Colorado's House Transportation and Local Government Committee gave the next green light on Wednesday to a bill that would expand the state's driver's license program for undocumented immigrants.
Senate Bill 139 would add six additional offices that can accept appointments for those licenses, as well as state identification cards, to the four already in place: three that handle new appointments, in Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and Lakewood, and one in Aurora that only handles renewals.
The program is self-funded, according to the Department of Revenue, through the fees charged for the licenses. The six additional offices are mostly in rural parts of the state: Lamar, Montrose, Glenwood Springs, Pueblo, Alamosa and Sterling. The first four could open later this year, the last two by July 2020.
The committee voted 8-3, with Republican Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose voting with the committee's Democrats to send the bill on to the House Appropriations Committee.
The special driver's licenses and ID cards cannot be used for voting purposes and are marked accordingly, a provision from a 2013 law that created the program for undocumented residents. At the time it was estimated that 66,000 people would participate in the program.
But demand far outweighed supply almost from the beginning, and the program has been plagued with accusations that brokers are illegally selling appointments, or that some who seek the licenses have to spend the entire day — and that means time and wages lost — in order to travel to appointments, some all the way across the state.
Democratic Rep. Rochelle Galindo of Greeley worked on the issue long before she was in the House. She told the committee that expanding the program was her top priority for this session. The bill is supported by several agricultural groups, including the Colorado Dairy Association, Rocky Mountain Farmers' Union and the Colorado Livestock Association, she said.
Marissa Molina from fwd.us, a pro-immigrant group, testified that 35 percent of Colorado's agricultural workers are immigrants, both legal and undocumented, based on data from the Michael Bloomberg-founded New American Economy, a pro-immigration research and policy organization.
Co-sponsor Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat, told the committee that the program addresses a public safety issue. Undocumented residents who obtain driver's licenses have to demonstrate they know how to drive, register their vehicles and then obtain motor vehicle insurance, he added.
No one testified against the bill during Wednesday's hearing, and only a handful of witnesses testified in favor.
Gloria Perez of Fort Morgan sent in a letter that said she is a native of Mexico who came to Colorado in 2000. She drove for years without a license because she had to in order to survive, even after being stopped for minor infractions and warned to stop driving, she said.
There's no public transportation in Fort Morgan, she pointed out, and she also had medical issues that required appointments outside of her community. Once the program launched in 2013, Perez began to seek appointments and twice bought them from a broker. Eventually, she received a license, as did her husband.
Singer referred to the practice of selling appointments as akin to ticket scalping to "people who are trying to do the right thing."
Republican Rep. Kimmi Lewis of Kim, one of the three "no" votes, said she didn't understand the public safety aspect of the bill and that she opposes growth in government, which she said has occurred far too often this session.