DENVER – A second state spending bill has been hijacked by politics, this time in the name of immigrants in the country illegally.
The Colorado House on Tuesday gave initial approval to a Department of Revenue spending bill that was amended to include funding for a driver’s license program for immigrants living in the country illegally.
The $166,000 needed to keep the program fully operational – already available through a $50.50 fee charged to applicants – was rejected earlier in the legislative session by Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee.
An attempt to restore funding through an amendment in the Senate to a Department of Revenue spending bill also failed.
House Democrats, however, appear poised to send the bill back to the Senate with the money for the program, though it is unlikely that Republicans who control the Senate would agree to the driver’s license funding. The House could take a final vote as early as Wednesday.
If the Senate sends the bill back to the House without the funding, Democrats would need to make a tough decision to let the spending bill pass without the driver’s license supplemental, or kill the entire bill, which would cost the department $2.3 million in supplemental funding for the current budget year.
“The supplementals are needed, because you need to provide additional services for expanded need in the state,” House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder said Tuesday, suggesting the bill is too important to die over politics.
“There are all kinds of important things in that supplemental bill. It’s important that we pass it,” the Democrat said.
Services lost would include additional staff for looming budget refunds; marijuana-enforcement needs; and dollars for driver’s license hearings, including revocations related to DUIs.
The situation almost is identical to a supplemental spending bill for the Department of Public Safety. Republicans have refused to allow for additional funding in that bill to fund background checks for concealed-carry permits.
House Democrats must make a similar decision regarding that bill – pass it without the funding for background checks, or let the entire bill die, thereby costing public safety about $2.2 million. Debate on each issue has been robust and political.
In the case of driver’s licenses for immigrants in the country illegally, a lack of additional funding would result in four offices closing that administer the program, leaving only an office in Denver.
For Durango applicants, that would mean having to drive seven hours to receive a license, rather than make a much shorter trip to an office in Grand Junction.
The program was created by legislation in 2013 when Democrats controlled the entire Legislature. The idea behind it was safety. Sponsors noted that licensed drivers are more likely to stay at the scene of an accident, carry insurance and understand the rules of the road.
Administrators say without the additional funding, the state would be able to serve only 15 people per day. Democrats believe it could take as much as five years to receive a license.
But Republicans called Democrats liars, suggesting that they are exaggerating projections for the sake of politics, adding that money continues to exist for the program, so it is not tantamount to a shutdown.
“You can at least be honest with people when you come up and make statements,” House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland said to groans from the Democratic side of the chamber. “I heard that we are gutting the program. We are not defunding, or gutting the program.”
Hullinghorst, however, was frustrated with the Republican’s comments, suggesting she may need to have a private conversation about it.
“It’s not exactly protocol to call somebody a liar on the floor,” Hullinghorst said.
Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, led an impassioned speech calling for passage of the funding.
“If you do not like the law, you repeal it,” he said. “But you do not go about these back-door channels and try to limit its funding, or defund it, especially when those dollars are not the state’s dollars but the community’s dollars.”