DENVER — The House rejected a program-funding standoff on Wednesday that threatened to bring hallmark D.C.-style dysfunction to the state Capitol this legislative session. By an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 54-11, House members voted to free the Department of Motor Vehicles to spend already-collected fees to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants at locations across the state.
The Bill, SB 161, now heads back to the Republican-controlled Senate, which has opposed including funding for the immigrant driver’s license program.
Republican House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso from Loveland signaled the end of debate when he went to the well and asked his caucus to support the spending bill, which also includes funding to expedite tax returns and to operate the medical marijuana enforcement division. DelGrosso conceded that the driver’s license program was unpopular among Republicans but said the other provisions were too important to oppose. The Senate will now accept the driver’s license funding or kill the whole bill.
“[The Senate] now has the option to accept a common-sense safety measure or reject it and have a lot of other public safety implications,” said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, who sponsored the driver’s license measure in 2013.
For weeks, debate around the bill has stirred rancor in the Capitol centered around two themes: process and policy.
Democrats say the license program is good policy because it ensures everyone on the road has passed driving tests and has insurance. They also say it sets bad precedent for Republicans to attack policies they oppose not through debate and amendments or alternative legislative proposals but through defunding tactics. They point as a cautionary tale to the government-shutdown politics currently threatening Washington this week, which similarly turn around Republican opposition to immigration policy.
Senate Republicans point out that Ulibarri’s controversial bill passed without Republican support. Now that they hold a majority in the Senate and three of the six seats on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, they argue it’s well within their authority to govern with the power of the purse.
By the time the debate hit the House floor this week, however, the GOP argument had shifted.
JBC member Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, said Republicans on the budget committee made the choice not to free up the funds out of genuine fiscal conservatism and a belief that the high demand for the licenses will die down over time.
His view was shared by DelGrosso.
“We keep being told that, if we don’t give them this money, we’re strangling them. That’s not true. This program has the same amount of money that they had last year when we did the budget…. There’s a process when you want to expand a program,” DelGrosso said, adding that the debate should be part of next year’s budgeting process instead of an adjustment to this year’s.
Democrats have received the new Republican arguments with skepticism. Budget committee member Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, said that it was the nonpartisan JBC staff who decided the department has the flexibility to spend more funds this year, not just next year.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who co-sponsored the driver’s license legislation with Ulibarri, has his own theory.
“We know Republicans just don’t like the undocumented community and they’re pushing back on them every step of the way. It’s not a secret,” he said. “These new arguments about [the Taxpayer Bill of Rights] and about ‘We’re not really defunding it,’ those arguments are basically one word: ‘garbage.’”
Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, added that funds tied to the other programs listed in the amended bill must be released either way. “My hope is that the Republicans will do the right thing and pass [the bill].”,” she said. “We need to get this behind us as we get into the budget process, which is also very important, where we’ll also need to reach some good agreements.”
But if the immigrant driver’s license debate is any indication, it remains to be seen how many “good agreements” are in the cards.
[ Photo by John Tomasic, Highway 36, Colorado.]