Analysis: Maine says 'No' to Real ID Act

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   Jan. 26, 2007 at 10:17 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Maine lawmakers voted Thursday to reject proposed federal standards for driver licenses, calling on the U.S. Congress to repeal the Real ID Act which imposes them and setting the stage for a battle of wills with Washington.

The resolution, passed unanimously by the state Senate and 137-4 in the House, does not have the force of law, but its authors say that they plan to pass legislation later in the session and believe that Maine will be just the first of many states to oppose the controversial law, which takes effect in 2008.

"This will be model legislation for the country," said Maine Rep. Scott Lansley, a GOP conservative who sports a Ronald Reagan lapel pin. He told United Press International his bill, which would reach the floor "within a month or so," will prohibit the state government spending money to implement Real ID.

The American Civil Liberties Union said similar initiatives were underway in Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.

"Mainers ... alarmed by the threat posed to privacy and identity-security" by Real ID, were "leading a nationwide movement," Shenna Bellows of the Maine Civil Liberties Union told UPI, adding that lawmakers also saw it as "a hugely expensive unfunded mandate."

A Maine Democrat, state House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, told UPI that that the changes the act imposed would cost Maine $185 million over five years and that because the rule-making process has lagged, "even if we wanted to, we don't know how we would comply" with the law's requirements by the 2008 deadline.

"We hope the federal government will listen and repeal the act," she said.

But if they do not, she acknowledged, the state would end up playing "somewhat of a game of chicken."

The Real ID Act, tacked on by GOP Congressional leaders to a must-pass funding bill in 2005, mandates minimum security standards for driver licenses, but also creates a single, inter-operative database of state motor vehicle records that opponents have likened to a national ID card system.

"It will be a one-stop shop for identity thieves," said Bellows, adding that a requirement for machine-readable capability for new licenses would potentially enable government databases to track license holders as they moved around.

Opponents have also said that requirements for license-holders to prove their identity using a short list of acceptable documents will be burdensome on the elderly and economically marginal; and that depriving illegal immigrants of the right to hold a license might make sense in security terms, but will be a disaster for road safety.

Despite the opposition, under the law as it stands, driver licenses issued by states that do not meet the Real ID requirements by May 2008 will no longer be valid for "federal purposes" -- like boarding planes or entering U.S. government buildings.

Supporters of the resolution are quite clear about the possible consequences of the move, said Bellows.

"It is a contest of wills" with Washington, she said. "The federal government needs to hear from the states."

They may get a more sympathetic hearing in the newly Democratic-controlled Congress.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs a Senate homeland security subcommittee with jurisdiction, has already said he plans to push back Real ID's deadlines, and warns that if the long-awaited regulations from the Department of Homeland Security do not provide needed protections for privacy and civil liberties, he will move to repeal the law entirely, resurrecting prior legislation with more leeway on standards for state and federal officials, and additional privacy protections.

"Given the shortsightedness of the law (the Department of Homeland Security) was given by Congress, it may be the case that a complete replacement of the Real ID Act is necessary," he said last month.

Supporters of the law say a massive overhaul of America's 50 driver licensing systems is needed to make them secure against identity thieves and undocumented or illegal aliens.

The act ordered an ambitious set of electronic networks to allow real-time authentication for so-called feeder documents, like social security cards or birth certificates; and the creation of a virtual nationwide database of every license holder, by linking all state license databases.

It also laid down standards for document security and tamper-proof features, and makes non-citizens applying for a license prove that they are lawfully in the United States. For holders of temporary visas, the license issued would expire on the same date as the visa.

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