- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Colorado lawmakers reached a deal Wednesday on a standoff over how to pay for a program that lets immigrants get driver’s licenses regardless of their legal status, an initiative that Democrats passed without Republican support two years ago.

The deal approved unanimously by the six-member Joint Budget Committee allows enough funding for the program to operate three offices where immigrants can get licenses, driving permits and identification cards. State officials had only one such office available to immigrants since February because of the legislative stalemate.

At issue was a request from the state Department of Revenue to collect and spend $166,000 in fees from immigrant applicants to keep up with high demand for the program and potentially expand it.

After weeks of negotiations, legislative budget writers readjusted the request to $66,000. That will allow the revenue department to serve immigrant applicants at three motor vehicle offices in the state, instead of having just one location in Denver. The two other locations have not been determined.

When the program started in August, there were five offices around the state, but with temporary staff. Democrats and the department wanted the $166,000 to make staff at those locations permanent and open more offices if enough fees came in.

Democrats and immigrant advocates feared that with only one location open some applicants would have to wait years for their turn to get a license.

Rep. Millie Hamner, one of the Joint Budget Committee members who negotiated the agreement, said both sides had to budge. “It’s one of those things where nobody is ever fully happy,” she said.

The agreement still needs to be approved by each chamber - a likely outcome because it’s backed by the Joint Budget Committee and legislative leaders.

Democrats passed the program in 2013 when they controlled both chambers of the statehouse. Every Republican lawmaker opposed the program then.

Democrats kept control of the House after November’s elections, and Republicans took over the Senate for the first time in 10 years. That gave them power over an initiative that they argued legitimized illegal immigration. That made a potential expansion an unpalatable proposition for the party.

“We still have concerns over the overall program. But we were able to come to some compromise here on this one, and we’re happy with it,” Republican Sen. Kevin Grantham said.

Supporters of the program argue it improves public safety because immigrants will know the rules of the road and can be properly identified during accidents. Police chiefs and sheriffs wrote lawmakers last month in support of the licenses.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat who sponsored the bill to implement the program, applauded the Joint Budget Committee’s deal. “I see this as a first step to demonstrate that this is a vital public safety program,” he said.

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