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Minnesota’s Real ID debacle, explained

REUTERS/Joe Skipper
As part of the Real ID Act, certain federal agencies were prohibited from accepting any identification that does not meet those standards. Among those agencies is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which uses the IDs to verify passengers boarding commercial flights.

By now, most Minnesotans know there’s something up with their driver’s license.

For months, state officials and legislators have been debating how to comply with the so-called Real ID Act, a federal mandate that all state-issued driver’s licenses must have extra security measures and proof of citizenship. If states don’t have these new enhanced IDs, it could complicate citizens’ abilities to do everything from board an airplane to enter a federal or military building. 

But the details get fuzzy after that. When is Minnesota required to comply? How much will it cost? Can Minnesotans get on a plane?

There’s a very clear reason Minnesotans don’t know much about what’s going on: In 2009, legislators passed a law barring state officials from even talking about the act with the federal government. Now, facing a few looming deadlines, legislators are scrambling to undo their previous actions and find a way to comply with Real ID.

Here’s a breakdown of how Minnesota got here — and what could happen next:

What exactly is the Real ID act?
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government turned its attention to the security of driver’s licenses, the preferred form of identification used for travel. In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which required minimum security standards for state-issued licenses.

The enhanced IDs don’t look very different than current Minnesota licenses, save for a few new federally approved markings. But what’s required to get one of the new IDs is different: it must be backed by verified proof of birth, residence, Social Security numbers and lawful citizenship status. The new licenses also carry a high-tech electronic radio frequency identification chip.

More important: As part of the Real ID Act, certain federal agencies were prohibited from accepting any identification that does not meet those standards. Among those agencies is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which uses the IDs to verify passengers boarding commercial flights. 

Wait, that was a decade ago. Why are we talking about this now?
After postponing full implementation over the course of several years, the federal government went state-by-state to get each ID to comply with the act or get an extension — though not in Minnesota.

In 2009, state legislators passed a law that prohibited the commissioner of public safety from “taking any action to implement or to plan for the implementation” of the Real ID Act. The bill passed with near-unanimous support in the Minnesota Legislature and was signed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. 

At the time, lawmakers had concerns about data privacy and the cost of implementing Real ID. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said Congress passed the Real ID Act as an amendment in the dead of night with no committee hearings. The act also gave the head of the Department of Homeland Security power to expand Real ID data collection whenever they deemed appropriate, Limmer said. “That is a wide authority Congress gave a single person, a political appointee.” 

Years went by before lawmakers were confronted with a Jan. 1, 2016 deadline to require enhanced IDs at airports, meaning driver’s licenses would no longer pass muster to board an airplane. Most states that had yet to comply got a substantial extension from the federal government, but again, not Minnesota. Why? The 2009 law.

Does that mean Minnesotans won’t be able board airplanes with their current driver’s license?
No, not yet. First, the federal government  promised to give officials a 120-day warning before they would start enforcing the act. Then late Friday afternoon, federal officials announced travelers would have until January 2018 before TSA will require enhanced IDs for air travel. 

So why all the talk about a special session, then?
Gov. Mark Dayton was the first to say he’d like to call a special session of the Legislature and repeal the 2009 state law as soon as possible, which would at least allow his Public Safety Commissioner, Mona Dohman, to communicate with the federal government about the issue. “We shouldn’t leave Minnesotans with the uncertainty that they’ll be denied access to a commercial airplane or to a federal building,” Dayton said at a press conference Wednesday.

Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services
An example of a Minnesota driver’s license, above, and an
enhanced ID, below.

But some lawmakers say there is plenty of time to come up with a fix during the regular 2016 legislative session, which convenes on March 8. 

What will a fix look like?
The focus of a legislative working group hearing on Real ID conducted this week was repealing the state law that bans its implementation. Once that is done, the state can immediately apply for another extension from the federal government to get more time to work on a fix. “We have to repeal this law before we can do anything else,” Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said.

Once that happens, a Republican bill will direct the Department of Public Safety to submit an implementation report to lawmakers. And Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has already offered a bill that gives the department the authority to bring the state into Real ID compliance.

How much is this going to cost?
That’s a big unknown, mainly because of the 2009 state law. Not only does it keep the commissioner of public safety from talking to the federal government about Real ID, it also makes it hard for legislators to understand how much it will cost the state and individual Minnesotans to switch to the new licenses.  The federal government has handed out grants to other states to help implement the program, and Dibble’s bill would pursue those and other funds to help defray costs. 

Some legislators want to use money from a projected $1.2 billion surplus to make sure individual Minnesotans don’t have to spend extra money on the new IDs, mainly because the current predicament was caused by legislative inaction years ago. “Minnesotans are going to have to spend time getting new licenses, but they shouldn’t have to spend money,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.

Can I get an enhanced Minnesota ID now if I want one?
Yes. A few years after passing the law blocking implementation of the Real ID Act, some people who travel regularly to Canada were running into clearance problems. Lawmakers created an enhanced driver’s license that meets Homeland Security requirements and is available only upon request. The enhanced ID comes with an extra cost of $15. Today, fewer than 15,000 Minnesotans have the enhanced IDs, and only a handful of DMVs across the state have the infrastructure in place to issue them. Any fix would have to include more funding to issue the IDs statewide.

Let’s assume it doesn’t get fixed: Other than a Real ID, what other forms of identification can I use to fly?
Without a solution to the Real ID debacle, Minnesotans would need to show a passport, permanent residency card or other TSA-accepted ID. Here’s a full list.

But what about those privacy concerns from back in 2009? Are they still valid?
Legislators and civil liberties groups are still concerned about the potential for the Department of Homeland Security to change the rules and usage of driver’s license data, but so far no major national databases have been set up. Ben Feist, legislative director for the ACLU of Minnesota, said the slow rollout of the act has allowed Minnesota to monitor what has happened in other states. Dibble included a provision in his bill that would trigger a state review if the federal government decided to use the driver’s license data for any new purpose.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/08/2016 - 10:48 am.

    Much ado about nothing….

    As one who worries more about being struck by lighting than being done in by domestic terrorism (because the odds are greater), I did elect to get a NEXUS card to facilitate travel to Canada: I completed a fairly exhaustive on line questionnaire about all things me, traveled to the border for a personal interview with US and Canadian officials, got photographed, gave 10 fingerprints (1 per digit) and signed on the dotted line about the truthfulness of all this. This was 7 years ago and my 5 year renewal was hassle free. If DNA or retinal scans were required I would have complied. My life has gone on as intended even though big brother is deep into my personal data. And I will add: if everyone had to do this we would be a safer place and a more efficient place. The interview was very quick and, in my opinion, essentially a means to look me in the eye and decide I was not nuts. I skip airport security lines and travel more easily into Canada. The front end sign up time lost has been paid back. This kind of ID should also (but does not) expedite firearms purchases. If you are actually worried about domestic terrorism you should support a rigorous, single ID system for all US inhabitants.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/08/2016 - 11:16 am.

    Jusr out of curiosity

    Just out of curiosity, since I arrived in Minnesota in mid-2009, after the legislative session, and with no knowledge of this correctly-named “debacle” until recent events highlighted it, who was in charge in 2009? If the law was signed by Mr. Pawlenty (yet another dubious legacy of his tenure), who was in control in the state House and Senate? “Near-unanimous” implies that everyone in the legislature was pretty much in agreement. Was that the case?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/08/2016 - 01:05 pm.

      Talk about arcane!

      Knowing myself as I do I’m surprised (and maybe even a little concerned: “I’m really not like that!”) that I know how to find this stuff. It was Polymet and last year’s bizarre end of session “legislative actions” that “forced me!” into figuring it out.

      Anyway. . . I don’t know who controlled the House or Senate that year, but the vote in the House actually was unanimous (133 to 0).

      The Senate vote was pretty much the same, with only two senators voting against the bill (61 to 2). The arcania is a little less straightforward, but the record of the vote is located in the “Journal of the Senate” for the “53rd day” of the 2009 session on page 5,217 (really):

      It’s a whopper .pdf file, but anyone curious enough to want to take a look, scroll down to (or search on) page 5,217 (near the beginning but, according to my Acrobat Reader toolbar, page 13 of the 463 page file – it’s page 5,217 of the entire year’s journal). Look toward the bottom third of that page for “H.F. No. 988: A bill for an act relating to drivers’ licenses; prohibiting commissioner of public safety from complying with Real ID Act” to see the voting.

  3. Submitted by Michael Hess on 01/08/2016 - 11:38 am.

    REALlly foolish

    if you read the requirements of the law, the scenarios that some lawmakers worried about like “your health records on your drivers licence” or the federal government taking over the issuing of drivers licences don’t really make sense. It’s too bad that Minnesota is where it is due to the law they passed to basically put our head in the sand and wait for it to go away.

    Another aspect of this though I haven’t seen is that it basically will eliminate any discussion about issuing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. I think it was last session there was a DFL proposal to create a DL which had something marked on it that indicated for example it couldn’t be used for voting. New Mexico finds themselves in the same camp as Minnesota because of this practice and they will need to end this issuance to come into Real ID compliance.

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/08/2016 - 02:11 pm.

    The Gum It Up election year strategy

    As far as a quick special session goes, repealing the law that prohibits any communication with the federal government, and extending unemployment benefits (or not) for Iron Range miners (some of whom are out of UI benefits right now, many more of whom will be way out of them by March 8th), should take about two hours.

    But Republicans have come up with this squid ink talking points media cloud that says, “The Governor hasn’t supplied any details,” etc.. Pure bulloney. All the Governor’s talking about is “getting clearance” to have someone talk to Washington without having to break the law and whether or not legislators will vote to extend unemployment benefits. How much “detail” do Republicans need?

    It’s becoming more obvious all that time that Republicans are either completely incompetent, or (and?) they’re election year legislative strategy is to do even less than they did last year while using all their time and energy to “frame the election debate” with their next fabricated set of empty promises to give senior citizens more money and ward off evil Democratic attempts to make people pay for things (like the infrastructure) that we all use and benefit from.

    Peggy Scott says there’ll be plenty of time to deal with the ID issue in the regular session. Sure… Plenty of time. March 8th to the end of May. Plenty of time. Let’s see… There’s the surplus, taxes, transportation, probably some early education debate, maybe a couple more assaults on the environment and statewide broadband to mount, and right around 10 weeks to do another excellent job of tending to the people’s business, so why not throw in repeal of the 2009 law and figuring out how it’s all going to work (if it’s going to work), how much it will cost, how to pay for it, etc.?

    Give me a break… Republicans have no intention of doing anything other than whatever they always do when the public can’t get into the building and everyone’s “out of time,” while they hold “media opportunity” after “media opportunity” to let everyone in the state know all about their brilliant plans for 2016 that they would have loved to work on this year (and last year) but couldn’t because the Governor and the Democrats have done nothing but block their attempts to help hard working Minnesota families and their hard-pressed grandparents.

    This particular Real ID Act special session foot dragging is just the first public exhibition of their 2016 strategy which will wind up translating to trying to “frame” two year’s of wasted people’s business time as the reason Minnesotans should vote for them in 2016.

    Every Minnesota taxpayer should be made aware of and remember the fact that they are paying Republican legislators $31,000 (and another $30,000 in per diem) this year for what will amount to 10 weeks of actual “work” on the people’s business and 42 weeks of political campaigning.

  5. Submitted by Linda Bruemmer on 01/08/2016 - 06:51 pm.

    If you already have a passport, do you really care?

    I traveled recently with my passport and there were no problems. How many Minnesota residents have passports and could use them instead of the driver’s license?

    • Submitted by Monique Venne on 01/09/2016 - 02:27 am.

      Yes, I have a passport

      and I don’t want to use it to travel around my own country. Passports are for identification when traveling outside the United States, not inside. Minnesota should either upgrade drivers’ licenses and identity cards to meet federal requirements, or push the U.S. Congress to issue national identity cards for travel within the U.S. (which I don’t foresee happening because of privacy concerns).

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/08/2016 - 07:21 pm.

    It is a truly sad day

    When States cannot issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants in the interest of public safety.

    Other than air travel within the US (everywhere else you seem to need a passport) is there anything else that a Real ID license gets you?

  7. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/09/2016 - 12:17 pm.

    What luck!

    The Feds just granted a two year reprieve to Minnesota on Real ID. Now there’s no blame and certainly no need for a special session to address the issue.

  8. Submitted by John Ferman on 01/10/2016 - 10:16 am.


    Any idea of cost to obtain a passport and how long it takes to get. It is not a simple process. Maybe an article of getting a passport is in order. They are not just handed out.

  9. Submitted by Tim Church on 04/20/2016 - 02:14 pm.


    I set about acquiring an enhanced MN DL last November as my old DL expired. I brought my passport and birth certificate along as documentation, not bothering to read the instructions posted online that I found out about as my first and second missions to the DMV failed. Now, I can get on a plane or do anything else that would require an ID with my passport, so LOGICALLY that is all that should have been needed, but I figured that just maybe they’d want some verification that the passport was really mine, so I brought my BC as well. Oh, and I also have a Global Entry card so I can breeze through the passport line in airports when returning from abroad. I had to provide my passport and MN DL, plus go through a one hour grilling by Homeland Security to get that baby.

    But, nooooooooo. None of that did the trick. They handed me a five or six page document that listed all the crap I needed to show them before I could get my enhanced ID. It boiled down to them needing my ORIGINAL social security card and a bill with my current address and some other nonsense in addition to the BC. So, remember, if you want to skirt getting one of these new IDs, just use your passport. It’s easier and cheaper.

  10. Submitted by CHRISTINE HANSEN on 03/01/2018 - 09:58 am.

    Forgive me if someone has mentioned this

    But am I the only one who is bothered that Real ID microchips the entire driving population?

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