DENVER — Passage of Referendum C would remove any incentive for state lawmakers to do something about taxpayers’ money paying for illegal immigrants’ use of government services, opponents of that ballot measure warned Wednesday.
Independence Institute President Jon Caldara predicted that if C passes — allowing the state to spend a projected $3.7 billion it otherwise would have to refund — “Colorado again misses an opportunity to take on a tough political issue.”
Caldara and three legislators at a state Capitol news conference said budget belt- tightening that may be needed after a defeat of Referendum C could force the Legislature to finally calculate and cut state spending on people who aren’t in this country legally.
While Caldara and other Referendum C foes have recently injected illegal-immigration issues into their campaign to defeat the ballot measure, Gov. Bill Owens called the tactic “a smoke screen” from people who fear they’re losing the debate.
Referendum C advocate Owens said federal laws and regulations dictate when state government must pay for certain services to illegal immigrants, such as covering emergency health-care expenses.
“Our hands are tied by the federal government, by laws, by judicial decisions,” Owens said. He added that state government is not providing any assistance to illegal immigrants other than what it’s required to.
Steve Tool, executive director of the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, observed Caldara’s news conference and told reporters afterward that the state spent about $38.4 million on Medicaid in fiscal 2004-05 for emergency medical services to immigrants.
Tool said the state had no way to determine how much of that money went to medical care for legal immigrants and how much for illegals.
Referendum C and its companion ballot measure, the $2.1 billion bonding proposal in Referendum D, have “nothing to do with the problem of illegal immigration in Colorado,” Owens said during his own news conference about state highway needs.
Regardless whether C passes or fails, Colorado will continue to have to do “exactly what we already are required to do for those people who happen to be in our state illegally,” Owens said.
Based on estimates in a report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Caldara said that spending includes more than half a billion dollars a year alone in state and local funding for children of illegal immigrants attending public schools in Colorado.
However, neither Caldara nor the three lawmakers at his news conference — Republican Sens. Tom Wiens of Castle Rock and Jim Dyer of Centennial and Rep. Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs — provided figures from the state itself to tally what is being spent on education, human services or health care for illegal immigrants in Colorado.
Wiens, though, said he’s grateful the issue has become part of the debate over C and D, because illegal immigration is “a significant burden” on Colorado taxpayers.
Caldara called it “one of the largest financing issues” facing the Legislature and is “one of the issues that needs to be explored in this debate.”
“How can we ask Coloradans to give up their tax refunds?” Caldara asked, when the Legislature hasn’t addressed the impact of illegal immigration on the state budget.
Dyer said some C and D backers have accused opponents of racism for raising the immigration budget-burden issue, but he said: “That’s pure nonsense. I don’t care if they come from Finland. The issue is the taxpayers supporting people who are here illegally.”
John Fryar can be reached by e-mail at