Governors Decry New Driver's License Rules

 

The nation's governors lambasted new driver's license requirements being imposed by the federal government as costly and burdensome, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) became the first to threaten to challenge the law in court for infringing on states' rights.

Governors raised objections in a closed-door meeting here with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during the final day of the National Governors Association's annual meeting.

Richardson told Stateline.org that the stronger identification verification rules, adopted by Congress May 10 as a national security measure, are costly and intrusive and unconstitutionally trample states' rights.

"This is a state function, and I think it's bad policy. In New Mexico, the Legislature approved a measure to provide licenses to illegal immigrants, and it's working. It increases safety. It increases insurance rates by motorists. ... This is going to be a nightmare. So we will challenge it constitutionally. ... We'll sue," Richardson said.

New Mexico is one of 10 states that do not require license applicants to demonstrate they are legally present in the United States, effectively granting licenses to illegal immigrants. Congress adopted the tougher driver's license rules after four of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 attacks used valid state-issued driver's licenses to board the airplanes they later crashed; the law aims to prevent states from issuing licenses to illegal immigrants that could be used for identification purposes.

For the first time, a uniform nationwide policy will require at least four forms of identification to obtain a driver's license, and states will develop and link databases containing drivers' identities. States must comply in three years or their driver's licenses no longer will be accepted as valid ID by federal agencies.

Several governors from both sides of the aisle echoed Ricahrdson's concerns about the cost and feasibility of the requirements. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) said the requirements could raise consumers' costs for a license from an average of $10 or $15 to as much as $100, adding that the measure dramatically expands the scope of state motor vehicle officials' duties.

"They're basically going to require departments of motor vehicles to be the first line of immigration policy in the country, which doesn't seem to be very well thought through," Warner said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that the federal law could cost states billions of dollars. The U.S. House of Representatives has included $100 million to assist states in its version of the 2006 Homeland Security appropriations bill. The Senate version of the bill provides $40 million. Several governors worry the proposed federal funds would constitute a drop in the bucket compared to the total administrative costs imposed on states.

"This effort, as a practical matter, is much more difficult than Congress seemed to see when they passed this law," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

Governors and Chertoff said they agreed to a formal process giving governors input as specific regulations are drawn up.

"I'm not sure we got a lot of answers except assurances that they would work with us. ... If you want to have a national ID card, fine, but you need to issue it and not try to get it done in 50 states," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), whose state recently launched a driver's certificate program for illegal immigrants.

Tennessee's program could provide a model for other states that wish to continue regulating drivers who are illegal immigrants. The new federal law allows state driver's certificates for undocumented workers, but the U.S. government will not accept the certificate as valid identification for purposes such as boarding an airplane.

Chertoff told reporters that he would work with governors to develop and comply with the new standards. He also reiterated a commitment to make sure that homeland security money flows to areas that are most vulnerable to or face the greatest risk of terrorist attack.

"I can't tell you which states are going to be winners or losers because we don't look at this in terms of political jurisdiction," Chertoff said, explaining that efforts to safeguard Iowa-grown agricultural products, for instance, could increase food security nationwide.

Governors also met with Lt. Gen. H. Stephen Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau, and Gordon Mansfield, deputy secretary of veterans' affairs, to discuss concerns with lengthy National Guard deployments, benefits for Guard members and reservists, and the military's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

The impact of wartime Guard deployments on the part-time fighting force's ability to recruit and retain soldiers, as well as to protect the homeland after a man-made or natural disaster, has been on governors' minds since the start of the war in Iraq.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said the war's toll on National Guard members has been particularly high.

"It's affecting that community of soldiers in a very difficult way -- in a very different way -- than we've ever seen before," Huckabee said.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) said some governors groused that the Air Force did not adequately consult them before announcing which Air National Guard facilities would be closed or realigned during the recent BRAC round.

On the closing day of the meeting, Huckabee took over as NGA chairman and unveiled details of the "Healthy America" initiative he will pursue over the next year. The effort aims to promote a "culture of health" in the United States, Huckabee said. A six-governor task force, composed of Huckabee, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack (D) South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and Bredesen, will hold forums on the topic in the coming months.

Napolitano was selected as the NGA's new vice chairwoman and will succeed Huckabee at the NGA's 2006 summer meeting July 21 - 24 in Biloxi, Miss.

 
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