Homeland Security bypasses Maine in granting Real ID extensions

The Homeland Security Department late Monday averted a showdown with South Carolina over a controversial driver's license law, while Maine faced the prospect of becoming the only state in the country whose residents will soon not be able to enter federal buildings or board airplanes using their licenses.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that South Carolina would be granted an extension to meet the requirements of the so-called Real ID law -- even though the state did not request an extension and has no plans to comply with the law.

Monday was the cutoff for states to request waivers from a May 11 deadline to come into compliance with Real ID. South Carolina and Maine were the only two states that had not been granted waivers.

As the day wore on, it appeared increasingly likely Maine would not be given a waiver, mainly because it does not require proof that an individual is a legal resident before granting a driver's license.

But late Monday, a spokesman for Maine's Democratic Gov. John Baldacci announced that Homeland Security would give the state two more days to explain what it will do to have more secure driver's licenses.

The spokesman said the two-day extension does not guarantee that Maine ultimately will be given a waiver.

The Real ID law requires states to verify a person's identity and citizenship before issuing a secure driver's license or identification document.

Without a waiver, Maine residents would not be able to use their licenses for federal purposes, such as boarding planes or entering federal buildings, beginning May 11.

"Secretary Chertoff should never have threatened the people of Maine and other states with burdensome restrictions on their access to board planes and enter federal facilities as of May 11," Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, said Monday before announcement of the two-day extension.

States that received a waiver have until December 2009 to begin moving toward compliance with the law. By 2014, states must issue Real ID-compliant cards, except for people older than 50. By 2017, states must issue Real ID-compliant cards to all residents.

South Carolina's Republican Gov. Mark Sanford sent Chertoff a letter Monday criticizing Real ID. Sanford listed many steps the state is taking to improve the security of its driver's licenses, saying it is meeting "more than 90 percent" of the Real ID requirements.

But Sanford said the state legislature had passed legislation preventing the state from complying with Real ID.

Chertoff responded hours later, saying Homeland Security was treating Sanford's letter as a request for a time extension and, based on all the actions taken by the state, granting a waiver.

Maine's governor sent Chertoff a similar letter March 25, saying his state has met 10 of 18 benchmarks for Real ID. But the Maine legislature passed a law prohibiting the state from complying with the law.

Late Monday afternoon, Homeland Security was ready to inform Maine that it would not be given a waiver.

But Gov. Baldacci's spokesman said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, kept negotiations alive between Homeland Security and state officials Monday, including by having a direct conversation with Chertoff.

Collins' effort to resolve the standoff for her home state also may help defuse Real ID as an issue in her re-election campaign. Collins and Allen, her challenger in November, voted to approve an emergency war funding bill in 2005 that included Real ID.

Since then, Allen has been trying to repeal the law. "Secretary Chertoff and the department have been stubbornly heavy-handed in attempting to intimidate states to comply with what their own decision to delay implementation for another decade clearly reveals is a bad law," he said.

Allen and Collins both penned editorials in Sunday's Kennebec Journal, with Collins calling Real ID flawed but not entirely unworkable.

"Real ID still imposes an enormous unfunded mandate on states costing billions of dollars and raises privacy concerns that have yet to be fully addressed," she wrote. "Congress needs to resolve these funding and privacy issues during the extension period."

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