Immigrant driver's licenses funding debate postponed

Immmigrant driver’s licenses

A day after a Republicans used their newfound legislative power to block money for a program that gives driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, Democrats blasted the move and immigrant activists rallied to reverse the decision.

The topic dominated a committee hearing Thursday morning as Democrats suggested that the Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee used their power to cripple a program that they oppose.

But lawmakers delayed another JBC discussion in the afternoon.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, said he didn’t want to proceed with Rep. Dave Young absent. The Colorado Springs Democrat missed Wednesday’s meeting and had to attend to a family situation Thursday.

Ulibarri organized a group of about two dozen activists who attended the afternoon hearing to show their opposition to Wednesday’s vote.

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, attended the meeting. He said he is disappointed by the “partisan games” being played with the program.

“I think it’s another bite at the apple to undo something that was done two years ago,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, Republicans offered little to explain their decision, except to say they didn’t agree with the 2013 legislation in the first place.

“Now we have a new General Assembly,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, the Republican chairman of the budget committee, in an interview after the meeting. “Frankly, the Senate is under new leadership and we are under a new majority.”

The new majority allowed Republicans to get even billing on the powerful budget committee where policy dictates that a majority must approve a budget provision.

The Division of Motor Vehicles asked state budget writers for the ability to spend $166,000 from the program’s fees to keep the service operating at full strength and additional money to expand it to meet demand. The committee’s 3-2 vote — split along partisan lines with one Democrat missing — failed to get the four votes necessary to win approval.

Republicans reject the suggestion that it was a move to defund the program because the program still has its initial spending authority.

Democrats argue that without the funds only one of the five state DMV offices offering the licenses will remain starting in March. Immigrants and activists had complained that having only five offices — out of the state’s 56 — was unfair and unworkable.

Sen. Mike Johnston, a Denver Democrat, lit into the Republican budget writers in the Joint Finance Committee meeting.

Johnston suggested the budget committee’s decision went against the “public trust” and “subverted government.”

“Since you can’t substantively change the law, you will just try to make it as impossible to access the (program) as you can,” he said.

Lambert didn’t respond directly to the comments in the meeting and afterward took offense at Johnston’s insinuations about treating different classes of Coloradans differently.

“We have certain Senate rules that are typical practices that you don’t malign people’s motivations, so I don’t know that that merits a response at this point,” he said. “We are talking about a political dialogue not a legislative dialogue.”

The uproar is expected to continue when the budget committee meets again at 1:30 p.m. in the Legislative Services Building next to the Capitol.

Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, a Westminster Democrat and the driver’s license program’s original sponsor, took to the Senate floor Thursday morning to ask activists to attend the meeting and urge reconsideration.

The matter is far from finalized. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration can ask the committee to rehear the proposal Monday, but so far no request has been made.

“It’s not a surprise that this is a contentious issue,” said Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy council for the ACLU’s national office who specializes in immigration issues. “But this type of cowardly maneuver to address a contentious public policy issue is extremely unusual.”

Blazer, who is San Francisco-based, called Wednesday’s vote an “inappropriate way to handle a very serious public policy issue.”

Nine states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have similar programs granting driver’s licenses to those living in the country illegally.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before for a driver’s license program,” Blazer said.

The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition released a statement Thursday morning calling the funding decision a “betrayal” and “a slap in the face to thousands of Coloradans who depend on a driver’s license for work, school, and family.”

John Frank: 303-954-2409, or

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Immigrant driver's licenses funding debate postponed
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