Bipartisan Colorado immigrant driver bill advances

 Brennan Linsley / AP

A bipartisan bill introduced this week in the Colorado legislature would expand the state's program for granting undocumented immigrants driver's licenses and state identification cards from its current four offices to at least 10.

Senate Bill 139 is sponsored by Republican Sens. Don Coram of Montrose and Kevin Priola of Henderson and Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City.

Coram told Colorado Politics recently that the bill as introduced is likely to change, to address problems that have surfaced over the ID program's five-year history.

The biggest is a cap on the number of drivers' licenses or other identity documents that can be granted under the program. Initial estimates from the 2013 bill said that Colorado had about 200,000 undocumented residents and about one-third would be expected to apply for drivers' licenses or ID cards.

In the 2018-19 state budget, conservative budget writers put a cap on the number of people who could obtain those special driver's licenses or ID cards.

The cap was contained in a footnote in the budget that noted the fiscal analysis of the 2013 legislation estimated a total of 66,000 individuals would request appointments for the documents. But "once the annual appointments for first-time applicants ... falls below 5,000 per year or the total persons served reaches 66,000 the Division will reduce the number of offices that provide the service to one location," the footnote said.

According to Sarah Werner, communications manager for the state Department of Revenue, the division is likely to reach that limit sometime in June. The program would then ratchet down from its current four offices to just one.

Three of the four offices -- in Grand Junction, Lakewood and Colorado Springs -- handle first-time applicants and renewals; the fourth, in Aurora, handles only renewals. The one left standing would be the Lakewood office, according to the department's website.

The program has been plagued with problems tied to its popularity. For one thing, getting an appointment is no easy feat.

The division's website says that appointments are "released at 8 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. each business day." The process is not unlike trying to score top concert or Broncos tickets; if you miss your opportunity, you have to come back later in the day and hope for the best.

And it also matters from which office you seek an appointment. Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling said people in his area have to go to brokers for appointments and those appointments are frequently the furthest away, in Grand Junction.

That's led to scalpers who obtained and then sold the appointments required to obtain the identity documents, some for as much as $1,000 per appointment. Three years ago, then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced her office would launch an investigation into the scammers; however, the attorney general's office, now under Phil Weiser, this week could not confirm or deny whether that investigation ever took place.

Coram sees his 2019 bill -- he tried it in 2018, to no avail -- as an opportunity to help the agriculture and construction industries. A farmer who wants to send a worker to town to pick up supplies runs the risk of losing his business if that worker is undocumented and doesn't have a driver's license, he explained.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, but is assigned to the Senate Finance Committee.

It is expected to carry a hefty cost. Although the program is supposed to be self-supporting, based on the cost of the licenses, the current appropriation for the four offices already in operation is $1.5 million.

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