As a still-murky enforcement deadline looms, U.S. homeland security officials spent two hours Tuesday attempting to ease the concerns of state lawmakers resistant to adopting a federal set of standards for state driver’s licenses. 

In the briefing with legislative leaders and lobbyists, the federal officials assured lawmakers that the REAL ID program does not store residents’ information in a federal database, does not track residents through computer chips and does not violate privacy. Its purpose, they said, is to create a common minimum standard for state-issued identification.

Thus far, Minnesota does not meet that standard and is barred from state law from attempting to do so. Federal officials say the state isn’t mandated to comply, but if it doesn’t, eventually state issued IDs would not be valid to board planes or enter federal buildings.

“We are not asking Minnesota to turn over the keys to your information to anybody else. REAL ID does not affect one way or another how Minnesota protects the information of its residents,” said Ted Sobel, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of State-Issued Identification Support. “We’re not creating something new. We are not requiring Minnesota to open the doors to allow any state to go poking through your databases.”

The meeting began behind closed doors but was eventually open to media on the insistence of Sen. David Hann-R, Eden Prairie, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has said it would not begin enforcing REAL ID before January — and even at that time, officials said, it’s unlikely Minnesotans would be barred from boarding a commercial flight with a state-issued ID. Although no deadline has been announced, officials repeatedly said there will be ample notification.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, cosponsor of the 2009 bill blocking REAL ID implementation, noted that Minnesota’s current identification standards meet 74 percent of REAL ID requirements.

“What is the hangup?” he asked.

“We were given a law to implement, and we need to implement that,” Sobel said. “The law sets out very specific things we need to look for. We essentially have 43 boxes we have to check, and currently Minnesota does not check all those boxes. We do not have the discretion to say ‘Well, the law has 43 things, but we can just give a waiver to 10 of them.’ ”

Philip McNamara, assistant secretary for DHS Intergovernmental Affairs, said states could use disaster preparedness grant money to pay for the costs of implementing REAL ID — though he could not provide an estimate of those costs. Because most manufacturers have tailored their products to REAL ID standards, it’s cheaper to adapt than to hold out.

Minnesota’s enhanced identification card and enhanced driver’s license currently qualify as REAL ID-compliant. If the Legislature opted to have the state’s 4 million ID holders obtain an enhanced license to become compliant, that’s an acceptable outcome, federal officials said. The IDs of those who didn’t, they said, would be marked “Not for Federal purposes.”

Minnesota is among four states that are noncompliant and that have not secured an extension. Another 12 states are also not compliant but have yearlong renewable extensions to become compliant. Minnesota’s law, however, bars them from REAL ID progress, and an extension.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he will support changing state law to adapt to REAL ID should it come to the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, which he chairs.

“The bottom line when I’m on a plane, I want to know that everybody on there has gone through the security check that they should. Today’s meeting tells me that there’s no connectivity with the federal database. There’s no checking on us, there’s no connection with other states.” Cornish said.

“I’m just not with the group that thinks that through every portal in the computer there’s a government agent hiding behind it waiting to grab your private information.”

Mariani said that despite claims that there is no federal database, he’s worried that the federal government ordering states to adhere to its standards is essentially the same thing.

“If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said.

“I’m gonna tell you it’s not a duck,” McNamara countered. “Starting right now we have 23 states. They don’t have a common driver’s license; they don’t have a database that’s linked together. It’s not a duck.”

After the meeting, Mariani acknowledged that state law must be changed in the 2016 legislative session to allow Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman to discuss REAL ID with the federal government.

“Her hands really are tightly tied,” he said. “You never know what that response can be unless you have a conversation.”

Limmer, long a holdout on adopting REAL ID, said he was not moved by the DHS overtures — particularly because of concerns that REAL IDs may require an encrypted chip. A DHS official said they will not, although enhanced driver’s licenses do.

“The homeland security director, any one of them, in the future can change the purpose of the REAL ID card. It’s a wide-open opportunity for anyone to demand other things from American citizens by the use of that card. That’s what we’re very concerned about.

“The issue is not just boarding a plane. In addition it’s a question of our civil liberties.”

Abby Simons • 651-925-5043

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