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Another REAL ID Deadline Bites the Dust

Several federal deadlines to overhaul states’ driver's licenses systems have come and gone in the past seven years. As another one approaches, should states be concerned about complying?

States are sounding the alarm over a federal policy that would require them to overhaul their systems for issuing driver's licenses, arguing it’s a massive unfunded mandate that will be incredibly difficult to implement.

If you think you’ve heard this before, you are right. In 2005, following a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the REAL ID Act. The law was designed to shore up the security of state-issued identification cards in an effort to thwart terrorists and others who use fake IDs to facilitate their crimes. Fast-forward seven years and REAL ID has yet to be fully implemented. Now, as another deadline approaches, states are once again scrambling to meet it and requesting more flexibility. But should they really be concerned?

Federal officials have consistently delayed REAL ID implementation to give states more time to comply. The most recent delay came in March 2011, and today the deadline for states to come into “material compliance” with the law is Jan. 15, 2013. For practical purposes, however, it’s even sooner: States must provide final documentation to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by Oct. 15. State officials say they’re taking this deadline seriously, despite the feds’ track record.

“The fact is it’s a law on the books, and it’s a regulation with deadlines,” says Molly Ramsdell, who leads the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Washington office. “Until something changes, states have to operate under the assumption that that the January deadline is firm.”

As it approaches, an interesting game of chicken between the states and feds is likely to play out. The REAL ID Act would theoretically prevent residents of noncompliant states from using their driver’s licenses as a valid form of ID for federal purposes, like passing through security checkpoints at airports. If states don’t come into compliance with the law, that could create havoc in the country’s airports. That’s a powerful incentive for states to hurry up and implement it. But the feds’ stick may be too powerful. Federal officials don’t want to create problems for fliers, and state leaders know that. So even with the deadline looming, 16 states still have language on the books saying they formally refuse to comply with REAL ID.

Regardless, states aren’t ignoring the law. Since REAL ID was passed, most states have improved the security of their IDs. Still, the cost of implementation -- $3.9 billion -- has come with less than $225 million in federal aid, according to NCSL. States are also frustrated that several databases they’re required to use to ensure the veracity of residents’ paperwork aren’t fully functional.

Meanwhile, some have blamed DHS itself for sending mixed signals that have created an environment that fostered REAL ID’s delays. In recent years, the agency has supported legislation known as PASS ID that would have reformed some provisions of the 2005 law. States, wary of spending money to implement a law that could be changed, waited for those changes to come. They never did. Ramsdell says at this point, it’s clear that the REAL ID legislation probably won’t be repealed. Instead, her group is seeking waivers for states that have come close to implementing the required reforms.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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