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New immigration bill carries big price tag but sponsor says no ongoing costs to taxpayers

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 6:13 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A pilot program for foreign workers who have overstayed their visas carries a price tag of more than $4.4 million, according to a fiscal note released Monday by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

But the sponsor of HB300, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said there is no ongoing cost to taxpayers for the pilot program because fees charged to participants will cover its expenses.

"The only costs you can even associate with this is the one-time start up before they start to get money in," Herrod said. The bill also produces savings by replacing last year's controversial guest-worker program, he said.

The bill would create a pilot program that gives people with expired visas ways to obtain legal status but would require changes in federal law before it could be implemented.

The fiscal note states that the Utah Department of Public Safety would need $2.2 million to start up the pilot program and about that much in revenues to issue modified work permits and conduct background checks.

An estimated 2,900 people would pay about $770 each to apply for the permits, bringing in $2.2 million annually, according to the fiscal note. Fines amounting to as much as $10,000 would also be assessed in some cases.

The savings from doing away with the guest worker program set to take effect next year include nearly $6 million in start-up costs and $9 million for permitting and background checks that's expected to be recouped from fees. But some $11.5 million in projected income tax revenues would be lost, the fiscal note states.

House leaders said Monday they had not yet seen the fiscal note, but said a big number attached to any bill can hurt it's chances of passing.

"It makes it a lot harder," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. "But generally, as a Legislature, if it's the right thing to do we find a way to do it … first, you have to get over the hurdle of the policy."

There appears to be little interest in re-visiting the issue of illegal immigration this session, especially since this is an election year for all of the House and much of the Senate.

Herrod said leadership has assured him that his bill will receive a fair hearing. The bill has not yet been assigned to a standing committee to be heard, but Herrod said he expects that will happen now that it has a fiscal note.

He said the bill is a way for lawmakers to make up for passing the guest worker legislation last session. Delegates to the state GOP convention last year voted to recommend that bill's repeal.

"I'm trying to make amends for what I think is a black eye for the state," Herrod, a candidate for the seat held by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. But he acknowledged he may be in for a difficult fight.

"This is not a bill I’m going to fall on my sword for," Herrod said. "You can only beat your head against the wall so many times. People have dug in and they don't see the harm."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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