States Question New Driver's License Rules

States say the federal government's REAL-ID program, scheduled to begin in May, will make getting a driver's license a nightmare. The law tightens regulations to prevent fraud. Local transportation officials predict even longer lines at the DMV.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's look at an effort to maintain security and deny safe havens in the United States. When Congress approved the Real ID Act two years ago, it was supposed to make it more difficult for potential terrorists to use fake driver's licenses. But states say this law is unworkable and costly. The Bush administration promises that new regulations, which could be released this week, should ease concerns, although some states are skeptical.

Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER: Carmen Alvarez(ph) sits by the door of a motor vehicle office in Glen Burnie, Maryland, where she performs bureaucratic triage.

Ms. CARMEN ALVAREZ (Staff, Maryland Motor Vehicle Office): That's the only proof of residence that you need. And then come back here, okay?

FESSLER: Alvarez tells one confused-looking man holding an envelope with papers that he needs something else to show he lives in the state. She directs others on the seemingly endless line to nearby waiting area.

Ms. ALVAREZ: You have a seat and watch your number right in the middle, okay? All right, you have a nice day.

FESSLER: Each year, Maryland issues more than a million new and renewed driver's licenses. And like other states, it prides itself on trying to have a smooth process. It takes 6 minutes on average to renew a license here. It can also be done by mail. But Motor Vehicle administrator John Kuo says all that will end when and if Real ID goes into effect next year.

Mr. JOHN KUO (Administrator, Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration): No doubt about it, this is going to be a tremendous impact on our motor vehicle processes as we know of it today.

FESSLER: That's because every single person getting a new or renewed driver's license will have to come in and show documents that prove their identity and citizenship status.

Mr. KUO: For example, a U.S. birth certificate or a U.S. passport, Social Security numbers is going to be mandatory. All of those type documents, you're going to have to dig up wherever you have it stored and bring it in with you.

FESSLER: And then the motor vehicle agency will have to verify that the documents are valid and scan them into huge databases. State officials predict long lines and higher fees. They say it'll be a nightmare. That's why in the halls of Maryland's legislature, as in State Houses across the country, there's talk of rebellion. This is one of two dozen states considering legislation opposing Real ID. Maine led the way last month when it passed a resolution stating its intention not to comply. One of the big objections is cost: $11 billion over five years, according to state estimates.

Maryland Democratic State Senator Jamie Raskin is cosponsoring a resolution against Real ID.

State Senator JAMIE RASKIN (Democrat, Maryland): If this is the best that Congress can come up with, fine. But let them pay for it, because the states don't have the money.

FESSLER: Raskin says besides being an unfunded federal mandate, Real ID doesn't make all that much sense, especially since states have already tightened driver's license security.

State Sen. RASKIN: Are we going to spend $11 billion on a federal program whose purpose seems to be to catch a terrorist who would comply with the law?

FESSLER: But advocates of Real ID say it addresses a real concern. The commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks recommended national standards for driver's licenses. It noted that all but one of the 19 hijackers had obtained U.S. identification, some fraudulently. One of them was Hani Hanjour, who got a Maryland ID card shortly before he flew a plane into the Pentagon.

State Senator JANET GREENIP (Republican, Maryland): To know that people who are doing things that are hurting our nation are actually doing it with a Maryland driver's license, that's scary.

FESSLER: Janet Greenip is a Republican state senator in Maryland. She thinks that Real ID is a good idea and would keep driver's licenses out of the wrong hands, including those of illegal immigrants.

State Sen. GREENIP: Driver's license is a privilege. And to give that privilege to someone who shouldn't be here in the first place is ridiculous.

FESSLER: She also questions whether Real ID will be as costly and troublesome as critics say. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff agrees. He told senators this month that he thinks the $11 billion estimate is too high. He says Real ID is important for both security and privacy.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): Because it reduces the ability for someone to forge my name and address on a driver's license and then invade my privacy and degrade my reputation.

FESSLER: Civil liberties groups disagree, likening Real ID to a national ID card. Opposition is also growing on Capitol Hill, where senators could consider legislation to delay or repeal Real ID as early as this week. Chertoff warned that that would be a big mistake.

Sec. CHERTOFF: It's going to have some expense. It's going to be somewhat inconvenient. But if we don't get it done now, someone is going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn't do it.

State Senator LETICIA VAN DE PUTTE (Democrat, Texas): Well, if Secretary Chertoff thought that this was so important and wanted states to meet the deadline, then why didn't they issue the regulations last summer when they were supposed to?

FESSLER: Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte is president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. She says delays by the administration have only fueled the opposition; that there's no way now that states can implement the law by next year's deadline even if they wanted to, which of course, she says, they don't.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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