GOP succeeds with surprise bid for ‘secure’ Mass. IDs

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BOSTON – Lawmakers in the House of Representatives attached to the annual state spending bill a section sponsored by the Republican leadership that would bring Massachusetts into compliance with the federal Real ID Act, over the objections of some Democrats who were caught off guard Wednesday by the major policy decision.

The Real ID Act, a federal post-2001 anti-terrorism initiative, requires states to begin issuing secure and compliant forms of identification that for many residents will replace their current driver’s licenses.

Gov. Charlie Baker in March had his top transportation officials brief legislative leaders on the legislation he filed last October to bring Massachusetts into compliance, warning that without action this year residents might have to start carrying their passports to access federal buildings or travel through domestic airports by January.

On Wednesday, nearing the end of budget deliberations, the House considered an amendment filed by Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading) to adopt the provisions of the federal Real ID law as part of the state’s spending plan. Jones said his amendment was, essentially, a copy of the governor’s bill.

Pittsfield Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield offered a further amendment, one that would have required the registrar to issue two different types of licenses — one that complies with Real ID and one that does not — rather than just giving the registrar the option of issuing two types of ID as the Jones amendment does.

“Massachusetts has to pass this law at some point. I’m not opposing Real ID, I think we do have to pass Real ID eventually,” she said. “I’m not sure budget week is the best time to talk about this. But here we are, we’re doing it now so let’s see if we can have this conversation.”

Rep. Ruth Balser, a Democrat from Newton, also questioned the timing of a debate on Real ID, given that the governor’s bill is still pending before committee. Former Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, also filed a Real ID compliance bill before leaving office, but it was not enacted by the Legislature.

“At the risk of revealing my ignorance, I never heard the phrase ‘Real ID’ until today,” she said before asking that the chairperson whose committee has studied the issue take to the floor to provide an explanation. “Perhaps I’m the only one in this room who isn’t aware of this issue, maybe I’m not.”

Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat whose Transportation Committee has been reviewing the governor’s Real ID bill, took to the floor and explained the issue to his colleagues.

“Massachusetts currently has an extension which expires this October as to whether we have met federal requirements for issuing Real ID security-compliant licenses. If we were to become non-compliant … then the citizens who have driver’s licenses will no longer be permitted to use that identification to board airlines,” he said. “That is a situation that people in Massachusetts would not expect to have happen to them and it’s one I don’t think anyone in this body wishes to have happen.”

He added, “I don’t hold the view that this is remote in time and it is something we can put off that much longer. We do need, in the view of the federal government, to show progress in getting to this stage.”

Jones told the House that the Baker administration wants to begin the process of adopting the provisions of the Real ID Act so the registry would be able to roll out the new licenses as current driver’s licenses expire.

“Thinking about the millions of licenses that are out there and how quickly those need to be turned around, the hope of the administration is to be able to get this done, get the legislation passed, so they can make the technology changes so they can do this in the normal course of renewals and not be faced with having to have all of these people that have to have Real ID-compliant licenses done in a shorter timeframe,” he said.

Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) also said she wanted more time to familiarize herself with the federal Real ID Act and the options for Massachusetts to come into compliance, given that the state already has an extension and could seek yet another one.

“I would just go back to the fact of being frustrated today that this is the first time we’re really facing this learning curve, for me individually,” Keefe said. “So why are we in such a hurry? I hear what he’s saying, but I would appreciate a little more time.”

Farley-Bouvier’s further amendment failed and the original Jones amendment was adopted. Both decisions were made on voice votes.

The new licenses, which would be marked with a yellow star, would require an applicant to show proof of citizenship or lawful status in the country.

Some immigrant advocacy groups expressed concern that the governor’s bill could deny some legal residents driver’s licenses due to its adherence the federal definition of “lawful status.” In response to those criticisms, Jones added a separate definition of “lawful presence” that would give the registrar some discretion, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, in issuing Massachusetts-only driver’s licenses to those who can prove their legal presence, but don’t meet the federal criteria for a Real ID.

Some progressive Democrats also said they were interested in maintaining a “two-tiered” system so that those wishing to obtain a new non-compliant license could continue to do so, instead of only those seeking renewals.

Last October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued the state a one-year extension to become compliant with the Real ID Act. Baker, however, has said that in order to get another extension this October the state needed to show progress toward compliance, which would require legislative action.

The governor’s bill (H 3814) is currently before the Transportation Committee, which has until May 2 to report on the bill or seek another extension. By adding the language to the budget, the House has ensured that it will be part of negotiations with the Senate over the next two months, but it does not preclude action on separate legislation as an alternative.

After the House session ended Wednesday, Jones said he sought to get the ball rolling on compliance with the federal law through the budget process while the governor’s bill languishes in committee.

“If some people say (the governor’s bill) is a better vehicle, then let’s get it out and get it on the floor and hash it out,” the minority leader said.

Under the proposal, drivers would have to appear in person to renew their licenses or obtain new Real ID compliant identification. While the state does have until 2020 to get everyone’s licenses updated, RMV officials hope to avoid forcing people to visit a branch in person all at once by starting the process as soon as possible. There are approximately 4.3 million licensed drivers in the Commonwealth.

The Jones amendment, like the governor’s bill, would also allow the registry to continue to issue non-compliant Massachusetts licenses to drivers who choose to renew their existing license and not appear in person to obtain a “Real ID” from the state, but those IDs after 2020 would no longer be recognized for air travel.

New applicants for identification would have to obtain a “Real ID” compliant card requiring applicants to prove their full legal name, date of birth, residence in Massachusetts and provide a verifiable birth certificate, Social Security number or other proof of lawful residence.

Written by Matt Murphy and Colin A. Young