DENVER -- A proposal to grant Colorado driver's licenses to people in the country illegally got initial approval in a Senate committee Wednesday, marking a shift in a state that seven years ago passed strict enforcement laws.
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 3-2 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor. The proposal still needs to be approved by the full Senate.
Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the sponsor of the bill, argues that immigrants living in the country are already on Colorado roads, and that it would benefit everyone if they were licensed, carried insurance, and knew the rules of the road.
Mesa County Republican Sen. Steve King, a former police officer, said before the hearing that he believed the legislation could improve public safety and that he was leaning toward voting yes. However, he said he was still deeply conflicted about it.
"I was telling Sen. Ulibarri yesterday when he was in my office that in my last six or seven years here in the Legislature, few pieces of legislation had me as conflicted as this one," King said.
Under the measure, immigrants would have to pass a driver's license test and prove they're paying state and federal taxes. They also must show an identification card from their country of origin. Ulibarri said the reason of the qualifying documents is for immigrants to show they are making themselves known to state government.
The licenses would show that the people are not U.S. citizens, so they could not register to vote, or use the identification to board a plane or get work.
Colorado's county sheriffs and police chiefs support the bill.
New Mexico, Illinois and Washington currently allow driver's licenses for those illegally in the country. Utah grants immigrants a driving permit that can't be used for identification.
Colorado Republicans argue the bill goes too far and that state lawmakers should wait for action by the federal government. Berthoud Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg said he's concern that the measure would send the message that it's OK to break federal law.
"My concern is that this policy will encourage more people to come to Colorado illegally," he said.
King said Ulibarri had gone a long way toward addressing concerns of the bill's opponents but that he understood his colleagues' issues with the bill.
Supporters of the driver's license bill said public opinion on illegal immigration in Colorado is changing.
In 2006, Democrats joined Republicans in passing a strict package of immigration laws, including barring non-emergency benefits to those in the country illegally. Lawmakers also passed a requirement for law enforcement to report to federal immigration officials people they arrest who are suspected of being in the country illegally. A bill to repeal that law this year has gone to the governor's desk.