State Officials Not Sold on New License Rules
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
State officials and some in Congress remain skeptical about new federal rules for driver's licenses, even after major changes designed to cut the cost of those rules and provide more flexibility.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Friday (Jan. 11) released final rules for the Real ID Act of 2005, giving states nearly five extra years to verify the identity of an estimated 245 million drivers and reissue secure licenses to them. The regulations also give states more leeway in securing the licensing process and in what fraud-prevention features are required on the actual cards.
"We initially estimated Real ID would cost states more than $11 billion. These regulations offer states some flexibility that may tame those costs," said William T. Pound, executive director of the bi-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures. "Still, the fact remains that the administration has not asked Congress to fund state costs, and Congress has only provided states $90 million," Pound said.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-sponsor of a bill to repeal Real ID, blasted the finalized rules as too little too late. "It is unfortunate that instead of addressing the fundamental problems this law poses for the states, the Administration appears content merely to prolong a contentious and unproductive battle to force the states to comply," he said in a written statement.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that the revised rules would cost states $3.9 billion over 10 years and said the average price of each new license would rise just $8 under Real ID - a bargain for the added protection from terrorism and fraud.
"For an added $8 per license, Real ID will give law enforcement and security officials a powerful advantage against falsified documents, and it will bring some peace of mind to citizens wanting to protect their identity from theft by a criminal or illegal alien," Chertoff said.
The biggest reduction in costs will come from stretching out the process: Instead of requiring that states reissue all of their licenses by between this year and 2013, those over 50 years old can delay getting a Real ID until 2017.
DHS had previously given states until May to request a delay to begin issuing Real IDs by the end of 2009. California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Ohio have already been approved for that extension, said Darrell Williams, director of the Real ID program office at DHS.
Under the final rules, states that receive an extension must meet 18 benchmarks by the end of 2009, including completing background checks on motor vehicle agency employees and incorporating specific security features on the cards, such as a digital photo and an electronic watermark.
By May 2011, all states must verify the identity and legal residence of all license holders under 50 years old using the five electronic databases required by the law. Those over 50 years old at that time will not be required to get a Real ID until Dec. 1, 2017.
David Quam, chief lobbyist for the National Governors Association, said that overall it was clear that DHS had taken states' concerns into consideration. But he said there are still major questions about whether the federal government can find a way for all 50 states to electronically verify data varying from birth records to visa status. Only one of the five databases required by the law is now available to all states.
The flexibility and extended time frames recognize that nearly half of the states already have taken such steps to improve the security of their licenses and their licensing process, Richard Barth, assistant secretary of homeland security told state officials during a Jan. 11 conference call.
One area that DHS will not be flexible on is enforcement: Beginning in May, non-compliant licenses cannot be used to board a commercial flight or enter a federal building. Chertoff said that will directly affect citizens in six states that have passed laws rejecting Real ID, regardless of the any security measures that state has applied to its licenses. Residents in those states will instead have to use military or other federal identification or passports at the airports.
Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington have passed laws refusing to comply with the act over the concerns of its cost, infringement on state practice and threats to personal privacy. Georgia has given the governor the authority to ignore the law if he deems it to expensive and the Idaho Legislature has pointedly rejected any funding for Real ID.