DENVER (AP) – Colorado Democrats added funding Tuesday for a program that lets immigrant drivers get a license regardless of their legal status, setting the stage for a fight with Republican lawmakers who dislike the policy.
The law passed in 2013 when Democrats controlled both statehouse chambers. But Republicans now controlling the Senate have leverage over the program. It’s unlikely they could repeal the law outright because Democrats still control the House, but they can exert their power over how the program is funded.
The dispute centers on a request from the state Department of Revenue to be able to use $166,000 for program operations. That money is from fees already collected from immigrants who have paid for the licenses.
Democrats and the revenue department say the money is needed to keep up with overwhelming demand for the immigrant driver licenses, which is higher than expected when the law passed.
Republicans see it as a program expansion, however.
“This program has every penny that they asked for at the beginning,” said Rep. Brian DelGrosso, the House Republican leader.
House Democrats who gave initial approval to the funding request Tuesday still need a final vote in their chamber to pass it. Then the funding bill heads to the Senate, which has already rejected the request for additional money.
That puts uncertainly on how the program will operate going forward. When it became law, five offices statewide handled the new licenses. But without approval to use the user fees, revenue department officials reduced the number of locations where the special licenses can be acquired from five to one.
Republicans argue reducing service locations was the department’s choice.
“They may but they shouldn’t because they have the budget for it,” said Rep. Bob Rankin, one of the Republican budget writers.
But the department says the extra funding was intended to make some temporary staffers permanent and that they will be unable to handle the workload without them. Applicants were already waiting for months for an appointment in some cases, and the reduction could extend the wait time for years, revenue officials and Democratic lawmakers say.
“You’re making people unfairly wait for a service that they’ve already paid for,” said Democratic Rep. Dominick Moreno. “These are completely their funds. These are not even state dollars.”
Supporters of the new driver’s licenses argue the program improves public safety because immigrants will know the rules of the road and can be properly identified during accidents. Police chiefs and sheriffs wrote lawmakers this month in support of the licenses.
Republicans also questioned why Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has not asked the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the budget, to approve the extra funding, inferring that the program is not a priority for the governor. His office disputes that.
“No one should be under the impression that because we did not publicly provoke the JBC into reconsidering a department request that we don’t fully support the program,” said Hickenlooper spokeswoman Kathy Green.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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