GOP vote blocking immigrant driver’s licenses funding sparks Latino outcry

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DENVER -- Immigration advocates flooded the Capitol Thursday a day after Republicans voted to block additional funding for the DMV's new program issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

But the Joint Budget Committee, where the vote happened on Wednesday, tabled the issue, which Latino activists want them to reconsider, because one of the three Democrats on the panel was away attending to a family matter.

"What we feel happened yesterday, it was a direct attack to the immigrant community here in Colorado," said Lizeth Chacon with the group Rights For All People. "We feel like it's unacceptable that our legislators took the decision to take something away from our community that we all need."

The six-member JBC, now split evenly between Democrats and Republicans with each party controlling one legislative chamber, requires four votes to approve funding requests.

On Wednesday, the panel's three Republican members voted against a request for additional funding for the new DMV program, enacted by the legislature in 2013 when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.

"The program is fully funded according to the current law," noted Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, the JBC chairman, pointing out that the vote didn't technically de-fund the existing program, only deny a request for additional funding to help the DMV open more offices in response to overwhelming demand.

"We didn't think that was warranted and we have the right to vote that way," Lambert continued. "We have always disagreed with the analysis that went into this. It's a lot more expensive that they initially said."

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County, sponsored the 2013 bill and argues that the high demand from the community is an indication that undocumented immigrants are eager to play by the rules, which in turn improves public safety.

"Yes, they have the power to do this, but is that the right action?" he said Thursday. "This will mean more people driving down our roads without a license and without insurance passing those critical safety exams."

Ulibarri also argued that the DMV program is funded by fees paid by the immigrants who receive driver's licenses and that the state simply has to approve a higher caseload so that the department can open additional offices.

Because the JBC's three Democrats also have the power to block appropriations, they could decide to return the favor at a future meeting when all three of them are present and vote to de-fund a program that's more popular with Republicans.

Ulibarri believes whatever muscle the new GOP Senate majority is attempting to flex on the JBC isn't without political risk.

"The Latino community is the fastest growing community in Colorado," he said. "Every single minute we have someone who is Latino turning 18 who is a legal citizen and those folks have the right to vote.

"So playing politics with this issue of public safety is at their own peril."