A bill expanding the number of Colorado motor vehicle offices that offer undocumented residents the opportunity to obtain a driver's license or state identification card passed a Senate committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 139 won 5-2 approval (with Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial voting in favor with the Democrats) from the Senate Finance Committee. 

The bill would increase the number of motor vehicle offices that can offer first-time appointments for driver's licenses to undocumented residents from 3 offices to 10.

The number of offices, under an amendment offered by sponsor Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, would be phased in  four additional offices would be added in the next fiscal year, and the rest would be added the year after. The program is self-funded through fees charged to those obtaining the licenses, which are good for three years.

No one testified against the bill in Thursday's hearing, but the committee heard from witnesses all over the state regarding problems with the program.

It's something of a victim of its own success; demand has far exceeded the number of available appointments. Those who attempt to get appointments sometimes must drive from the Eastern Plains to Grand Junction, one of the offices that offers first-time license appointments. 

The Colorado Dairy Association's Brock Herzberg told the committee that workers at the state's 120 family-owned dairy farms, mostly in northeastern Colorado, are paying up to $1,000 to brokers who get appointments.

Even renewal appointments, available at only one office in the entire state, are up for sale, he said.

"The system is lagging behind demand," he said. "Our [dairy] owners are willing to pay the fee" for the licenses, at about $100, as part of an employee package.

"It's important for them to have these licenses and documentation," he added. 

H2B visas, which are provided to non-resident seasonal workers, don't work for the dairy industry, he added. Dairy farms are a year-round business. Some employees have worked for those farms for more than a decade, he explained.

"The program hasn't worked as efficiently as we would have liked," said Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, the bill's other prime sponsor. Moreno said some people book appointments and then have to wait for months. 

The driver's licenses provided to undocumented residents do not allow those holders to vote or use them as identification for employment purposes. A statement printed across the top of the license says "Not Valid For Federal Identification, Voting or Public Benefit Purposes."

Witnesses testified to the difficulties in getting appointments. Even Sen. Rob Woodward of Loveland attempted to sign up for an appointment  as a test  during the hearing.

It's impossible, he said.

Angel Lopez of Manzanares testified that there are two problems: too few offices and too few appointments. She told the committee that ranchers in her part of southern Colorado need their employees to hold licenses to drive and manage equipment. Many times their employees have to miss work to travel for their appointments.

The state, through legislation passed in 2018, capped the number of appointments during the program's lifetime to 66,000, at which time the state would close down two of the three offices for first-time appointments. That cap will be reached in June, according to the Department of Revenue.

Woodward attempted to slow down the bill's adoption by asking that it include a petition clause that would allow a challenge to the law on the 2020 ballot.

"I'm not convinced this is a safety issue," he said.

"Do you drive?" asked Coram. "Do you have insurance? If you look at your insurance, you're paying a fee for uninsured motorists. This affects everyone in the state."

Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument, along with Woodward a "no" vote, said he had been hopeful the federal government would deal with the immigration issue.

"I am reticent to relieve pressure" on that debate with bills like this, he said.

Coram got laughs when he responded that "I'm not comfortable waiting on Congress to do anything. It will happen when there is peace in the Middle East and mattresses are not on sale." 

This is common sense, Tate said, in announcing his "yes" vote. "There's demand" and the associated revenue to fund it.

The bill moves on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further action.

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