DENVER — Democrats who pushed to get driver's licenses for Colorado immigrants regardless of their legal status are outraged over a Republican vote to block access to funds for the program.
The issue is a reminder to Democrats of the power they lost in November when Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in 10 years, and sets up what could be a contentious budget-writing process.
The measure allowing driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally passed in 2013 and it was signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper when his party controlled both legislative chambers. No Republicans voted for the bill, arguing it amounted to the state sanctioning illegal behavior.
The program receives no state funding and is operated through the fees immigrants pay for their licenses, driving permits and identification cards. On Wednesday, the state Department of Revenue, which oversees the motor vehicle offices, asked budget writers for permission to access $166,265 in fees that have already been collected so they can increase staffing.
But with a new Senate majority, Republicans got a chance to reiterate their dislike for the new law, and the Joint Budget Committee voted 3-2 on a party-line vote to reject the request. Another Democrat on the committee was away when the vote happened, but his presence wouldn't have mattered because approval for the request required four "yes" votes.
"That was a previous General Assembly," Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, the budget committee chair, said Thursday, referring to when the driver's licenses law passed. "This is a new General Assembly. We have a new composition and we will vote as we want to."
In 2011, Lambert proposed an Arizona-style immigration law in Colorado, but his bill was immediately defeated by Democrats controlling the Senate at the time.
There's been high demand for the licenses since the state began issuing them last August, with applicants waiting months — for an appointment. As of Tuesday, 7,729 licenses had been issued, according to the revenue department.
Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the Democrat who sponsored the law, said the budget committee's vote amounts to defunding the program and will reduce the number of offices where immigrants can get licenses. Currently, immigrants can get licenses at five offices statewide.
"This is unprecedented because you don't defund existing law through the budget process," Ulibarri said. "If you have a point you want to debate, it should happen on the floor of the Senate in the full light of day."
But the issue is far from resolved, and Republicans acknowledged that. The funding request can come up again, and Democrats control the House, giving them leverage in the budget-writing process.
"It's not necessarily over. It's completely open and still to be debated," said Republican Sen. Kevin Grantham, another budget committee member.
Democrats argue the law will lead to safer roads because drivers will know the rules after passing the license test, and law enforcement will correctly identify people in traffic stops and accidents.
Colorado was among eight states in 2013 that passed laws allowing driver licenses or identification documents for people in the country illegally.