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News >  Washington

“Real ID” deadline looms: Proposed fix would leave Washington with two-tiered license

UPDATED: Wed., March 22, 2017

In this photo taken April 6, 2016, a sign at the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Wash., is shown to inform visitors of the federal government's REAL ID act. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
In this photo taken April 6, 2016, a sign at the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Wash., is shown to inform visitors of the federal government's REAL ID act. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Phil Ferolito Yakima Herald-Republic

When federal identification standards take effect for air travel in January, Washington residents, like others across the country, will need an enhanced driver’s license or a passport to board a domestic flight. That could be a problem if Washington doesn’t soon comply with federal standards.

Washington state, heavily reliant on a migrant labor force, is the only state in the country that doesn’t verify applicants’ legal residency status when issuing standard driver’s licenses and identification cards. As such, Washington is among five states – Montana, Minnesota, Missouri and Maine are the others – out of compliance with the federal Real ID act, which establishes national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and personal identification cards.

Under the act – approved by Congress in 2005 – states are required to verify that an applicant is in the U.S. legally before issuing a driver’s license or identification card. Unlike Maine and Montana, which have extensions for compliance that expire in January, Washington, Minnesota and Missouri have exhausted their extensions.

But a bill making its way through the Legislature could change that, giving Washington an opportunity for a potential extension. The bill, SB 5008, would reduce fees for obtaining enhanced driver’s licenses and identification cards, and possibly grant residents two years to comply. It also would roll back the $108 fee the state charges for enhanced driver’s licenses and identification cards to $66 and require standard licenses and identification cards – which cost $54 – to be clearly marked as noncompliant with the Real ID act.

Not having standard driver’s licenses and ID cards marked as noncompliant with the Real ID act is a federal requirement and the only hurdle the state faces in becoming compliant.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, author of the bill, said several groups have long opposed marking the standard license as being noncompliant out of fear that it would be used to profile undocumented people. But the looming deadline has forced lawmakers’ hands.

“I’ve met with five or six different groups over the past year trying to talk to these groups about what it means, and that people are not going to be profiled because of this license,” he said.

Federal authorities have indicated they would grant another extension if the bill is approved, King said.

“Whether they give us that, we’ll just have to see,” said King, who also chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. “Either way, we have to be federally compliant or we’re going to have thousands of people at an airport unable to get on their flight and we don’t want that.”

But state Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, has some concerns about the bill.

“I have reservations about the urgency of it,” Chandler said. “We’ve essentially had an enhanced driver’s license for some time now and it has not been very popular with citizens. Citizens are uncomfortable about it having personal information embedded into it. That’s a concern I hear from constituents.”

The state has offered enhanced licenses and identification cards since 2008, but only to those who want them and can prove they’re here legally. Of the more than 5.5 million licensed drivers in the state, more than 530,000 people have an enhanced driver’s license or ID card, according to the Seattle Times. The enhanced documents contain a radio frequency identification tag with a unique reference number issued by U.S. border-crossing checkpoints. Not everyone will opt to purchase enhanced documents because passports meet the federal standards as well.

Requiring residents to obtain enhanced documents to fly could lead to long lines at the Department of Licensing. King said an extension would help prevent that by giving residents and the DOL more time to make the change.

But airports regulated by federal authorities aren’t the only places enforcing the federal act.

Enhanced licenses and IDs or a passport are required to enter military bases and federal buildings including nuclear plants.

Both enhanced and standard licenses and IDs are valid for six years.

Under the bill, those who purchase an enhanced license or ID before their current license or ID expires would be given credit for the remaining time rather than being hit with two fees within a six-year period, King said.

“We’re not going to hit you twice for the same thing,” he said. “You will get credit for the license you hold.”

Initially, concerns about keeping applicants’ personal data secure and the cost of implementing the federal standards caused the state to lag, according to the bill’s report. There’s also concern that marking a standard license as noncompliant with the federal act would clearly identify those who are undocumented, and could be used as a tool to profile undocumented people, the bill’s report said.

Disagreeing, King estimated that many U.S. citizens will stay with the standard license as well.

“It’s our belief that the driver’s license that isn’t federally compliant will be held by hundreds of thousands of people in the state,” he said. “It will be held by a variety of individuals, both who are here legally and not legally.”

The Senate recently approved the bill, and it is scheduled for a public hearing today before the House Committee on Transportation.

“This bill is about as simple as we possibly could make, and I hope that it stays that way through the House and we pass this and get this done,” King said.

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