Leslie Anderson, of Buffalo, waits in an interminable checkpoint line at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Terminal 1 for a flight to San Antonio.
Wide-eyed, she ponders her Minnesota driver’s license as she learns that come January, it might not be enough to get her on a plane to Texas.
“So would I need to bring a passport?” she asks in disbelief.
The short answer: Yes.
Minnesota is one of only four states across the country that has refused to implement the federal REAL ID Act of 2005, and the once far-off deadline of January 2016 is looming.
Without an extension, more than 4 million Minnesotans could find themselves unable to board planes or even enter some federal buildings or military bases.
Designed to combat terrorism, REAL ID requires states to produce more secure driver’s licenses and identification cards, backed by verified proof of birth, residence, Social Security numbers and, most important, citizenship or lawful status in the country.
It’s taken a decade, but most states and territories gradually have agreed to adopt REAL ID and many have obtained extensions as they work through the requirements.
In Minnesota, however, legislators voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to bar the state from implementing REAL ID. Concerned about privacy and determined to push back against the federal mandate, they voted to prohibit the state from even preliminary measures, such as obtaining cost estimates or negotiating with federal officials.
Other states took similar measures, but over time 47 states and territories eventually came around, adopting the federal standards for tighter security features on state-issued ID cards and driver’s licenses.
Now Minnesota, New York, New Hampshire and Louisiana are the only holdouts.
“I guess I’m kind of wondering why the state is a holdout if everybody else is going along with it,” Mary Jo Carlson, of Bloomington, said as she waited in line for her flight to Colorado. “I think the scanner that sees through your clothes is more invasive. But my driver’s license? Yeah, not so much. I don’t care.”
Earlier this week Gov. Mark Dayton signaled his frustration at the Legislature’s actions then and its inaction since.
“In this case the action they took was in my mind, senseless,” Dayton said, referring to the Legislature’s vote to block REAL ID. “To refuse to [repeal] would be equally senseless. I’m giving the Legislature credit when I believe none of them are looking forward to hearing from their constituents who can’t board a plane. …”
Steve Getchell of Corcoran, a seasoned traveler bound for Chicago, and then Saturday’s Notre Dame game in Indiana, is not stressing about REAL ID. He always carries a passport and a couple forms of ID, even when he travels domestically. Still, he thinks the state’s stance could change. “It’s a little behind the times,” he said.
The Legislature did create one option: an enhanced driver’s license that meets Homeland Security requirements but is available only upon request. Few have availed themselves of it, perhaps because it has been little publicized and because it carries an extra cost of $15. According to state records, only 7,000 Minnesotans have the more secure cards, which are plainly marked “Enhanced Driver’s License” or “Enhanced Identification Card.”
The Department of Homeland Security has said it will announce sometime next year when it plans to begin enforcing the law, and has pledged not to do so without ample notice.
Gloria Stock Mickelson, a Plymouth-based travel agent, said she worries most about the frequent fliers — those business travelers accustomed to hopping a flight to Chicago or New York without thinking twice about what they need to get on a plane.
“We’re all safe and sound right now,” she said of the coming enforcement. “But we’re already starting to coach people. There is a risk this could happen.”
In the meantime, Dayton has joined the chorus calling for the Legislature to act. He has been in contact with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and has invited a federal official to debrief lawmakers next week. He said his overtures to the Legislature to act were ignored last session, but he hopes that with the deadline approaching, they will listen and repeal the REAL ID ban.
If the feds do not grant an extension, enforcement could start before the Legislature reconvenes in early March. Dayton has said he is open to calling a special session if one proves necessary.
In a March 2015 letter to lawmakers, Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman warned that “Minnesota’s noncompliance with federal law is impacting a growing number of Minnesotans.”
The warning went unheeded.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a key author of the 2009 legislation to block implementation, called REAL ID a classic example of government overreach. Now, he said, they’re “using a heavy club” to force states to comply. Asked if he’s willing to tell constituents they can’t get on a plane, Limmer demurred.
“I think that’s the exact logic that the proponents of the card are going to make,” he said. “On the other hand, what is the cost of the card in freedom, liberty, individual rights and privacy? Does the government have to know everything? This is a step in that direction.”
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said he now would be open to compromise, even though he co-sponsored the original bill along with Limmer and others. So popular was the ban among lawmakers at the time that it passed the House unanimously and with only one dissenting vote in the Senate.
But Mariani has seen a number of states negotiate terms with the federal government since then and thinks Minnesota should do the same.
“It’s important for us to revisit,” he said. “We wrote the current law pretty damn tight. It’s so tight that the Dayton administration can’t have that kind of [negotiating] conversation with the federal government. I would hate to stare down Grandma Johnson from Albert Lea who calls and asks, ‘How come I can’t get on an airplane?’ ”