DENVER – Republicans on Friday defunded a large portion of a state program intended to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
The three Republican members of the state’s budget committee rejected a spending authorization to fund the new program, causing a tie vote that killed the motion.
The move highlighted Republicans flexing their muscle after taking control of the Senate this year, which created a split Legislature. The GOP opposed providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Even though the program did not require additional funds because it is self-sustaining – paid for by fees collected from applicants – Republicans said they did not believe further spending authorization was necessary. Any money not spent will simply sit in a fund without the authorization.
Four offices are likely to close as a result of the lack of additional spending authority, leaving only one office open. Observers believe the office in Denver will remain open. Offices in Grand Junction, Fort Collins, Aurora and Colorado Springs are likely to close.
“They used Washington, D.C.-style tactics to defund a public safety program that benefited immigrants and all of Colorado,” Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, said after the vote.
Ulibarri sponsored the measure in 2013, when Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature. The bill was framed as a public safety measure, with sponsors saying drivers are more likely to flee the scene of an accident without a license or insurance.
Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, said he believes the law received all the funding it needed as outlined by the original legislation.
“It’s my understanding that this program is and will continue to be funded,” Rankin said. “We’re not reducing any of the base funding for this program.”
But Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the Joint Budget Committee had an obligation to authorize spending. He said he has supported funding authorizations for measures he didn’t support simply because the bills became law.
“We budget to fund current law,” said Steadman, who is a member of the JBC. “The program is on the books. It exists.”
The drama actually began Wednesday when Republicans voted to defund the program. But a Democratic member of the committee was absent, so a reconsideration of the vote was requested. On Thursday, that member was absent again, so the reconsideration was delayed to Friday when the authorization was officially killed.
With only one office open, the state will be able to serve only about 15 people per day, which means it could take more than a year for some people to obtain a license.
For Durango-area applicants, the news is crushing. Undocumented immigrants already were forced to drive the four hours to Grand Junction to apply for a license. Now, they will likely have to drive considerably more.
Immigrants and activists stood outside the budget meeting Friday after the vote, devastated by the setback.
“That affects a lot of our communities,” said Eddie Soto, a former Durango resident and board member with the Colorado Latino Forum. “It means our workers can’t work in the fields, or in the hotels.
“It’s also going to impact employers,” he said. “Now, you’re going to have to drive to Denver, wait for a full day to get an appointment. That means a week’s loss of one of their best employees.”