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In Long-Running Dispute Over ID Cards, Feds Call Idaho's Bluff

Idaho Transportation Department
Increased enforcement of the federal REAL ID Act means Idaho driver's licenses may soon be unacceptable as ID at airports

What if you showed your driver’s license to verify your credit card, buy a drink or get on a plane -- and it wasn't accepted?

That’s starting to happen to people from Idaho because of a federal law.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 is an anti-terrorism law that calls for certain security measures on state-issued ID cards. States should verify and store original documents proving legal status and eventually link to a national database. The law calls for tamper-proof features on cards.

Idaho's system wasn't up to snuff and Homeland Security was done giving the state a pass.

No longer accepted

Ethlene Rock said it never occurred to her to worry about her Idaho driver's license until January 15. That's the day she got a strange fax.

“I just knew that it was just not, not good,” she said.

The subject line said something about the “REAL ID Act.”

Rock and her husband own a trucking company that delivers to a federal nuclear research facility called the Idaho National Lab. Rock’s drivers don't handle anything radioactive -- it’s usually deliveries of toilet paper, office supplies, car parts.

The fax said the following Monday, their Idaho driver's licenses would no longer be accepted at the gate.

“Then it goes on to say, drivers failing to provide an acceptable form of identification will be turned away from the INL,” Rock said.

A 10-year-old federal law had just caught up with Idaho.

Privacy and overreach concerns

Rock was furious. Her existing drivers would be able to get in with credentials already issued by the lab. But any new driver -- or Rock herself -- would need something like a passport or military I.D. All because of a law she’d never heard of.

And it would happen in four days.

“That is how we became familiar with this,” Rock said.

Rock is caught in the middle of a long-running dispute between the federal government and Idaho. State lawmakers concerned about privacy and federal overreach passed a law in 2008 prohibiting the state from adopting REAL ID.

And it wasn't just in Idaho. Blue states Oregon and Washington passed similar legislation along with 12 other states.

“It was just one of those magical moments when everybody said, ‘No, we’re not going to do it.,” recalled Liz Chavez.

She was a Democrat in the Idaho legislature in 2008 and helped write the state's law. She said the technology needed under REAL ID was expensive, for one. But she was also disturbed by all the information it asked the state to share. And Chavez said she and other lawmakers wanted Homeland Security to tell them: Where would REAL ID even be enforced?

“Give us a list. Show us a list of where you would actually be required to show REAL ID,” Chavez said.

Homeland Security did not provide one.

Phasing in enforcement

Chavez said she half-thought the law would be abandoned altogether.

But last year Homeland Security started phasing in enforcement. And it’s now released a few more specifics about which federal facilities are subject to the law. The agency said REAL ID will be enforced at nuclear power plants, military bases and as soon as next year, airports.

Idaho state Senator Bob Nonini uses his Idaho driver's license every time he flies to Boise. The Republican, still opposes REAL ID, but he supported emergency legislation this year to tweak Idaho's law just enough to ask for an “extension” from Homeland Security. That would delay enforcement.

“We've got to do something,” Nonini said. “Or we're not going to be able to board a commercial airline, let alone have access to federal buildings within Idaho.”

Regular driver's licenses from Arizona, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York are subject to the same enforcement as Idaho’s, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Oregon, Washington and 19 other states considered non-compliant already have extensions from Homeland Security until October. One basis for the extensions: States have been making their own security upgrades to driver's licenses in the years since Congress passed REAL ID. And in some cases, they’ve met some of the standards in the law.

Idaho is rolling out new measures to prevent forgery and verify identity that meet many Homeland Security requirements.

But Nonini said the federal government doesn’t have the right to know everything about every Idaho driver. And he wants to protect Idaho citizens from having to comply with REAL ID.