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Lawmakers Set to Debate Driver’s License Program

Posted: February 8, 2016 at 3:07 pm by , in Capitol Coverage, Morning Magazine

A bill to expand a state program to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in Colorado will be introduced at the state capitol later this month. As Bente Birkeland reports, the heated political topic shows no signs of letting up this session.

 

Democrats passed the original bill in 2013 when they controlled both legislative chambers. It allows undocumented immigrants who have lived in Colorado for last two years and have paid taxes to get a license, if they pay an extra fee.

“I want to know when I’m driving that the people driving next to me know the same rules as I do. Especially when you come from a different country, road signs might look different,” said Representative Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont). He’s sponsoring a bill that would expand the program to 32 driver’s license offices across the state. Right now it operates in Denver, Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. And the program has suffered from a lack of funding authority to expand it so wait times can be up to two years.

“They deserve the opportunity to show that they are willing to be a part of our community, willing to play by the rules,” said Singer.

The Colorado Department of Revenue says it has collected nearly $1.6 million in fees but lawmakers only authorized the department to spend less than half that amount for the program. Which leaves many undocumented immigrants standing in line.

“I’ve never had an accident and I’m very careful but I don’t want to get into an accident, not having a driver’s license to cover myself,” said Marvin. He’s a handy man from Greeley but didn’t want to use his last name because he’s living in the country illegally. He’s originally from Guatemala and said he has to drive for work and has been unable to get a license through the program after trying for a year.

“I just put 400 calls to see if I can get an appointment, and it’s impossible,” said Marvin.

So impossible that the Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is now investigating cases of people hording and selling appointment times for prices as high as $1,000. But unless the program is offered more places it won’t change.

“To give a driver’s license to somebody who is not in the country legally gives a tacit legal status to their presence and that is sending a message loud and clear that if you get here we’ll make it ok later on,” said Senator Kevin Lundberg (R- Berthoud).

That’s Republicans blocked the spending authority last year strongly oppose expanding it. Lundberg says he would prefer driver’s license program go away altogether.

“I don’t support facilitating the policy with additional offices all over the state,” said Lundberg.

Department of Revenue figures show the state has issued nearly 18,000 licenses so far. Immigrant activists estimate about 150,000 people qualify for the program. Representative Singer said he’s hopeful both parties can negotiate  this session and find a middle ground to improve access.