By Ben Meyerson and Kate Elizabeth Queram
WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security on Friday extended the deadline for states to make driver’s licenses more secure and meet standards for the federal Real ID Act.
Maryland’s transportation chief said the state will comply with the benchmarks, despite criticism from some lawmakers that the mandate is expensive and a privacy concern.
The controversial law, which instructs states to require, and verify, federal documents of citizenship before issuing driver’s licenses, was originally supposed to be in place by May.
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Friday that states that have begun the process by May may apply for a waiver allowing them to follow a new series of benchmarks, with the final standards required by May 2011.
If Maryland applies for a waiver, residents younger than 50 will be required to have a Real ID-compliant license by December 2014 to use it to enter a plane, a federal building, or a nuclear power plant. Residents older than 50 have until 2017.
“Maryland will be Real ID-compliant,” Transportation Secretary John Porcari said Thursday, most likely with a two-tier system, in which citizens would be able to opt in or out of the program depending on their needs.
Currently, all that’s required to obtain a Maryland driver’s license is a valid Social Security number and a completed application. Under the Real ID Act, applicants would have to provide proof of citizenship – such as a birth certificate or passport – in order to receive one of the new cards.
Those who do not supply the documents could still receive a license, but it must be clearly marked as non-Real ID and will not be accepted as valid identification to board a plane, among other uses.
The law has drawn fire from groups across the country such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which launched a Web site targeting the law, www.RealNightmare.org.
The ACLU claims institution of the system will make lines longer at driver’s license facilities and increase cost to consumers, either through direct fees for the cards or through taxes.
Chertoff said the new standards lower the estimated cost significantly, from an original estimate of $14.6 billion to $3.9 billion, mainly by spreading out the timeline in which the IDs must be administered.
That’s not enough, said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, noting the timeline changes as particularly unhelpful.
“By the 2009 deadline we’ll have a new president, and I’m hoping that a new administration will review the entire thing,” Forehand said. “I think this thing will be changed.”
Though the new Real ID timeline spaces out the implementation process, resulting in lower costs for states – a big concern for lawmakers – Forehand remained unimpressed. “They’re just reaching for straws,” she said. “It will cost the states less because they’re giving them more time to do it, but it’s the same amount of work.”
Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, agrees.
“It says something about the federal process, I think,” Frosh said. “They passed this legislation, it was ill-considered and poorly thought out and they dumped this mandate on the states, and the deadline is four months from now, and all of a sudden they say, ‘Oh, OK we’ll give you five more years.’ I think that says something.”
A person uninterested in traveling by plane, for example, may decide not to apply for a Real ID, since the current, non-Real ID license still grants the right to drive.
Maryland’s motor vehicle department can implement the Real ID Act without a recommendation from the state government, but Frosh predicted an influx of legislative input regardless.
“I think you’ll have bills coming in both directions,” Frosh said, “some saying don’t comply, some saying, do.”