Carbondale state rep. among three legislators who blocked immigrant license money |

Carbondale state rep. among three legislators who blocked immigrant license money

A sample driver's license.

Three Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, including Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, have blocked money for the state’s program to license drivers who lack documents to show they are in the country legally.

The GOP trio refused to authorize spending money raised by the program to make temporary employees permanent and expand it to more offices. That led the state Department of Revenue to reduce the number of locations where the licenses are available from five to one, with that sole remaining office in Denver.

The department, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles, is working to reschedule more than 8,000 appointments, including those for Western Slope residents who would have been able to take license tests in Grand Junction.

“There’s been talk that we are trying to gut the program,” Rankin said in a telephone interview last week from Denver. “That’s not the case.

“The DMV has bigger problems,” said Rankin, who took a seat on the budget committee this year. “I get calls all the time from people who wait six hours to get a license in Glenwood Springs. I want them to tell me how they will solve their larger problem.”

Rankin last year voted against the bill authorizing the licenses, but said, “it’s Colorado law that we license these people. … We’re not gutting the law.”

Advocates for the program, who say driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants make the roads safer for everyone by increasing the chances those drivers will be insured and reducing the chances they will flee from law enforcement, are deeply frustrated by Rankin and the other two Republicans on the committee.

Their vote “pretty much imploded the whole thing,” said Catherine Brown, a Denver attorney who works with the DMV for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It doesn’t even have to go to the General Assembly” for a vote.

“I don’t think anyone likes the DMV,” said Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, who sponsored the legislation. “But that doesn’t negate that there’s a law on the books to issue these licenses and help keep all drivers safe.”

The DMV gets no general fund money to operate the program, which was structured to be self-sufficient, with a license costing $50.50, $29.50 more than a regular Colorado driver’s license. The licenses, learner’s permits and identification cards available under the law say they are “not valid for federal identification, voting or public benefit purposes.”

Through the end of the year, the Department of Revenue said, it had brought in nearly $1 million through licenses, learner’s permits and IDs, which have been available since August. Department spokeswoman Daria Serna said the money has supported DMV operations under the law, including 13 temporary and four permanent employees.

The Department of Revenue must get legislative approval to spend money, including that raised by fees designated to run the immigrant license program. The department went to the Joint Budget Committee last month to release $166,265 in fee money and ask for authority to make the temp employees permanent and increase the number of DMV offices that can issue the licenses from five to 10, saying it would adjust fees on the immigrant licenses to cover the costs. Immigrant advocates criticized the department last summer for making the licenses available in only five locations.

The budget committee voted 3-2 along party lines to reject the request.

It “was a previous General Assembly” that set up the program and its fees, Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, the budget committee chair, told the Associated Press at the time. “This is a new General Assembly. We have a new composition and we will vote as we want to.”

Ulibarri told the PI that two of the additional offices would have been in western Colorado, probably Glenwood Springs and Durango. Previously, the only location beyond the Front Range to get the licenses was Grand Junction.

Now, barred from spending the money raised by the fees, the DMV is offering the licenses only at one Denver location.

Demand for the licenses has been strong. Through Tuesday, the state had issued 7,883 of the special driver licenses, 1,422 instruction permits and 1,653 identification cards. Another 5,004 people kept appointments, but did not receive a license, permit or ID card. The law also covers people in the country legally on work permits, and the total money collected under the law includes their payments.

The DMV last year estimated 47,000 people without documents would take advantage of the law; immigrant advocates say up to 180,000 people are eligible .

Rankin said his vote against releasing the money was an effort to put DMV issues in a larger context.

“Why did they open five offices right away?” to issue the licenses, he asked. “They didn’t make a good case” for releasing the money or expanding the number of offices issuing the licenses.

“I want to hold the department accountable for its budget,” he said, adding that he was concerned that the revenue added to the department budget could trigger refund requirements in the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR provisions.

Ulibarri said Rankin is wrong about that. Because the fee is explicitly designated and calculated to raise the right amount to support the program, TABOR doesn’t apply, he said. However, if lawmakers use the money from the fees for something other than the purpose spelled out in the law, Ulibarri said, it could trigger TABOR.

Both lawmakers held out hope for a resolution to the impasse.

“A few options are open through the budget process,” Ulibarri said.

Rankin said, “We’re in a process. I’m open to hearing a better case.”

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