Though officials are hopeful the new law will be postponed, Louisiana travelers might need their passports to board airplanes bound for other parts of the U.S. starting Jan. 15.
That’s because the state has refused to bring its driver’s licenses into compliance with federal law.
Stephen F. Campbell, commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles, said the office will meet most of new federal standards by October. But a law passed by legislators in 2008 precludes Louisiana from including a symbol that shows the state’s official identification complies with the federal Real ID Act of 2005.
Campbell said he is optimistic that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will make an exception, or postpone executing the federal law.
“We have drafted a letter to Homeland Security highlighting what we have done in Louisiana to date and what we plan to do; and then telling them, ‘Oh by the way, we do have this legislative prohibition’,” Campbell said.
Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration can decide how to handle airline passengers if Louisiana’s official identification is deemed unacceptable and no extension is granted. Passports are acceptable, but TSA has other options, if the agency chooses, such as screening passengers without proper identification more thoroughly, he said.
“I can’t tell you that you’re going to have to have a passport to fly on Jan. 15,” Campbell said. “But according to the Real ID Act, that’s what it says. But Homeland Security hasn’t come out and said that’s what’s going to happen.”
Becky Prejean, of Dreams Come True of Louisiana, said the uncertainty worries her. The foundation organized 57 trips last year, mostly to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for children who have serious illnesses.
“I guess we can pay for passports, but that takes time and will take money away from the expenses we give families,” Prejean said. “And time is something a lot of these children don’t have much of.”
The Real ID Act of 2005, enacted as part of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, set standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and other official identification documents that would make it easier for law enforcement to verify the identity of the holder. The act requires identification cards to include specific security features and document support. It also stipulates protocols for issuing the identification. The law forbids federal authorities from accepting noncompliant identification from people seeking access to planes, federal facilities and nuclear power plants.
Implementation of the Real ID Act has been delayed repeatedly over the years. About two dozen states initially passed legislation refusing to comply.
Now only Louisiana, Montana, Washington State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Arizona and Alaska still have state laws prohibiting compliance, according to Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. At the end of July, 20 states, including Alabama and Florida, had substantially complied with the law. The rest were almost there, the group reports.
“As it stands right now, we don’t comply and passports would be required,” said Jim Caldwell, Air Service Development & Marketing Manager at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, which handled 63,895 passengers during the month of February.
Caldwell said airport authorities are looking at the possibilities for how to handle the backup should TSA choose intensive screening, such as extending lines across the building’s foot bridge towards the parking lot, he said.
At the much larger Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, which reported handling 325,156 domestic passengers in January and 336,406 in February, spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut referred all questions to TSA and abruptly hung up the phone.
TSA officials passed all queries on Real ID to Homeland Security, which would not discuss the matter for attribution.
When asked if plans were afoot to postpone, a Homeland Security media spokeswoman, who demanded that her name not be used, referred to a previous agency statement that “strongly encourages states to submit information certifying their progress.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified in February before the U.S. House Judiciary committee that she would not further extend the deadline. Her assistant secretary for policy, David Heyman, repeated her statements in later congressional visits.
Campbell, who heads Louisiana’s Office of Motor Vehicles, said the state should comply with nearly all the requirements by October from routine advances the agency undertakes as part of its ongoing improvement.
Louisiana lacks a system that numbers blank card stock on which the driver’s licenses are printed. The state keeps up with the paper, but doesn??t number it, he said.
Also, the office is putting into place a “front end” system, in which the person seeking a driver’s license delivers the documents and gets his photograph taken immediately upon entering a motor vehicle office, Campbell said.
The documents would be scanned and checked against national databases while the person waits his turn for a clerk. If the documents are found to be fraudulent, the person would be immediately arrested, he said.
But even once those improvements are made, Louisiana’s identification still might not be acceptable because state law forbids compliance with Real ID, Campbell said.
“Since we already comply with 37 of 39, why don’t we just go ahead and become a Real ID state? That’s the question,” said Brett F. Geymann, R-Lake Charles, who co-sponsored Louisiana’s legislation. “We don’t know where they go from there. Do they come back three years from now and say, ‘Well, now we’re going to make you implement this? And now we’re going to make you implement that?’ ”