February 28, 2008

State's rejection of new driver's license rules may hurt air travelers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginians planning on air travel this year could find things more complicated than they remember if a Senate bill becomes law.

The state would be barred from participating in the federal REAL ID Act, which would set national standards for driver's licenses, by a bill approved Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The federal Department of Homeland Security has warned that states which don't file paperwork saying they need extra time to comply with the law will face consequences starting in May. The most significant would be that driver's licenses from non-complying states would not be valid identification for boarding an airplane anywhere in the U.S.

Instead, other forms of identification, like birth certificates or passports, would have to be used.

The bill, which now comes before the full Senate, calls the act "inimical to the security and well-being of the people of West Virginia," with supporters saying Monday the federal guidelines amount to an invasion of privacy.

"That's how a lot of people here see it," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Walt Helmick.

"It's a matter of trust, and we have some mistrust in federal programs when it comes to gathering all this information about us," the Pocahontas County Democrat said.

Under the federal legislation, driver's licenses will have three layers of security measures but will not contain microchips as some had expected. States will be able to choose from a menu which security measures they will put in their cards.

Additionally, state motor vehicles agencies would be required to verify birth certificates; check with other states to ensure an applicant doesn't have more than one license; and check with the State Department to verify applicants who use passports to get a driver's license.

The proposal has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups worried about securing personal data, and from state governments worried about the expense of implementing the new measures.

The original federal proposal would have cost West Virginia between $40 million and $60 million, according to Steve Dale, deputy commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles.

To help sell the plan, Homeland Security scaled back its initial plans, so that implementing the program will now cost much less. Dale said West Virginia would likely spend about $5 million putting it in place.

"The problem in the original proposal for REAL ID is that it was absolutely cost-prohibitive," said Lara Ramsburg, spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin.

Manchin supports the scaled-back proposal, though, and Ramsburg said the governor hopes the state measure doesn't pass out of the Legislature.

"We don't agree with taking West Virginia out of this equation," she said.

So far, 17 states have passed legislation or resolutions objecting to the REAL ID Act's provisions, many due to concerns it will cost them too much to comply, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been vocal in its opposition to the federal law. The 17 are Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.

States agreeing to the program would have until Jan. 1, 2010 to begin issuing driver's licenses made under the new rules, with a final date of May 2017 to issue the new licenses to all their drivers.

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