It goes like this: If you don’t agree with a law and you don’t have the votes to rewrite it, you look for ways to defund it in order to hobble it. In Washington, it’s an approach embraced mainly by Republicans– one which, extended fully, ends in costly government shutdowns despised by the public.
This month, congressional Republicans are threatening to defund the Department of Homeland Security unless Democrats agree to strip back immigration measures enacted by the White House last year that loosen deportation rules for undocumented young people and adults with family members here.
On Thursday, Colorado Republicans on the state’s Joint Budget Committee defended their decision to defund a program passed last year by Democrats that grants drivers licenses to immigrant residents of the state who lack citizenship documents.
Immigration politics are as charged in Colorado as they are anywhere in the nation. More than 20 percent of the population is Latino here and Republican voters, stoked by local GOP figures like former Congressman Tom Tancredo, are energized in favor of hardline law-and-order immigration policies and in opposition to any programs that smack of “amnesty” for undocumented residents.
Democrats have railed against the Republican move to defund the license program as provocative and short-sighted. Republicans have argued they were making good use of an important mechanism of governance readily available to them on behalf of their constituents.
The issue came to a head weeks ago, when the six-member committee — three Republicans and three Democrats — gridlocked on a Department of Motor Vehicle request to spend $166,000 in fees slated to operate the popular program. Democrats, with the backing of state police and sheriffs, argued the policy improves public safety by ensuring that all drivers are insured, have passed vision tests and know the rules of the road. Republicans argued that the state shouldn’t be in the business of providing services to non-citizens.
The license funds are not the only fees the JBC has frozen on a three-to-three vote this year. Republicans on the committee also denied a request to spend concealed carry fees that would have sped up gun-permit background checks. Republicans say the Colorado Bureau of Investigation is at fault for the 50-plus day wait times and needs to get its act together or switch to a faster, less in-depth background check. Democrats say that holding up the funds is a crazy political long game to make gun owners hate background checks even more.
The act to defund the drivers license program won’t kill the program; it will just reduce it significantly. The DMV will now only be able to offer the licenses in one location instead of five, exponentially expanding wait times.
“The question before us is not, ‘Do you think the policy is right or wrong?” said committee member Pat Steadman, D-Denver. “The question before us is, ‘Should we fund the operation of the government we have today?’ We don’t try to repeal things through the budget process.”
Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said he doesn’t see his role on the committee that way.
“The thing that worries me is the idea being touted here that, because it is law, because it is in statute, that somehow the [committee]… should automatically be beholden to spending based on that previous policy,” he said. “I for one did not come here to rubber stamp… I reflect my district and will continue to do that.”
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said the committee members were setting a dangerous precedent, one that could lead to Capitol Hill-style gridlock.
“If we adopt this precedent, three people on the Joint Budget Committee can basically stop the operation of every fee-based program in the state,” he said. “This is not just about drivers licenses … this is about how we propose to run the state government and this scares me to death.”
Committee Chairman Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said Heath’s warnings were over-blown. He argued that the requirement for bipartisan majority consent on these programs is an important “moderating influence.” He also pointed out that spending requests like this one not only have to pass out of the Joint Budget Committee but also through both chambers of the legislature and the Governor’s office.
The budget bill the committee was voting on, SB 161, won final passage in the Senate on Friday — without the immigrant license funding. Steadman was the only Democrat to support the measure, which also included other budgetary requests. He refuses to wade into gridlock politics.
“It’s easier for others to threaten than for me to do. I’m one of the mature adults in the building.”
With John Tomasic.