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Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers under pressure to act as troubled immigrant driver’s license program approaches another large crossroads

If Colorado lawmakers don’t act quickly next year, three of the four offices offering licenses will stop offering the service

In this Aug. 1, 2014 file photo, immigrant and longtime resident of the United States, Rosalva Mireles, left, is photographed and processed for her permanent driver's license at a Division of Motor Vehicles office in Denver. (Brennan Linsley, The Associated Press)
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Three of Colorado’s four Division of Motor Vehicles offices that distribute driver’s licenses to people living in the U.S. illegally could stop offering the service in February if state lawmakers can’t reach an accord early in the 2019 legislative session.

Finding such an agreement — to override a cap that triggers the reduction — is not guaranteed because the politics around the program remain highly charged.

That would mean another major blow to the long-troubled initiative that has been the focus of partisan debate at the state Capitol for years.

“It’s very much on all of our minds,” said Kyle Huelsman, political director for the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition. “I think especially for our members in Grand Junction and out in Yuma and all over the state losing those offices is going to be a huge deal. Even at the current level, the current access to the program is a huge issue.”

The topic could also become a campaign topic ahead of the November elections as Democrats try to retake the state Senate.

There are now four offices that serve first-time applicants for the licenses and those seeking renewals under the 4-year-old program. The offices are in Aurora, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Lakewood.

Combined, the offices can handle 130 first-time and 77 renewal appointments each day. Immigrant advocates say there may be more than 100,000 people eligible under the program.

But state officials estimate that in February they will reach a threshold set by the legislature that triggers reducing the number of offices offering appointments to one — Lakewood’s — if state lawmakers don’t act.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be the No. 1 election-year issue,” said state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, who has been among the program’s proponents. “I don’t think so, but this is one of the things that we are going to have to be pretty expeditious about .”

East view of Colorado Capitol building on Saturday July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

If the reduction occurs, it’s unclear how many appointments would be offered.

“We are still finalizing plans for the service reduction,” said Sarah Werner, a spokeswoman for the Division of Motor Vehicles. “The number of daily appointments will be determined as part of this planning process.”

What’s known is that the change could mean more headaches for eligible people, particularly those in rural communities who will need to travel hours for their appointments.

Even getting an appointment can be difficult. Stories arose during the 2018 legislative session of applicants living in Yuma, in northeast Colorado, driving to Grand Junction to apply for or renew a license.

Under the initiative, which began issuing licenses on Aug. 1, 2014, after 66,000 first-time applicants for the licenses are served, the Division of Motor Vehicles must reduce the number of offices offering licenses to one.

Through the end of August, more than 54,500 people living in the U.S. illegally have received a license. The program also has issued 8,715 instruction permits and 5,000 identification cards.

The 66,000 mandate was part of several problems with the legislation that created the program, which underestimated demand. Since the start, the program has been plagued by a huge backlog of those seeking a license, conflicting requirements for applicants and partisan gridlock over the initiative’s existence.

“We’re working with baling wire and bubble gum to make this work,” Singer said.

In past years, Republicans lawmakers have been unwilling to expand the program, citing concerns about aiding people living in the U.S. illegally.

During the 2018 legislative session, however, the Colorado General Assembly passed Senate Bill 108, which streamlines some documentation requirements for applicants and allowing online and mail-in renewals starting next year.

But a reduction in the number of offices offering appointments would be another setback.

“The legislature will be in session and will have the opportunity to fix this problem before that action becomes a reality,” said outgoing state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillion, who chairs the powerful Joint Budget Committee. “A lot depends on what happens after November and what the makeup of the legislature looks like.”

Money accumulated from the fees that immigrants pay to get the licenses is available to increase the number of offices offering appointments, Hamner said. (Taxpayer money is not used for the program. To cover the program’s costs, applicants are charged $33 each for their licenses compared with $28 for U.S. citizens.)

Even if Democrats don’t retake the state Senate, which would bolster the chances of a fix being passed, Republicans could vote to increase program funding.

“I think we have some indication that could happen,” Hamner said.

Senate President pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was instrumental in getting SB 108 passed in 2018 and has expressed interest in helping to expand the number of offices offering the program.

“I’m supportive of that concept,” he told The Colorado Sun. “If we want to know who’s in our state, there’s no better way than through the driver’s license program because they are driving anyhow.”

He also said he is concerned about the backlog and about brokers who sell appointments.

“Part of the issue now is you have to pay a broker to get an appointment to get a license,” Sonnenberg said. “That is ludicrous. That is crazy. That was never the intent. We need to solve that.”

Sonnenberg is part of talks among some Senate Republicans about what to do next, according to Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.

“It’s something that we’re trying to figure a solution to,” Coram said. “It’s something that we will address. We’re trying to come up with solutions, is all I can tell you.”

Coram acknowledged that GOP senators are split on the program. Some are on board with trying to fix the program, he said, while “others, there’s no damn way.”

The legislature reconvenes Jan. 4.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.