with illegal immigration he's sponsoring, including a repeal of a law allowing some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.

"I crafted this one for identity theft," Donnelson said. "We have to get a hold of this as a state."

Assistant Attorney General Richard Hamp said the Department of Workforce Services reported last year that 20,025 Social Security numbers were being used by more than one person. He also said that illegal immigration is responsible for more than 90 percent of the workplace identity theft cases he sees.

Questions from the committee focused mainly on the effectiveness of the program and whether or not it was redundant with criminal background checks already required for many of the jobs covered under the bill.

HB98 would require public employers, ranging from the state to school districts to independent entities such as the Dairy Commission and the Heber Valley Railroad, participate in the Internet-based federal E-Verify program. The program, formerly called Basic Pilot, is currently an optional program in which employers enter a new hire's name, date of birth and Social Security number. Those are checked with federal databases and an employer is told whether it's a matching identity.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, the only dissenter, said she's concerned about the number of bills seeming to deal with just one side of the issue. She was also concerned about the focus on criminals, given that the program was designed to check work eligibility.

"Are we focusing on people who are not authorized to work here, or the latter?" Chavez-Houck said. "It confuses the issue. I don't want to see everybody rolled up in the same net."

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, who is drafting a comprehensive measure that will include Donnelson's provision saw Tuesday's vote as a positive sign.

"The citizens of this state want the Legislature to take some action. We're seeing a number of pieces of legislation," he said. "They're all good pieces of legislation. I hope my bill, which is more encompassing of all those issues, will be acceptable."

Immigration Attorney Roger Tsai said the program was created "to find out if someone is authorized to work in the United States." It was used by roughly 33,000 employers nationwide as of late last year.

The program has an 0.81 percent error rate, which is higher for legal non-citizens than it is for U.S. citizens. Employees wrongfully tagged as unauthorized have 10 days to clear up the issue with the Social Security Administration or U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, he said.

"A lot of employers are happy about this system ... it gives them peace of mind that their new hires are legal," Tsai said. "However, it's not 100 percent accurate."

There are efforts to get photos into the system for better verification. For now, it only catches identity theft in which an entire identity isn't stolen as was the case in 2006, when

1,282 employees using stolen identities were caught at Swift & Co. plants. The company used the Basic Pilot program.

Hamp said the Swift case represents a minority of cases in which more sophisticated identity theft is used, since he said, most of the time, workers steal only a Social Security number.

"The majority of the cases would be caught by it," Hamp said. "If you start catching those, it would drive the sophisticate form. But it would eliminate a lot of it. The more sophisticated you make the theft, the less people will be able to pull it off."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com