Democratic Senator Jessie Ulibarri meets with immigrant rights activists outside the JBC hearing room. 

(Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee)

Immigrant rights supporters packed a budget committee hearing at the state capitol Thursday afternoon to protest a decision by Republicans to largely cut off funding for a program that grants drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The conflict started with a vote by the powerful Joint Budget Committee.

Republicans on the panel voted Wednesday against allowing money collected from immigrant driver’s license applicants be used to continue the program. The result is that undocumented immigrants throughout Colorado will now only be able to get licenses from a single office in Denver. 

On Thursday, the committee delayed discussing the issue because one of its members, Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, was absent. But it looks likely that the license program could be back on the agenda this coming Monday.

Republican Sen. Kent Lambert, the committee's chair, said that original driver’s license program was previously passed by Democrats. Republicans now in charge are free to do as they please.

"That was a previous general assembly. This is a new general assembly. We have a new composition and we will vote as we want to," Lambert said.

"I don’t know of any Republican that’s ever voted for Senate Bill 251, ever," he later said of the previous upper chamber's version of the measure.

Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, who sponsored the immigrant driver’s license program, says Republican budget committee members are abusing their authority.

"We had a public conversation here to create existing law and it is incredibly rare that the Joint Budget Committee would use a budget maneuver undercut existing law," Ulibarri said.

After the hearing, Ulibarri added that the licenses are in high demand.

"The appointments right now fill up in less than hour. People are wanting to get right with the law, show that they’re tax payers, show that they’re good citizens," he said.

The Joint Budget Committee can reconsider the vote to allow funding for the undocumented immigrant drivers license program in the future. But a Republican member would have to change his position in order for it to pass.