SALT LAKE CITY — Over objections that Utah's driver privilege card is an important public safety measure, a Senate committee endorsed a bill to repeal the state law under which they are issued.

The Senate Transportation, Public Utilities and Technology Committee voted 2-1 late Wednesday afternoon to support SB170, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

Utah is one of very few states that offers a driving privilege card, he said.

"I think it makes us a magnet for illegal immigration," he said.

But others argued that driver privilege cards enhance public safety because 70-75 percent of cardholders purchase automobile insurance, said Salt Lake immigration attorney Mark Alvarez.

"It's about public safety, about keeping our roads safe," Alvarez said.

Urquhart expressed surprise that the bill passed out of committtee given the Utah Legislature's general inclination to give immigration-related issues a rest this year.

"I thought it would get caught up in the wave," he said, referring to some legislative leaders statements that they have no appetite to address the issue this session.

"I'm very glad we're going to have a floor hearing on it."

Earlier in the session, a Senate committee tabled another of Urquhart's immigration measures, a bill intended to repeal Utah's guestworker bill passed in the 2011 legislative session. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, made the motion to table Urquhart's bill.

But SB170 could face a steeper challenge in the Utah House after Speaker Rebecca Lockhart said the House is done dealing with immigration measures this year. "The bills are dead," the Provo Republican said of House bills during House leaders' daily briefing Tuesday with the news media.

Senate Assistant Majority Whip Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, voted for the repeal bill, although he said he would vote against it on the floor.

"I do believe there's enough concern among our fellow senators that we need to have a dialogue. We'll have a good dialogue on the issue," Knudson said.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said the state needs to quit issuing driver privilege cards because the state cannot fully ensure that cardholders are not a threat to national security or to public safety. "We don't know who they're giving them to," he said.

Privilege cardholders can legally drive, which Mortensen said could facilitate drug cartels and other criminal activity.

Community activist Tony Yapias said Mortensen's argument regarding drug cartels was "incindiary, inflammatory."

"As if all 40,000 people who have driving privilege cards are part of drug cartels. This is a matter of public safety. The program has worked well, even with all the limitations" of the card, he said.

Some 41,000 people have the state-issued driver privilege card, which must be renewed annually. The card costs $25 but applicants must also pay for fingerprinting and undergo criminal background checks. The card may not be used for any federal purpose, such as boarding an airplane. 

While Alvarez said he believes the cards help to enhance public safety, many undocumented immigrants worry that the state database will be checked to ferret out people who are in the United States illegally.

Alvarez said he does not believe the state's issuance of the card is in no way a magnet for illegal immigrants. "They're here because there are dairy farms, agricultural operations, ski resorts, restaurants and hotels that need their labor," he said.

"For better or for worse, we need these workers. They're here and they're not going away."