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