AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of a Maine law that tightened driver’s license requirements say they will attempt to repeal portions of the measure, which the Legislature approved last spring under pressure from the federal government.
The bill imposed several changes aimed at making driver’s licenses more secure. The changes were sought by Gov. John Baldacci to avert a showdown with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which contended Maine’s lax standards encouraged fraud.
But critics argued that the stricter requirements infringed on civil liberties.
Now opponents are hoping to repeal parts of the law. And they’re hoping the change to a Democratic presidential administration will result in changes to the national law, known as Real ID.
“It really centers around what I see as an erosion of our freedom, our liberties,” said state Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, who is submitting legislation to change the state law. “The supposed safety benefit coming out of this does not balance out with the loss of who we are, and our freedoms.”
Under the Maine law, applicants for driver’s licenses must prove they are state residents, and that they are in the country legally.
Damon, who as co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee considered the Maine law last year, wants to remove the requirement that individuals prove they are in the country legally.
He would also prohibit the state from using biometric technology, such as fingerprint scanners and retinal pattern recognition devices, to identify license applicants. He also wants to prohibit Maine from pooling its license data in a federal database.
Damon’s proposal would, however, leave intact a requirement that license or ID applicants prove they are Maine residents.
State and federal views
While Damon’s proposal has yet to be drafted into a proposed bill, several lawmakers said they would likely oppose the measure. And Baldacci’s office has expressed support for the law Damon seeks to repeal.
David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, said the governor would have to see a formal version of the bill. And, said Farmer, Baldacci wants to see whether the federal government makes changes to the Real ID policy. But proving you’re in the country legally before you can obtain a Maine ID is reasonable, he said.
The Legislature passed the original bill last April in the waning days of the 2008 session. The action came after the Department of Homeland Security had threatened to stop accepting Maine driver’s licenses as a valid form of identification for boarding commercial flights and entering federal buildings unless the state made changes.
The federal law is aimed at making all states’ driver’s licenses more uniform and secure. But Maine was one of several states to pass laws prohibiting compliance with the federal law for reasons ranging from cost to privacy concerns.
The new law passed last spring was viewed by critics of the federal program as a compromise with DHS to comply with Real ID, said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
“Last year’s Real ID bill was passed under duress because of unusual threats by the federal government that Mainers would be punished if we did not fall in line,” Bellows said.
“With the change in administration and a more rational review of Real ID at both the federal and state levels, we are hopeful that we can restore our basic constitutional principles of privacy and equality.”
President Obama’s Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, signed a bill last spring refusing to implement Real ID in Arizona, where she was then governor, calling it an unfunded federal mandate.
‘Leave the good guys alone’
Damon said the federal program is expected to cost $4 billion. It would cost Maine about $73 million to implement it, he said, and the federal government might contribute $1 million to the state’s costs.
“I do think the change in administration will provide the opportunity for a new look at this issue,” said Damon.
State Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he was against the requirements last year, and still is. Mazurek said he didn’t like the wide net the Real ID law cast.
“Go after the bad guys,” he said. “Leave the good guys alone.”
Another committee member, state Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington, said he doesn’t support Damon’s proposal, based on what he’s seen so far.
He acknowledged that many Maine residents are unhappy with having to provide a registered birth certificate, green card or other documentation to prove that they are here legally. But the need for security outweighs those concerns, Gooley said.
“Every Maine citizen is entitled to a certain sense of security,” he said.
State Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, argued for passage of the requirements last spring. They were part of an agreement worked out with the Homeland Security Department that gave Maine additional time to comply with Real ID, he said.
“If this is going to violate that agreement, that puts Maine citizens back out of compliance and therefore they will have difficulty accessing airplanes and federal buildings,” said Diamond. “That’s not a direction we want to go.”
Instead of supporting Damon’s legislation, said Diamond, Maine should work with the federal government to change the Real ID program.
Maine issues about 220,000 licenses and identification cards a year. The requirement for proof of Maine residency went into effect last April; the one requiring applicants to prove they’re in the country legally took effect in November.
It’s that requirement that Mainers are still unhappy about, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
A critic of the federal law, Dunlap believes the Legislature and Governor’s Office did what they had to last year. But he says he doesn’t believe Real ID will make the country safer, and noted that the terrorists who executed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were in the country legally.
“It’s not going to be a terribly effective deterrent against terrorism. They’ll find another way,” said Dunlap.