Sunday, October 23, 2005

DENVER — The issue of illegal immigration has emerged as the October surprise in Colorado’s hard-fought campaign over ballot measures that would suspend the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

With the Nov. 1 election locked in a dead heat, opponents of the initiatives, called Referendums C and D, launched a full-court press last week aimed at connecting the proposed state funding increase to the high cost of illegal immigration.

“What the other side is saying is, ‘Let’s give a blank check to the politicians and then turn a blind eye to one of the biggest drivers in the budget,’” said Jon Caldara, who is running the “Vote No, It’s Your Dough” campaign against Referendums C and D.

The Vote No campaign, which announced its strategy last week at a state Capitol press conference, released automated phone messages linking the initiatives to illegal immigration. Another committee against the referendums began airing a radio ad targeting the budget impact of undocumented workers.

Proponents of the ballot measures cried foul, countering that the state has little control over spending on illegal aliens. Emergency hospital care, public education and other services for illegal aliens may cost the state millions of dollars, but are mandated by federal law.

“These issues are so unrelated. It’s a red herring,” said Katy Atkinson, the political strategist running the Vote Yes campaign. “Colorado will continue to comply with federal law no matter what happens with C and D. What they’re talking about is holding Colorado hostage until we get some federal reforms.”

Despite polls showing strong support for curbing illegal immigration, politicians tend to steer clear of the issue.

Republicans haven’t forgotten what happened in 1994 with Proposition 187, the California initiative aimed at cutting off services for illegal aliens. Backed by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, the measure passed easily but generated a backlash among Hispanic voters, who helped usher in an era of Democratic dominance in that state.

The result was different in Arizona last year. Voters approved Proposition 200, a California-style measure to stop state services for illegal aliens, without any backlash. Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who opposed the measure, ultimately was forced to declare a state of emergency on border enforcement.

Those events could lead to illegal immigration’s emergence as a top issue in the 2006 election, especially if the tactic works in Colorado.

Referendums C and D would suspend the state’s taxpayers’ rebate for five years and return the funding, an estimated $3.7 billion, to the state for education, roads and health care.

The Vote No radio ad, sponsored by the Backbone Issue Committee, says Colorado has 275,000 illegal-alien “lawbreakers,” and it’s time to stop “subsidizing” them.

“The silent invasion of illegal aliens is taking money from every taxpayer,” state Rep. Dave Schultheis says in the ad. “Colorado politicians just want to take your [state tax] refund to pay for all of this. That’s wrong.”

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