More hur­dles loom in new year for Colorado’s limp­ing pro­gram

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jesse Paul The Den­ver Post

Colorado’s im­mi­grant driver’s li­cense pro­gram faces a host of new chal­lenges head­ing into the new year that are threat­en­ing to fur­ther dam­age the al­ready-hob­bled ini­tia­tive.

Law­mak­ers are plan­ning sev­eral new bills aimed at keep­ing the con­tro­ver­sial frame­work from fall­ing into fur­ther dis­ar­ray, but the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate jeop­ar­dizes any ef­forts to ex­pand the pro­gram’s fund­ing.

Months-long wait times still plague ap­pli­cants. And based on the es­ti­mated num­ber of peo­ple in the state who are el­i­gi­ble for the li­censes, which are for those liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally, and the dearth of slots to ap­ply, the holdup can stretch out years.

“There’s just no in­ter­est from the leg­is­la­ture in really work­ing on this,” said Lizeth Cha­con, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Colorado Peo­ple’s Al­liance. “I think that, over­all, they want this is­sue left alone.”

In re­cent months, the pro­gram also has been mired by re­ports of fraud schemes aim­ing to swin­dle those des­per­ate to get an ap­point­ment to ap­ply for the li­censes. State pros­e­cu­tors and the Colorado Di­vi­sion of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles say they are in­ves­ti­gat­ing, spurred by the frus­tra­tion of leg­is­la­tors who call the chica-

nery an out­rage. It has be­come a fre­quent topic for law­mak­ers in hear­ings about the pro­gram.

There are re­ports from ac­tivist groups that some peo­ple have paid as much as hun­dreds of dol­lars to il­le­git­i­mate ser­vices claim­ing to be able to move them up in the line.

The li­censes are avail­able by ap­point­ment only, and there are only about 90 slots each day. There could be as many as 150,000 in Colorado who are liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally and el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates.

“We’ve cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that is fa­cil­i­tat­ing scams and ripoff artists,” said state Sen. Pat Stead­man, D-Den­ver, who serves on the leg­is­la­ture’s pow­er­ful Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee. “That really up­sets me. There’s an easy so­lu­tion to this prob­lem. Th­ese folks are pay­ing for this pro­gram, and they are will­ing to pay more.”

The pro­gram is meant to pay for it­self by charg­ing ap­pli­cants about $55 more for a li­cense than nor­mal res­i­dents. But the three Repub­li­can law­mak­ers on the JBC last year de­nied a DMV re­quest to use mon- ey raised by the ini­tia­tive to in­crease the pro­gram’s breadth.

The GOP move fell in line with how the pro­gram’s orig­i­nal fis­cal plan was writ­ten in 2013, which dra­mat­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mated how many peo­ple would seek the li­censes, and left the pro­gram cash­strapped from its Au­gust 2014 start.

“In our es­ti­ma­tion, we are fully fund­ing (the pro­gram),” said Sen. Kent Lam­bert, R-Colorado Springs, who is vice chair­man of the JBC. “If they want to change the rules and ex­pand the pro­gram, then they need to run an­other bill.”

The DMV says it won’t ask for more funds and plans to try to im­prove ser­vices “within its cur­rent al­lo­ca­tion,” a spokes­woman said last week.

The Demo­cratic cau­cus that cre­ated and passed the ini­tia­tive does not have any pub­lic plans to seek more money, cit­ing the Repub­li­can-con­trolled state Se­nate.

“Even if a re­quest came through the House, it likely wouldn’t pass through the Se­nate, given our dy­nam­ics,” said Rep. Mil­lie Ham­ner, D-Dil­lon, who leads the JBC. “I would like to see us re­spond in a much bet­ter way to our res­i­dents who are seek­ing this ser­vice.”

Lam­bert agrees that any at­tempt to ex­pand the ini­tia­tive likely would be shot down.

“I don’t think (Democrats) con­vinced any Repub­li­cans to go along with this scheme,” Lam­bert said. “I think we’ve been ab­so­lutely con­sis­tent about this.”

Head­ing into the 2016 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, Democrats are draft­ing leg­is­la­tion to smooth out im­mi­grants’ ap­pli­ca­tion process and cre­ate pro­tec­tions against fraud.

How­ever, fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the sit­u­a­tion is a pro­vi­sion from the 2013 leg­is­la­tion that could re­duce the num­ber of of­fices offering the li­censes from the cur­rent three to one as early as spring 2017.

The en­abling leg­is­la­tion called for the re­duc­tion once de­mand falls be­low 5,000 per year or the to­tal ap­point­ments served reaches 66,000.

The DMV es­ti­mated it will have served 66,000 be­tween April and Novem­ber 2017.

The li­censes are valid for only three years, mean­ing that the ini­tial batch of ap­pli­cants who were granted li­censes will be up for re­newal about the same time the of­fice num­bers are re­duced. Law­mak­ers and ad­vo­cates say this could spell dis­as­ter and fur­ther elon­gate the wait for im­mi­grants.

Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, a Demo­crat from Adams County who was the ini­tia­tive's cre­ator, says work is be­ing done to ad­dress this loom­ing set­back. “For the folks who chose to play pol­i­tics with it for their own gain, that’s un­for­tu­nate,” he said of his Repub­li­can coun­ter­parts.

Ulibarri added that the bill was aimed at making Colorado roads safer by in­creas­ing the num­ber of li­censed, in­sured driv­ers. He said that is a goal ev­ery­one should be able to sup­port.

But JBC mem­ber Sen. Kevin Gran­tham, R-Cañon City, says he has not seen any stud­ies that have shown whether the new li­censes have im­proved pub­lic safety or not. He added that the ini­tia­tive was passed over the op­po­si­tion of the GOP when Democrats con­trolled the leg­is­la­ture.

“They want us to come in and have the Repub­li­cans bail them out of sit­u­a­tions they cre­ated for them­selves,” Gran­tham said.

“They want the Repub­li­cans to fix their mess.”

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