By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general and candidate for governor, said Tuesday that she's "open" to the possibility of licensing undocumented immigrants to drive in Massachusetts, softening her position on an issue her rival Steve Grossman sought Tuesday to use as a wedge between the Democrats.

Grossman, the state treasurer, released a letter on Tuesday that he sent to Coakley's campaign urging her to drop her "long-standing opposition" to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

"I would think that as one of the top officials in the state charged with protecting safety and defending against discrimination of people because of their origins you would share my views," Grossman wrote.

A spokesman for Coakley told the News Service that she had opposed efforts in the past to offer licenses to undocumented immigrants "with the hope and belief" that the federal government would pass comprehensive immigration reform that would address some of the concerns raised by proponents.

"Because the federal government has failed to act, she is open to working with law enforcement, our elected leaders, and the immigrant community to take common-sense steps on this issue," spokesman Kyle Sullivan said in a statement. He said Coakley has been expressing her view on the issue when asked about it while campaigning.

Grossman last week testified before the Committee on Transportation in favor of a bill (H 3285) filed by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Sen. Patricia Jehlen that would eliminate permission for the registrar of motor vehicles to deny a drivers' license based on an applicant's failure to provide a Social Security number or evidence of immigration status.

The Patrick administration's new Registrar Celia Blue testified in support of the bill, arguing it could raise nearly $15 million in new revenue and open insurance to a pool of drivers currently on the road without protection.

"More motorists would be protected from losses from unlicensed drivers because unlicensed drivers are unable to receive insurance," said Blue.

Grossman, in his letter, called it "an extraordinarily simple public safety issue." Though he said undocumented immigrants should be judged on their contributions to society and not their legal status under a "complex and much-debated federal law," Grossman said licensing undocumented immigrants to drive would improve public safety for all in Massachusetts.

Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, said last week the bill would make Massachusetts a "magnet."

"To give identification to those who are illegally here allows our ID to essentially mean nothing. It becomes a form of ID that allows those that are illegally here to hide in society with those who are legally here," Lombardo said.