Colorado GOP cuts funding for immigrant driver's license program

Colorado began offering driver's licenses to immigrants in country illegally. Now that program is threatened

A Colorado law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to get driver's licenses was heralded as historic for its bipartisan support and an ingenious way to make driving safer because it required mandatory driving tests and insurance.

But this week state GOP lawmakers roadblocked the law, which took effect in August: They voted to reject a request to continue funding for the cash-strapped program.

And the way they got it done has miffed Colorado Democrats.

Republicans on the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday voted down a request from state officials for an additional $166,000 to keep the popular program operating at five Division of Motor Vehicles offices.

Democrats said the move seemed more like gridlocked Washington than Colorado.

“The Joint Budget Committee is mandated to fund authorized legislation,” Dean Toda, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, told the Los Angeles Times. “If you don’t like a law, you work to get it changed. You don’t kill it by refusing to fund it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican member of the budget committee, told the Denver Post that the vote came down to a matter of priorities. He said the Division of Motor Vehicles was struggling to hire enough people to handle the normal workload, even without the extra demand for licenses.

"It was pretty controversial, pretty partisan," he said of the law.

On Thursday, Democrats were irate.

“We’re shocked,” said Mary Ulibarri, a legislative aide for -- and mother of -- Democratic state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, who sponsored the 2013 bill, known as the Colorado Road and Community Safety Act. “Because this is a public safety issue, not an immigration issue.”

The legislation, which went into effect a year later, was the 11th state law nationwide to offer driving privileges to immigrants living in the country illegally. They have been required to present tax and insurance documents to apply for licenses at one of the five offices statewide.

The move to block funding for the program means that only one of the state’s 55 DMV offices will be able to accept applications.

“At the start there were only five offices statewide where you receive a license. Now that has gone down to one -- for the entire state of Colorado,” said Mary Ulibarri.  “Even five really wasn’t enough. Now they have basically defunded the program.”

The state estimated that 150,000 people would be eligible for licenses under the program. With five offices operating, the scheduling system had allowed 155 appointments a day statewide.

Ulibarri said that, at that rate, some of the immigrants seeking licenses initially faced waits of up to four years. Now that wait could stretch to more than 16 years, she said.

She added: “It’s absolute insanity.”

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