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With new law, Minnesota becomes the last state to comply with federal Real ID Act

It’s probably safe to start booking flights for 2018.

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

Minnesota was dead last, but it’s finally done.

This week, lawmakers agreed to comply with the federal Real ID Act, narrowly avoiding a January 2018 deadline that would have complicated air travel for Minnesotans. The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a proposal Wednesday evening, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill into law Thursday morning. 

“Whether it’s visiting a child at a military base or taking their family on vacation, Minnesotans deserve the peace-of-mind that with their normal driver’s licenses they are fully capable of going about their lives and work,” said Rep. Dennis Smith, a Republican from Maple Grove who authored the bill.

The new law is a signal to the federal government that Minnesotans plan to update their driver’s licenses to meet minimum federal security standards. The Real ID Act, passed in 2005 as response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, required increased proof of identification to enter federal buildings, military bases and board an airplane. The new driver’s licenses don’t look much different from current IDs, but what’s required to get one is different: verified proof of birth, residence, Social Security numbers and lawful citizenship status.

The federal government offered other states extensions up to 2020 if they made moves to comply. With the latest action from lawmakers, Minnesota is likely to get a waiver to give residents time to get new driver’s licenses. The bill gives the Department of Public Safety until October of 2018 to offer up the new IDs to Minnesotans who are getting or renewing their driver’s license.

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Without action from lawmakers this session, Minnesota travelers could have been turned away at the airport without a passport or another acceptable form of identification. Minnesota is the last state to pass some measure to comply, after years of back-and-forth between lawmakers on everything from data privacy to immigrant driver’s licenses.

The latter issue was the source of the most recent controversy on the bill. Republicans wanted the bill to explicitly bar the Department of Public Safety from issuing drivers license’s to undocumented immigrants, while Dayton initially said he would like the department to have explicit authority to do so. Ultimately, legislators took any mention of the issue out of the bill at all in order to get it through both chambers and signed by Dayton.

But even before the debate over immigrant identification, Minnesota lawmakers had a problem with the Real ID Act. After it was passed in 2005, they expressed concerns about data privacy under the Real ID Act, because it gave the Department of Homeland Security power to expand license data collection whenever it deemed appropriate.

In 2009, state legislators passed a law that prohibited the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety from “taking any action to implement or to plan for the implementation” of the Real ID Act. Basically, it tied the department’s hands from acting on — or even talking about — Real ID. Eventually the federal government put more pressure on states to comply, and in 2016, Minnesota legislators passed a bill to lift the gag rule on Real ID, with intention to let DPS officials start talking to the federal government.

The new deal creates a compliant license, but also the option of a non-compliant license for those not wanting to share information with the federal government. The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the bills off the floor Wednesday evening, with little mention of the state’s complicated 12-year history with the Real ID Act.

“This bill’s been a long haul,” Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, said on the floor. “It’s going to be a much better day in Minnesota.”

But that doesn’t mean pieces of the debate won’t live on. Republicans inserted the provision to bar immigrant driver’s licenses into an omnibus public safety bill as well, signaling they wanted to keep the debate going. Dayton recently vetoed that bill, but it could come back up as legislators debate the final details of the budget by their May 22 deadline.