A proposed amendment to the Colorado constitution that aims to cut government services to illegal immigrants will cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than it will save them.
That is, if the estimated fiscal impact of a failed 2005 bill with similar wording is a good guide.
Defend Colorado Now, a group founded by Tom Tancredo, the Colorado congressman known for his anti-immigration views, is in the process of gathering some 68,000 signatures in hopes of placing the measure on the November ballot. If voters endorse it at the polls, illegal immigrants could be disqualified from receiving state services related to medical care, higher education, vehicle registration, court translation, public defense and child welfare, among others.
Representatives of Defend Colorado Now say their proposal would alleviate financial pressures on the state, which is recovering from a four-year budget crisis.
But a non-partisan state budget analysis for House Bill 1271, introduced last year by Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, and killed in committee, showed that bill, nearly identical to the current proposal, would save state agencies $921,000 and cost them $6.9 million over two years.
That money would be spent on upgrading or purchasing computers capable of maintaining databases that track Coloradans' citizenship status, and training employees how to use them.
Richard Lamm, a Democrat and former state governor, is a co-chair of Defend Colorado Now. He refused to be interviewed over the phone by the Independent, saying in an e-mail that he has had "such trouble being covered on this subject" that he preferred to answer questions in writing.
He writes that the fiscal analysis of Schultheis' bill omits the costs of illegal immigration to Colorado's economy.
"No in-depth study has been done in Colorado, although studies done in other states indicate there is a tremendous cost associated with providing the infrastructure to support taxpayer-subsidized cheap labor," Lamm writes.
He adds that his group is studying such costs, and expects to release the results in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, who leads opposition group Keep Colorado Safe, says the state's analysis of the Schultheis bill is an excellent starting point for assessing the costs of the proposed amendment. The analysis, he notes, doesn't factor in the costs of lawsuits to agencies that may face accusations of bias or improper usage of citizenship databases.
His group also is launching a study. Its focus likely will be the benefits of undocumented workers to businesses, such as the state's hotels.
"What if we lost those workers because of the amendment?" Gonzalez-Estay asks. "What would the impact be? That's what we're looking at."
He adds that the constitutional amendment appears "mean-spirited," preying on Coloradans' worst fears about foreigners.
If the measure were to pass, he says, it could lead to racial profiling, with people who look or sound foreign being singled out for scrutiny by government officials and the general public. He also notes that children may be denied important social or health services because of their legal status as non-residents, regardless of need.
Lamm counters that workers are pinched in what amounts to an underground economy.
"I believe a tight labor market is the best thing our poor could have," he writes. "If we really want to get employers going into the inner city and training people, we should have a tight labor market. But the initiative doesn't impact the two crucial areas where children are involved, [public schools] and emergency health care."
In 2004, Defend Colorado Now tried to rally the same measure to the ballot. Its effort failed amid legal and political pressure from Keep Colorado Safe and its allies.
This year, Gonzalez-Estay says his group will fight the measure in "any way." Lamm describes the group's tactics as "anti-democratic."
Keep Colorado Safe is asking the state Supreme Court to review a possible error in the proposal's language that essentially would force Defend Colorado Now to restart gathering signatures.
"It's going to cost money," Gonzalez-Estay says. "Why should we put this in our constitution of Colorado?"
It could be weeks before the case moves forward, he adds.
If the amendment goes to the ballot, number-crunchers for the state will take another look at the economic impacts in an analysis that likely would be included in voter information guides by October.