Sunday, February 6, 2005

DENVER — For state Rep. David Schultheis, the choice is clear: The Colorado legislature can pass his bill preventing illegal immigrants from receiving non-emergency state and county services.

Or legislators can watch the proposal ignite an Arizona-style political wildfire as it goes before the voters as a November 2006 ballot initiative.

“The public really wants this,” Mr. Schultheis, a Republican who represents northern Colorado Springs, said yesterday. “We are going to do everything we can to get this before the public in some form or another.”

It is no accident that his proposal, introduced Friday as House Bill 1271, bears a strong resemblance to Arizona’s Proposition 200, the anti-illegal immigration measure that won passage in November after a bruising campaign and despite strong opposition from most of the state’s political establishment.

Colorado is widely expected to become the next battleground on the issue, thanks largely to the efforts of Defend Colorado Now, a citizens group busily raising funds and mapping out a strategy for a November 2006 ballot campaign.

William Herron, Defend Colorado Now chairman, says his group will throw its full support behind the Schultheis bill. But even if the bill fails, the debate will be useful in helping the organization prepare for a ballot fight.

Also, legislators who vote against the bill can expect to have the issue raised during their re-election campaigns, he said.

“This is the test. We’re taking names on who’s naughty and who’s nice,” Mr. Herron said. “And if they don’t pass it, well, woe unto them.”

The chances of passage took a hit in November when the Democratic Party took control of both legislative houses. Within 10 minutes of the bill’s introduction, Mr. Schultheis said, he had 20 co-sponsors — all Republicans.

“Most of the Democrats, frankly, will be opposed to this,” he said. “But I really think the Democratic machine is out of touch with what the citizens want. I think they presume a lot because they have Hispanic support, but I think a lot of Hispanic citizens will be in favor of this.”

In response, Mr. Schultheis is trying to bring together as many Republicans as he can. He said he plans to ask Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, for his support today.

If the bill goes down to defeat, Mr. Schultheis has a backup plan: He can introduce it as a concurrent resolution, which would allow the proposal to win a spot on the 2006 ballot as a referred measure through a majority vote of the legislature.

Even if that tactic fails, he is betting that the publicity surrounding the effort will help whip up popular support for a signature-gathering campaign aimed at placing the proposal on the November 2006 ballot.

“If that doesn’t work, I think the level of public disgust will be so high at that point that support is going to be very strong for a ballot measure,” Mr. Schultheis said.

He is hoping to win some Democratic support by framing the issue within the context of the state’s budget battle. With the state legislators grappling over budget cuts, his bill will “ensure that more citizens and legal immigrants to Colorado have access to state services,” as Mr. Schultheis said in a press release accompanying his introduction of the bill on Friday.

“Every dollar of state services that is spent on people who are in the state illegally means one less dollar for the citizens and legal immigrants in Colorado,” he said.

The bill includes a provision that would require those seeking state services to prove their citizenship or residency status. State agencies would maintain copies of those records, which ideally would act as a deterrent for those trying to win services illegally.

Critics say such proposals are shortsighted, arguing that cutting access to health care and education wouldn’t stop undocumented workers from crossing the border, but would increase the public health risk and keep illegals mired in poverty.

Even so, polls show most voters would support cutting off services as a way to discourage illegal immigration. A survey taken in Mr. Schultheis’ district found that 86 percent of respondents agreed: “Only legal residents of Colorado should be allowed to receive benefits and services funded with tax dollars.”

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