An anti-terrorism law creating a national standard for all driver's licenses by 2008 isn't just upsetting civil libertarians and immigration rights activists.
State motor vehicle officials nationwide who will have to carry out the Real ID Act say its authors grossly underestimated its logistical, technological and financial demands.
In a comprehensive survey obtained by The Associated Press and in follow-up interviews, officials cast doubt on the states' ability to comply with the law on time and fretted that it will be a budget buster.
"It is just flat out impossible and unrealistic to meet the prescriptive provisions of this law by 2008," Betty Serian, a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said in an interview.
Nebraska's motor vehicles director, responding to the survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said that to comply with Real ID her state "may have to consider extreme measures and possibly a complete reorganization."
And a new record-sharing provision of Real ID was described by an Illinois official as "a nightmare for all states."
"Can we go home now??" the official wrote.
States use a hodgepodge of systems and standards in granting driver's licenses and identification cards. In some places, a high school yearbook may be enough to prove identity.
A major goal of Real ID — which was motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks, whose perpetrators had legitimate driver's licenses — is to unify the disparate licensing rules and make it harder to fraudulently obtain a card.
The law also demands that states link their record-keeping systems to national databases so duplicate applications can be detected, illegal immigrants caught and driving histories shared.
State licenses that fail to meet Real ID's standards will not be able to be used to board an airplane or enter a federal building.
The law, which was attached to a funding measure for the Iraq war last May, has been criticized by civil libertarians who contend it will create a de facto national ID card and new centralized databases, inhibiting privacy.
State organizations such as the National Governors Association have blasted the law as well. Many states will have to amend laws in order to comply.
Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Real ID's principal backer, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said there is no chance states might win a delay of the 2008 deadline.
"We gave three years for this process," he said. "Every day that we continue to have security loopholes, we're at greater risk."
The August survey by the motor vehicle administrators' group, which has not been made public, asked licensing officials nationwide for detailed reports on what it will take to meet Real ID's demands.
It was not meant to produce an overall estimate of the cost of complying with Real ID. But detailed estimates produced by a few states indicate the price will blow past a February 2005 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated Congress would need to spend $100 million reimbursing states.
Pennsylvania alone estimated a hit of up to $85 million. Washington state projected at least $46 million annually in the first several years.
Separately, a December report to Virginia's governor pegged the potential price tag for that state as high as $169 million, with $63 million annually in successive years. Of the initial cost, $33 million would be just to redesign computing systems.
It remains unclear how much funding will come from the federal government and how much the states will shoulder by raising fees on driver's licenses.
"If you begin to look at the full ramifications of this, we are talking about billions and billions of dollars. Congress simply passed an unfunded mandate," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Every motorist in America is going to pay the price of this, of the Congress' failure to do a serious exploration of the cost, the complexity, of the difficulty."
The survey respondents and officials interviewed by the AP noted that many concerns might be resolved as the Department of Homeland Security clarifies its expectations for the law — such as whether existing licenses can be grandfathered in — before it takes effect May 11, 2008.
As of now, however, it appears little has changed since the survey described a multitude of hurdles.
— The law demands that states mine multiple databases to check the accuracy of documents submitted by license applicants. Several states questioned how that will work, especially with confirming birth certificates. Iowa said it didn't think the states would be able to make the required vital-records upgrades within three years.
— Some states' ancient computing systems will have to be overhauled in order to link to other networks. Minnesota runs a 1980s-era mainframe system; Rhode Island says its "circa 1979" COBOL-based network will require a $20 million upgrade.
— Many states don't make drivers prove they are legally in the country, but the law will now demand such documentation. It also calls for states to run license applications through a federal database known as SAVE that was launched by a 1986 law aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from receiving federal benefits. One problem, though, is that the "SAVE database is notoriously unreliable ... months behind," said South Carolina's response to the survey.
— After drivers submit documents to prove their identities, states will have to retain paper copies of those documents for at least seven years or digital images for 10 years. Some states fretted about the storage costs; others worried about how to capture images of all those files. Alabama's survey response called the project "massive," saying that while the state had the proper equipment at six licensing centers, "we do not have the resources to equip all of our 79 offices." Added Massachusetts: "This equipment is very expensive!"
— Real ID requires that a license show someone's principal residence. But state officials object that a mailing address makes more sense for many people — for "snowbirds" who spend time in two states, for example or for public officials who want to protect their privacy. "What should the procedure be for a person who lives in a RV?" asks South Dakota's report.
— The law calls for a person's "full legal name," no nickname or abbreviations, on licenses. Cards have to be redesigned and databases must be reprogrammed to make room for extremely long names, likely up to 125 characters. That's not an easy process. By itself it accounts for $4 million of North Dakota's $5.9 million estimated impact.
— Motor-vehicle employees will be subject to background checks, but several officials said it was unclear what would disqualify someone from being able to process licenses. Maryland's response said waiting for security clearances "could cause staffing shortage."
— Real ID demands that all driver's licenses or ID cards have pictures that can be read by facial-recognition technology. That would end many states' practice of letting people with certain religious beliefs request not to have a picture. Tennessee, meanwhile, allows anyone older than 60 to get a "valid without photo" license.
"If you take any one of these things individually, you see a significant problem," Steinhardt said. "There are literally hundreds of these problems embedded in Real ID, and the statute doesn't give you a way out. It's black and white. No exceptions, no reality check.
"In many respects it's a statute that ignores reality."