The Minnesota Senate on Monday voted down a bill meant to put the state in compliance with federal driver's license standards, as a fight over immigration policy hampers the effort to ensure continued access to air travel for all residents.
Five members of the Senate's Republican majority joined DFLers to reject the Real ID compliance bill on a 38-29 vote, which came after a debate that saw lawmakers from both parties accuse the other side of playing politics on an issue with practical implications for many Minnesotans.
"I thought we would have plenty of votes, and we did not," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. He called it a "huge disappointment" and put the blame in part on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
If lawmakers can't reach agreement before a January 2018 federal deadline, residents will have to use a passport or special enhanced driver's license to get through airport security or to visit a military facility.
Senators from both parties say they want to avoid that situation. But both sides have also tried to use the Real ID legislation as a chance to clarify who should or shouldn't be able to get a Minnesota driver's license.
The House in February passed a Real ID compliance bill that firmed up a current Department of Public Safety (DPS) practice to not issue driver's licenses to Minnesotans in the country illegally, making it a law instead of a rule. DFLers say they are prepared to support Real ID compliance, but only if it doesn't threaten the possibility of undocumented immigrants being able to get licenses in the future.
Last week, Dayton encouraged DFL senators to pursue a provision instead to allow the DPS to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
"I'm disappointed with the governor; he worked with the Senate Democrats last week and it seems like that's what changed the course of this," Gazelka said.
The Real ID bill in the Senate did not directly address the issue of licenses for those in the country illegally. DFLers, while few addressed immigration directly, said the measure still contained language they found problematic.
Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, warned that the bill could come with "unintended consequences." Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, said the bill was "restrictive, counterproductive and borderline offensive" and contributing to divisions emerging around the country.
"This bill was supposed to be about compliance," she said. "It became a bill about restricting individuals in our state."
Senate Republicans said their bill aimed to win support among DFLers by sidestepping the immigration-related provision included in the House bill.
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, the bill's author, said Minnesotans are already having problems getting into military facilities — and even into the White House — with their noncompliant Minnesota licenses. He said solving that problem has been complicated by a separate debate.
"Quite honestly we've just again confused these two issues together," he said.
A handful of Republicans concerned about privacy issues also voted against the bill. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, warned that Minnesotans could be putting their personal data at risk if they agree to have their information shared across a much larger network.
"I think this is giving way too much power to the federal government and I would suggest we hold onto the power we have as delegated by our national Constitution," he said.
Gazelka said that passing a Real ID bill remains a top priority for Republicans during this session, and that they recognize they'll need DFL support to do it.
The Senate could take up the issue again, but lawmakers will have to move quickly as the pace of the session picks up. Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, the author of the House bill, said he expects many legislators may be hearing from people concerned about what the vote means for them — and then motivated to change their votes. "I think pressure is going to be mounted by the citizens of Minnesota," he said.