Political Horizons: Real ID fight gets unreal

So, when will Louisiana residents have to show a passport or some other federally accepted identification — rather than the driver’s licenses most use — to board an airplane?

After three hours of testimony aimed at answering that question, state Sen. Jonathan Perry, scowling and shoving papers into his valise, said Thursday he doesn’t know.

“Did we get some information? Yes. I guess. But we’re leaving here with as many questions as we started with,” said Perry, R-Kaplan and chair of the Legislature’s Real ID Task Force.

Louisiana has accomplished 37 of the 39 standards necessary for making this state’s driver’s licenses compliant enough with federal standards to be used as identification to enter many federal facilities, and airplanes to Houston or Atlanta or some other domestic destination. The two remaining issues stem from 2008 state laws forbidding Louisiana to fall in line with the federal standard, including the required gold star in the upper right corner of the icon that signifies compliance with federal Real ID standards.

Sandy McDade, of Shreveport, told the task force she worries that this Real ID bit is a step towards the ominous “papers please” national identity cards of Europe that Americans have long scorned. Additionally, she’s offended that as a law-abiding, tax-paying American citizen, that she should be treated like a terrorist suspect every time she uses public conveyance to travel.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush’s National Strategy for Homeland Security panel in July 2002 issued a report recognizing that state-issued driver’s licenses are used by most people as identification and recommended that the federal government help the states come up with standards “to curtail the future abuse of driver’s licenses by terrorist organizations.”

That grew into the Real ID Act of 2005. Roughly 245 million state driver’s licenses are out there. The holders of each one will have to physically show up at their local Office of Motor Vehicles with a sheaf of documents if they want to use that identification to, among other things, board airplanes. Originally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that its Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, agents would stop accepting noncompliant identification in 2008, but that deadline has been extended several times and now is “sometime this fall.”

“Exactly when, I don’t know,” said Stephen F. Campbell, commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles. But, the federal government would give plenty of warning, so he was pretty sure that Louisiana residents could use their driver’s licenses as identification at airports through Thanksgiving and Christmas, at least.

But the deadline is not the only area of confusion.

So, it’s like this, Campbell said. A Louisiana resident needing to renew his driver’s license won’t have to bring a copy of his original birth certificate, at least for the time being. Only people moving here from other states and wanting a Louisiana permit will need one.

But next year, at least as it stands now, a copy of a birth certificate would be necessary, at least for most people renewing a driver’s license, if that person also wishes to use it as ID for air travel. Ports and federal facilities might demand that security level. That’s assuming the legislature passes a bill allowing the state to accept the federal Real ID, and that there are no additional changes to the federal rules.

“Really, the bottom line here is they haven’t done anything, yet,” Campbell said

State Sen. Robert Adley, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the task force, looked over at two or three congressional aides earnestly taking notes and asked that their bosses attend the hearings to provide state authorities with more guidance. “We just can’t keep going on like this, year in and year out while the threat’s over our head from Congress,” said Adley, R-Benton.

Campbell suggested that legislators bring Ted Sobel, the Homeland Security official overseeing the transition of state identifications, to Baton Rouge to answer questions. “That’s the guy go to. He can answer your questions,” Campbell said.

Campbell said that having spoken to the federal official the day before, Sobel had told him a trip to Louisiana is possible, provided it takes place this month, before a threatened impasse between Republicans and Democrats shuts down the federal government on Sept. 30 and leaves his office without enough money for air travel.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email is mballard@theadvocate.com.