WASHINGTON – Risking broad penalties for their residents, lawmakers in several states are fighting implementation of the Real ID Act, a federal measure that seeks to prevent non-compliant cardholders from boarding airplanes or entering federal facilities.
Opponents say national standards for drivers' licenses would be a costly creep into the arms of big brother. Supporters say it is intended to protect Americans' from fraud and potentially terror-related crimes.
"We don't want it, we can't afford it, get rid of it," said Montana Democratic state Rep. Brady Wiseman, who authored the bill ordering the state not to participate in the federal program. The bill passed the Montana House of Representatives on Wednesday along with a companion measure, which challenges the Real ID law on constitutional grounds. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has spoken in favor of Wiseman's bill.
"Out West, people are very protective of their privacy and against an intrusive federal government that wants to collect a lot of data," Wiseman told FOXNews.com before the vote. "There’s a good whiff of a corporate boondoggle around this thing and they (state lawmakers) are finding reasons to reject it. They don't see much benefit to support the cost."
Montana is just one of at least 10 states considering bills to reject the Real ID Act, signed into law in May 2005 as part of the emergency supplemental relief bill to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for tsunami relief. Maine lawmakers last week passed a resolution rejecting the federal Real ID legislation and calls on the state to ignore the rules. Since it is a resolution, it does not require Gov. John Baldacci's signature.
Initiated by the Republican-controlled House to keep illegal aliens from obtaining drivers' licenses and state identification and to prevent would-be terrorists from gaining access to legitimate identities, Real ID takes its cue from recommendations by the Sept. 11 commission, which said a fraud-resistant ID system is necessary for better homeland security.
"The 9/11 commission itself said travel documents are as important to terrorists as explosives. That's why Congress passed the Real ID Act," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., author of the federal bill.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley's nominee to be secretary of transportation, John D. Porcari, told members of the state House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the administration is trying to meet the federal deadline without disrupting services at Motor Vehicle Administration branches.
"We want to strike a balance to be fair to all our customers, make sure customer service doesn't suffer and we're compliant with federal standards," Porcari said.
Among the challenges for Maryland, however, is the fact that the Real ID requires Social Security numbers, which state driver's licenses currently do not. Additionally, Maryland is one of seven states that issues ID cards to persons who are not lawful residents.
Under the federal law, those trying to obtain a new license or state ID must prove their legal residence or citizenship through a birth certificate or another acceptable document. Tamper- and theft-resistant technology like a barcode will be put on the card.
Maryland State Rep. Ronald George, a Republican who introduced a compliance bill last year, said the federal standards are good for everyone involved. Employers can use the new identification to ensure the people they are hiring are legal, and the IDs help fight the War on Terror, for which his state, bordering the nation’s capital, is very sensitive.
“It just makes sense,” George said. “We need to get in compliance.”
But critics say REAL ID goes beyond what the Sept. 11 commission envisioned. Instead of allowing states to develop standards according to national guidelines, under the new law, the federal government is penalizing residents of states that don't comply.
"Some states have considered the possibility that if they don't comply, will all their residents have to get passports to fly?" said Matt Sundin, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which argued against the federal legislation two years ago, but is now focused on working with states to comply and keeping an eye on the states considering non-compliance.
Another challenge for states: the Department of Homeland Security, which has been tasked with administering the program, has only just finished writing the regulations, which require states to be in compliance by May 2008. The Office of Management and Budget has to review the regulations before they are opened to public comment this spring. After a review period of up to 90 days, the regulations are finally approved and put into practice, leaving states little time to get compliant.
“The department, in crafting our regulations, is aware of the time constraints and we did keep that in mind in drafting these regulations,” said DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen, adding that groups representing the state interests were involved in crafting the proposed regulations.
Critics say the cost to the states to shift over their current systems will be enormous. A study commissioned by the NCSL, the National Governors' Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators found that in total, Real ID will cost the states more than $11 billion to implement.
Last year, Congress appropriated $40 million for Real ID pilot funds. No funds were allocated for 2007.
An End the Law Before It's Enacted
Under the new Democratic-led Congress, several lawmakers have expressed doubts about the program and say it’s time to demand changes or a full repeal.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs oversight subcommittee, said he plans to hold hearings on Real ID. Just prior to the end of the last Congress, Akaka and Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., introduced a bill to repeal the Real ID Act.
Akaka said he wants the regulations to reflect a range of protections for individual privacy and states’ rights. He added that he wants to make sure personal data will be secured and other federal agencies and private entities won’t have access to the data. If not, he said he will work to repeal the law.
Alaska privacy activist Bill Scannell, communications director of the Identity Project and founder of the Unreal ID Web site, said he believes state pressure and new scrutiny by Congress will ultimately kill the program.
“It’s all about doing this to our own citizens. We don’t need to believe in black helicopters to see what the next line is … a national ID,” said Scannell. “It’s a big stinking pile of something repulsive."
Not all Real ID–related bills circulating through the state houses call for non-compliance or repeal. Since 2006, 13 bills have ordered the state to meet compliance rules.
And not every state lawmaker thinks REAL ID will be too costly, or will infringe on individual or states’ rights.
“We are at war in this country, and we have to step up to protect ourselves and this is part of it,” said Ronald Collins, a retired Maine state representative who last year helped usher through legislation requiring proof of citizenship for all drivers’ licenses. He said the additional requirement is little cost compared to the benefits a standardized federal ID will bring.
“If we have to put in for additional funding, so be it.”
CNS' Jonathan N. Crawford contributed to this report.