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Federal requirements for driver's licenses a costly headache for states

by Katherine Glover
April 26, 2007

The countdown is on. As of Thursday afternoon the states had just 380 days, 9 hours and 22 minutes to get their driver's licenses in compliance with the Real ID Act of 2005, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site.

That means there's just over a year to issue new driver's licenses and state IDs before the May 11, 2008 federal deadline -- even though the specifics of the new security standards have not been established yet.

To put it mildly, the states are not happy about it.

"It's a headache in many respects," said David Druker, press secretary for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

Druker said the program will cost Illinois an estimated $150 million over five years, and so far the federal government has not offered a cent of help.

The Real ID Act sets minimum security standards for state IDs, a response to the fact that several Sept. 11 hijackers had U.S. driver's licenses, some of them fraudulent. But the act was tacked onto a military appropriations bill, and critics say it was passed with little debate by Congress and no input from the states, which will wind up footing 99 percent of a very big bill.

The Iowa Department of Transportation estimates costs of $22 million a year, plus start-up costs. Wisconsin has budgeted $22 million over two years, but that was before the Department of Homeland Security released preliminary standards on March 1. "There were a number of things in those rules that we had not planned for in our budget," said Patrick Fernan, director of driver services for the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles. "It's going to raise the costs."

Furthermore, everyone with a driver's license or state ID will have to renew it in person by May 11, 2013.

Illinois has about 8.5 million licensed drivers plus 3 million with non-driver's license photo IDs. The in-person renewal will strain the state's approximately 130 service centers. Druker said Illinois has worked hard to shorten lines and wait times at the state's approximately 130 driver service centers by offering license renewal online or by phone, but now these efforts will be undermined by the federal requirements.

Illinois is ahead of most states in tackling the Real ID changes, according to Druker, but there are still problems outside the state's control. "One of the requirements is to have us confirm documents like birth certificates," Druker said. "But there's no national database of birth certificates, so how would you do that if someone comes from Alabama?"

The Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution this month calling upon Congress to repeal the Real ID Act. At least 25 other states have passed or are considering similar bills. U.S. Senators Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) have introduced a bill repealing Real ID, and Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) introduced a companion bill in the House.

The states will have to spend about $11 billion on Real ID, according to a September study by the National Conference on State Legislatures, the National Governors Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, all of which have expressed opposition to the  requirements. The federal government has appropriated only $40 million to help the states, and a proposed bill would allocate $300 million more over three years.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff acknowledged in a March 1 press conference that the bulk of the cost will fall on the states, but said, "It's going to cost money because security does cost money. And I dare say that it's money well spent."

In addition to cost, many Real ID critics have expressed concerns about data security and privacy.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said Real ID would create "one-stop shopping" for identity thieves.

"All of our data from every single motor vehicle jurisdiction will be stored in the same way, in the same format, and it will all be accessible by all the other motor vehicle agencies," Yohnka said. "What that means in practice is someone who is able to hack into the system in Utah will be able to get at our information in Illinois."

Yohnka also said Real ID will threaten privacy and eliminate current state protections against using the electronic data stored in Illinois driver's licenses for marketing or other non-government purposes.

On the issue of data privacy, Chertoff said, "Right now when you hand your license to somebody in a bar, they already have the capability to read the license. It's called your eyes."

Jeremy Meadows, transportation policy director with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states don't oppose the goals of Real ID; in fact, many states had already started improving ID security after Sept. 11, 2001. When the Real ID Act was passed, however, "a lot of the forward momentum the states had came to a halt. They didn't want to make investments... without the regulations, because the regulations could go in a completely different direction."

The specific security requirements are still undetermined. The Department of Homeland Security released preliminary standards on March 1. States would have to upgrade the security of not only the cards themselves, but also service centers, computer systems and databases, and buildings where licenses are produced or stored, and run criminal background checks on all employees handling the licenses.

The standards are open to public comment for 60 days.

In response to complaints about the May 2008 deadline, the department also said states could apply for an extension to Dec. 31, 2009 to fully upgrade their systems. Druker said Illinois is strongly considering applying, but the extension would apply only to the initial implementation of the program. All state IDs would still have to be upgraded by May 11, 2013.

Meadows said without extending the final deadline the change merely "compressed" the process, giving states an even shorter period of time to renew millions of driver's licenses, straining resources and increasing costs even more. Worse, Meadows said, the cycle would repeat itself every eight years as people's licenses consistently came up for renewal within the same three-year period.

Chertoff acknowledged these concerns at the March 1 press conference, but said the Department of Homeland Security wanted the program fully implemented as soon as possible. "Every year we don't have [Real ID] is a year of vulnerability, so we've got to close that window," he said.

The Real ID Act would not allow states to give driver's licenses to immigrants without documents proving legal residency. But, said Mehrdad Azemun of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, "a state can issue a driver certificate as long as it has printed on the face of the certificate, 'not valid for identification purposes.'"

Illinois is one of a number of states considering bills that would grant non-ID driver's certificates to immigrants. The certificate would allow those without legal status in the U.S. to obtain auto insurance and would make sure these immigrants understand local driving safety laws, but it would not be considered legal identification.

See the countdown to the deadline: