DENVER (AP) – Last-minute tangling on next year’s budget cost Colorado Democrats Republican support Friday, when a Democratic budget writer questioned whether $3 million for scholarships could benefit students in the country illegally.
The Colorado House passed the budget without the money for merit-based scholarships, angering Republicans who said the issue was being politicized.
“I set about to do something good, something we could all get behind. I don’t understand for the life of me how this has become a political issue,” said Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Mark Waller, the GOP’s leader in the House.
The scholarship money, a proposed amendment to the budget, had bipartisan support but fell apart over the question of whether every student could be eligible regardless of immigration status.
“I don’t think it’s an issue of politics,” said Denver Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran, one of six budget writers on the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee. “It’s an issue of the future of these undocumented students, and if these undocumented students are the top of their class, they should be eligible to receive these funds as well.”
Duran said that the budget agreement wouldn’t guarantee that and that separate legislation would be needed. Immigrants in the country illegally can’t receive state scholarships.
“This is about undocumented students being able to gain access to an affordable college degree,” Duran said.
But Republicans accused Duran of politicizing the issue, at the expense of financial aid for all students.
“Political games cost those kids their help,” said Republican Rep. Frank McNulty.
The gridlock over the money came as the House was set to take a final vote on the budget to agree on amendments that include money for wildfire victims and paying down pension debt to police and firefighters.
Each chamber has already approved the $20.5 billion budget, which includes federal funds. But final votes were needed Friday to concur on amendments. The budget now has cleared both chambers and awaits the governor’s signature.
Waller, who worked on the scholarship amendment last week with Democrats, said it was never his intent to exclude any group from the scholarships.
The amendment was initially rejected by the JBC last week, and moments later approved when Duran voted for it, saying it was with the caveat that lawmakers would make clear all students would be eligible for the scholarships.
On Friday, the JBC reconsidered the amendment and voted it down 4-2 after Duran raised concerns.
“No one person said anything about documented versus undocumented until you wanted to make it a political issue,” Waller told Duran at one point.
In the House, Democrats were able to get support from nine Republicans on the budget, including Waller and McNulty, when it first passed last week.
Friday, after the fight over the scholarships, Waller and McNulty still voted yes, but two others changed their votes to no.
“I was just a little disconcerted with what happened today,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Priola, who was among the few in his party this year to support a bill granting in-state tuition to students in the U.S. illegally.
Duran noted that Waller is carrying a bill that will be introduced soon that would grant merit-based scholarships, and that it’s still possible to fund it.
Democrats said they hoped they could resolve the issue.
“It’s one of those issues that we have to resolve, and I’m in favor of resolving it,” said Democratic Rep. John Buckner.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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