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By Austin R. Ramsey

Published Feb. 26, 2017 | Messenger-Inquirer

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Time is slipping away for Kentucky lawmakers. 


The General Assembly has until the end of this legislative session to bring the commonwealth into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act of 2005, which called for security upgrades to states' driver's licenses. 


Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed a measure that would have satisfied the regulations last year, giving in to pressure from tea party groups and the Kentucky ACLU. Now, Republican leaders in Frankfort are calling on Bevin to throw his support behind a measure ahead of schedule — well before they send a bill to his desk for signing. 


As early as this month, though, documents from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet revealed a behind-the-scenes effort to garner enough support for a complete overhaul of the driver's licensing system in Kentucky, stripping issuing authority from circuit court clerks and developing a streamlined process for new plates, tags and ID cards. Officials there won't say much, but they claim to have abandoned that effort for now. 


The governor's office is largely silent, too. Officials there are pointing to his Twitter account for an official statement. 


"We are confident we will achieve resolution to this matter during the current legislative session," Bevin tweeted late last month. 


No matter the outcome, by this time next year the federal requirements will take full effect, and if elected officials haven't agreed to some form of REAL ID law, Kentuckians could be turned away at airports, military bases and nuclear power plants. 


Let's get REAL …


Congress passed the REAL ID Act in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S.
All but one of the hijackers that day used forged IDs or fake documents to rent cars, board planes or learn to fly them, according to the final 9/11 Commission report. The commission recommended that lawmakers "set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver's licenses." So Congress came up with new licensing requirements that bulked up the information each showed and the documentation required to get one. Plus, the law put in place stricter requirements for immigrants, temporary residents or asylum seekers. 


The minimum security standards for ID cards that would be accepted by the federal government were identified for "official purposes" as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. So far, that's covered TSA checkpoints at airports, military bases and nuclear facilities, but officials say that list could be expanded. And it's that unclear language that has unsettled some. 


Scott Hofstra is a spokesperson for the Kentucky United Tea Party, a unifying organization for tea party and patriot groups across the commonwealth. He called REAL ID "dangerous." 


"It was a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11," he said. "There are some states that are saying 'no' to this, and Kentucky should join them." 


Kentucky already joins nine states that have failed to meet requirements laid out by the anti-terrorism measure. In January, DHS granted the commonwealth a four-month reprieve that expires in June, but Hofstra said he believes the lawmakers should ignore the measure altogether.


"People are spreading rumors about this to try and convince you that you won't be able to do anything without federal IDs," he said. "They're trying to scare you." 


It's true that other forms of identification, such as U.S. passports or visas, can replace a REAL ID in some cases. In others, a driver's license with an alternative form of ID such as a utility bill could work, he pointed out. 


Hofstra said his organization has lobbied the General Assembly and the governor's office with one clear message: "No REAL ID." The law would require Kentucky to send copies of birth certificates and other sensitive data directly to the DHS, essentially creating a federal database of information — far too easy to hack, he said, and far too similar to a national form of ID. 


When Bevin initially came out in favor of Senate Bill 245, which would have complied with the law in last year's legislative session, Hofstra and others caught up with the governor at the Kentucky Republican Convention. Bevin had already gone as far as to urge both chambers in Frankfort to pass a REAL ID bill swiftly, and he said so in a media statement later. But weeks after that, he vetoed the bill he'd initially supported. 


"Since that time, however, it has become increasingly clear that there is tremendous opposition and misunderstanding about this bill," Bevin wrote. "The widespread opposition comes from citizens of Kentucky across the entire political spectrum for a variety of different reasons. Good governance demands the courtesy of time needed to better understand and discuss the difference between 'REAL ID' as originally envisioned by its authors and the minimal and voluntary requirements authorized by Senate Bill 245." 


Hofstra said he doesn't think the tea party movement will be so lucky the second time around. 


"It's federal overreach," he said. "And he vetoed it. But Bevin's getting pressure from Homeland Security and others in Frankfort who don't want to deal with this at airports, and I'm afraid he won't veto this again." 


Already, at least two REAL ID bills have been introduced in the House — both offering exactly what the governor promised: choice. 


"We've got to do something about this," says Rep. Jim DuPlessis. "The time is now." 

'Enhanced' license and registration, please ... 


For DuPlessis, the issue hits close to home — literally. 


The Elizabethtown Republican represents a district just south of Fort Knox, an Army post that would fall under the new REAL ID restrictions. Without proper identification, there would be no getting in for some people visiting the military installation. 


That's why he and fellow Republican Myron Dossett, of Pembroke, (near Fort Campbell) have introduced House Bill 410, that, if passed and signed into law, would give Kentuckians two ID options. 


The law would "enhance" secure identity travel documents, essentially identical to existing driver's licenses but with standards in alignment with the REAL ID law. That way, DuPlessis said, the decision over the growing controversy would be left up to Kentuckians themselves. Those who want to use their driver's licenses to board planes or visit federal buildings could choose a voluntary travel ID instead of a standard driver's license. 


Licenses themselves would be issued for eight years instead of four, and the cost would jump from $20 to about $43. 


"There were some major concerns with some groups who didn't want to be forced to get these IDs last year," DuPlessis said. "Quite honestly, these groups are probably responsible for some of the changes. But, that's fine. No Kentucky citizen has to have their birth certificate scanned or copied or sent anywhere. Nobody has to get one." 


In compliance with toughened federal restrictions, Kentucky's legal immigrant population would face another $30 fee under the bill for costs associated with the screening. There were 20,000 legal-status immigrants who got driver's licenses in Kentucky last year alone, he said, pulling money directly out of the road fund. He estimates that Kentucky can save $600,000 a year by offsetting those costs. 


The bill is awaiting approval in committee for now, and it still doesn't quell concerns that Hofstra has about registration rolls. Some say they have doubts that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet would be willing even to keep separate databases for who has which ID. But it remains the only option for now, and time is running out. 


Vince Riggs is the circuit court clerk for Fayette County and president of the Circuit Court Clerks Association in Kentucky. He said clerks (the primary issuer of driver's licenses in Kentucky) are willing to throw their support behind any measure that's good for the citizens they serve. It's good to have options, he said, and he doesn't envision any problems with rolling out such a measure. 


"I'll be honest; our office has been bombarded with questions about this already," he said. "People just want a solution. They just want to get this thing done. And I don't want to be on the other end of the line this time next year when people can't get through TSA checkpoints at airports."


Daviess County Circuit Court Clerk Susan Tierney said she would support the measure, too. There's staff dedicated to issuing driver's licenses, and they're prepared to make whatever changes are necessary to meet new requirements. 


County Clerk David "Oz" Osborne even said his office has seen an uptick in the number of passport applications from people who are concerned the General Assembly won't come to an agreement and they'll be grounded without some form of federally approved identification. 


What's next? 


But there remains one caveat to the REAL ID complexity. County clerks such as Osborne were presented with another option as early as Feb. 7. 


In a meeting behind closed doors in Frankfort, Department of Vehicle Regulation Commissioner John-Mark Hack proposed a radical change to the issuance of driver's licenses in the state, offering to strip circuit court clerks of the responsibility and handing it over to county clerks. 


The Messenger-Inquirer obtained a copy of that report, which claims that now is the time to modernize vehicle regulation in the state, making way for convenience, efficiency, red-tape elimination and federal compliance for the 3.8 million licensed drivers statewide. 


"REAL ID compliance is a serious concern for legislators and the general public," the report claims. "Gov. Bevin is rightfully concerned about federal overreach into state affairs, but current driver's license issuance and motor vehicle licensing systems are in a crisis condition and should be immediately addressed." 


The "county clerk initiative" would make the KTC the primary issue authority to maximize security, while developing both enhanced and standard driver's licenses. The initiative would consolidate services in each county, so citizens would have only one place to go for driving-related business. Best of all, the report states, online renewals with "selfie" driver's license photographs would be possible and still compliant with federal laws and regulations. 


The report states that the KTC has received support from the Justice Cabinet, Economic Development Cabinet and major business players, and it called for a move during the 2017 legislative session. But just days after Reps. DuPlessis and Dossett filed their first REAL ID compliance measure, the KTC abandoned the idea, refusing to comment publicly, except that it was "no longer pursuing the proposed county clerk initiative." 


Riggs said there is room for changes such as that in the future. It's been an idea batted around the state for years, but it's never earned a firm footing. Still, citizens in Kentucky, he said, deserve the best service local government can provide, and if the county clerk initiative were it, he'd be all for it. 


"I never believe in saying 'never,' " he said. "I think anything is a possibility. There's been a lot of consolidation with government over the years, making something like that a valid option. For now, we need to seek compliance with federal laws, and make sure we're enhancing our service to the citizens we serve.


"That's what's next," he said. "That's why people are concerned."

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