SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's lawmakers are starting early discussions on what can be done with the illegal immigrant guest worker program that the Legislature created two years ago.
The program, which HB 116 created, is set to start at the beginning of July but lawmakers are now looking at pushing back that start date as it appears the federal government might take up the issue of immigration. Both bodies in Congress are creating immigration reform plans and President Barack Obama called for a comprehensive immigration reform in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night.
"We are looking at moving the date forward to maybe 2014 or 2015," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said. "By pulling the trigger on our July 1 date we put in place some things that we are not ready to implement in the bill that we passed."
Putting the program in place would cost the state an estimated $6 million, according to the fiscal note attached to the legislation passed in 2011. The state is strapped for cash this year and lawmakers may not be interested in finding the money to create a program that could be challenged in court as unconstitutional. So it appears lawmakers are looking to hit the pause button for a few more years to see if Congress will address the issue.
"I would be in favor of moving the date out by a couple of years," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said.
Lockhart said the Legislature's effort in creating the guest worker program came after years of the federal government refusing to address the issue of immigration, and the state has been suffering the consequences of the federal government choosing to not address the issue.
"I hope something happens. I hope that Congress can work together and we can get some sort of solution there," she said.
Lockhart said any bill dealing with the pushback of the date would come from the Senate and not from the House. Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who was the main driver behind the bill in 2011, would be the likely candidate to run legislation to push the start date back for a few years.
The 2011 law would allow for illegal immigrants who can prove that they lived in Utah prior to May 10, 2011, to apply for a guest worker permit. Immigrants who seek out the permit would pay a fine for being illegal and a fee for the permit. The permit would allow them to work in the state of Utah.
Republicans have been divided on the issue. The Utah County Republican Party passed a resolution calling for the repeal of the bill and had the same resolution passed at the State Republican Convention in 2011. Since that time opponents to the law have sought to have the bill repealed and replaced. Former state lawmaker Chris Herrod had a bill to replace the law in the 2012 legislative session, but the bill was stuck in the House rules committee through the entire session.
Lawmakers haven't appeared to have much of an appetite to tackle any immigration policies this session. The only bill thus far that deals with immigration is a resolution supporting the Utah Compact -- a document of guiding principles related to immigration that is supported by the LDS Church, local businesses and many top Republican officials. The resolution has yet to start its journey through the Legislature.