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States fight as REAL ID deadline nears

Montana and New Hampshire are two states revolting against unfunded federal mandates.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2008

Check-in: Ticket agents assist customers at Logan Airport in Boston. DHS has threatened that residents of states not in compliance with the REAL ID law may not be able to use driver’s licenses as identification at airports.

Mark Thomson


Oakland, Calif.

Frustrated by unfunded federal mandates, a number of states are revolting.

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The latest case in point: stiff resistance to REAL ID, a controversial post-9/11 law that aims to make driver's licenses more secure.

The Department of Homeland Security set Monday as the deadline for states to get an extension for implementing REAL ID. Miss this deadline, DHS warned resistant states, and come May, your residents won't be allowed to board planes with their current driver's licenses.

Montana is one state that's been opposed to the DHS requirements. Rather than request an extension, it sent DHS a letter explaining what it's already doing to strengthen licenses. Still, DHS responded on March 21 by granting an extension. New Hampshire, another REAL ID holdout, took a similar path with DHS and also got an unasked-for extension last week.

Beyond REAL ID, a series of federal moves in recent years have stepped on states' toes, including the No Child Left Behind Act and federal tort reforms, says David Davenport, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California. "The pendulum is swinging a little bit back towards states' rights now, and that's one context in which to see this REAL ID battle," he says.

It's been a long time since states have expressed the levels of exasperation seen with REAL ID and No Child Left Behind, adds Carl Tubbesing, deputy executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which has objected to REAL ID.

"No Child Left Behind and REAL ID are double whammies in that they contain preemption of state authority and huge unfunded mandates," says Mr. Tubbesing. Although these federal mandates are relatively recent, some states' frustrations have been "building for a couple of decades," he notes.

Congress passed the REAL ID law in 2005. It addresses concerns raised by the 9/11 commission about the ability of terrorists to obtain identification, says DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.

The law requires that states make it harder to tamper with driver's licenses, and it makes state motor-vehicle agencies more secure. It also tightens standards for how people may use documents to establish their identity.

Many states balked at the measures. Seventeen, including Montana, passed legislation opposing REAL ID. With no states near compliance, most opted to request an extension, but Montana, New Hampshire, Maine, and South Carolina refused to do even that.