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Minnesota’s Real ID debacle, explained

A breakdown of how Minnesota got into such a mess with its driver’s license — and what’s likely to happen next.

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.
REUTERS/Joe Skipper

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.

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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. 

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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.