States can get an extra 19 months to begin beefing up security of their driver's licenses, blunting a major complaint with the federal Real ID Act but still leaving states facing an estimated $14.6 billion in costs with little help from Washington, D.C.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Thursday (March 1) that states unable to meet the law's May 11, 2008, deadline for revamping how they issue licenses and verify the citizenship of applicants can apply for a postponement.
The concession was enough to convince U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to drop legislation that sought to force a delay. But it removes only one of several problems that have led at least 20 state legislatures to consider bills protesting or threatening not to comply with the 2005 law, which was designed to keep driver's licenses out of the hands of terrorists and illegal immigrants.
Congressional opponents said they were glad to have extra time to consider the impacts on civil liberties and lack of funding of Real ID, which sets uniform security features for driver's licenses and requires states to verify the identity of all applicants. But they haven't ruled out repealing the law.
On the eve of the proposed rules, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) of Hawaii submitted a bill to reject the act. He called for hearings he said should have been held before Real ID was attached, bypassing debate, to a bill funding the war in Iraq and international aid after the Asian tsunami.
In announcing the long-awaited draft rules carrying out the law, Chertoff said states will be allowed to use 20 percent of their homeland security grant money to offset costs. Congress has appropriated only $40 million to assist states.
New figures from the Department of Homeland Security ( DHS) pegged the costs to states at $14.6 billion - more than the $11 billion state motor vehicle administrators estimated last year. In addition, the law will impose $7.9 billion in costs on individuals and $617 million on the federal government, according the homeland security figures.
Chertoff acknowledged that most of the burden of paying for Real ID would fall on states. But he defended the act, saying that improving driver's license security was one of the "cardinal recommendations" of a bipartisan panel that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Raising the security standards on driver's licenses establishes another layer of protection to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using fake documents to plan or carry out an attack. These standards correct glaring vulnerabilities exploited by some of the 9/11 hijackers who used fraudulently obtained driver's licenses to board the airplanes in their attack against America," the secretary said at a news conference.
Chertoff underscored that the regulations were not meant to be prescriptive, but must include a person's full legal name, date of birth and a digital photograph, among other things. Motor vehicle offices still will be required to authenticate a variety of official documents including birth certificates, passports, U.S. visas and social security cards. The draft rules also require states to verify two unofficial documents that show an applicant's street address — which could include a bank or mortgage statement or even a utility bill - but leaves states to choose their own methods for this.
However, states would not be required to maintain a database of biometric information, such as scans of fingerprints or irises. A barcode required under the Real ID act is already used by 46 states, according to DHS.
If a state does not meet the law's standards, license-holders in that state will not be able to use their ID to board airplanes or enter federal buildings, among other things.
Chertoff also announced that state officials, who had been part of a shared rulemaking process to improve license security before the Real ID Act, will be invited to weigh in on the proposed regulations during the 60-day comment period before they are finalized.
Molly Ramsdell, a transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures said that if states delay when they begin implementing the law, they still will have to re-issue licenses to all of the nation's 245 million drivers by May 2013. In effect, that shortens the time states have to fully comply and could increase their costs, she said. State officials are calling for a 10-year timeline to meet the law's requirements.
"[The Department of Homeland Security] had an opportunity in implementing the act to make it more affordable and workable. ... The choices they made have not made it more affordable," she said.
State lawmakers have railed at the costs and deadlines imposed on states and at the federal intrusion into what had been a state responsibility to license motorists. Critics also have argued that the imposition of uniform federal standards would result in a national identification card and that databases necessary to verify applicants' identity would open the door to invasions of privacy and identify theft.
The Montana House voted overwhelmingly Jan. 30 to reject the Real ID Act and refuse to comply. On Jan. 25, both chambers of the Maine Legislature passed a non-binding resolution protesting the law and urging Congress to repeal it. Bills or resolutions protesting the law are pending in at least 19 other statehouses across the country.
"We're watching to make sure this doesn't become a big unfunded mandate," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) a former governor of Tennessee, and co-sponsor of Collins' measure to delay the act.
In addition to the Akaka bill, U.S. Rep. Tom Allen (D) of Maine has submitted a bill repealing Real ID.