Passport image

Passport image

HELENA — Montanans could choose to get a driver’s license that complies with federal REAL ID requirements or one that doesn’t under a bill proposed by a state lawmaker.

Montana has bucked a mandate for enhanced driver’s licenses since the federal REAL ID Act passed in 2005, arguing the demands are too intrusive and raising concerns about the security of information collected.

The state has been granted extensions to allow residents to board planes or enter federal buildings using their state-issued drivers’ licenses, but a final extension was denied last year. As it stands now, starting Jan. 1, 2018, to board a plane Montanans will need a passport. 

“Here in Montana we don’t like REAL ID but it’s gotten to a point because we didn’t get that last waiver that we need to do something,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, who is carrying the bill. “This doesn’t go against what Montana has said, but on behalf of Montanans we have to do something about this.”

Under the bill, Montanans would have a choice to get a Real ID-compliant license for an extra $25 when their current license expires. It costs $40 now for a license that lasts eight years. Non-compliant licenses would stay the same price.

So-called “early implementers” would pay an extra $50 to get a compliant license before their current one expires. Cohenour estimated 20,000 would switch their licenses early.

For perspective, it costs $110 to get or renew a passport. Montana has 799,389 unexpired driver’s licenses, according to the Motor Vehicles Department.

Cohenour's bill would also repeal part of a state law that forbids Montana from implementing the Real ID Act, a law that passed in 2007.

The change would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Compliant licenses would be available in the seven largest counties in Montana — Yellowstone, Missoula, Gallatin, Flathead, Cascade, Lewis and Clark, and Ravalli. A traveling service would issue new licenses in other communities, or residents could travel to one of the larger counties.

Cohenour estimates it will cost $2.5 million to implement the bill in its first and second years, and about the same in the third. She said it would take another 25 employees to process applications, which require two-person verification and scanning birth certificates.

Montana’s governor, attorney general and U.S. senators all oppose Real ID mandates. The state is without a representative in Congress after the resignation of Ryan Zinke, who is now U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

“Gov. Bullock continues to stand by Montanans in opposition to implementation of REAL ID,” spokeswoman Ronja Abel said Tuesday. “The act, which amounts to a mandated but unconstitutional national identification system, violates states’ rights and jeopardizes the privacy rights of the law-abiding citizens in Montana.”

In January Montana's U.S. senators, Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, introduced a bill to repeal the act.

“The REAL ID Act infringes on Montanans' privacy and civil liberties and is not what most Montanans want,” Daines said Tuesday.

Tester has met with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and asked for an emergency waiver, but has not heard back.

On Tuesday Tester said he was open to a solution.

“We have to take a commonsense approach on this," Tester said. "I’m asking for an emergency waiver because Montanans shouldn’t have to choose between privacy, added costs or a disruption of our travel plans and I am open to any solution that can fix this problem and respects our constitutional right to privacy.”

Attorney General Tim Fox is still pushing for a rollback of the federal mandate.

“The best remedy here is something to happen at the federal level, whether it’s a change in the law or Department of Homeland Security recognizing we have taken steps to improve the security of our driver’s licenses and allow us to come into compliance,” said spokesman Eric Sell.

Sell said while it was too early to estimate the cost of implementation, it will be expensive and the state’s budget is tight this year.

“What is really gained with the state of Montana coming into compliance with REAL ID and the Legislature spending all this money and passing this law versus the federal government allowing us to be in compliance under the status quo?”

Cohenour said her bill is a bipartisan effort and has support from Senate majority leader Fred Thomas, a Republican, and will be carried by Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann in the House.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.