A Senate panel took the first step Wednesday to creating a task force to study the issue of illegal immigration.

The Senate Government Operations Committee gave unanimous approval to SB97, which is supported by immigrant rights activists and a coalition of business leaders as an alternative to several pending measures dealing with illegal immigration.

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, sponsor of the measure, said he wants to "slow it down a little ... make sure we don't jump too fast and get in trouble."

However, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, made it clear he doesn't see SB97 as an alternative to SB81, which is also pending in the Senate. Hickman is sponsor of that comprehensive measure aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants' ability to get jobs or public benefits.

"I'm going to vote to send this bill out because I think this is a major issue we need to discuss," Hickman said. "Assuming SB81 passes, the task force will have the opportunity to study not only the effects that bill might have, as well as any other considerations we may not have covered."

Before the vote, SB97 was amended to include a study of the "budgetary costs and economic benefits of illegal immigrants to the state."

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, who last year called for a legislative audit on the subject, which never materialized.

"It's really just meant to try and get more information that will be helpful for our decision making," McCoy said.

The move to send SB97 to the full Senate came a day after members of a newly-formed Immigration Policy Coalition of business, nonprofit and religious leaders announced their support for it.

"We're just pleased it's moving forward," said Michael De Groote, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, a coalition member. "It's the prudent 'measure twice, cut once' bill. It's a sensible approach."

The bill has a fiscal cost of $23,000. It now moves to the Senate.

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com