Chris Comisac, Captiolwire
A Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously reported out a bill to block Pennsylvania’s participation in the federal REAL ID program. This bill could be altered before getting a final Senate vote, based on concerns voiced by lawmakers before the final committee vote.
Senate Bill 354, sponsored by Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, would exempt Pennsylvania from having to comply with the provisions of the 2005 federal REAL ID law, which established new mandates on states regarding the distribution of drivers' licenses.
According to the federal Department of Homeland Security, regulations created pursuant to the REAL ID Act set minimum standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. The law sets standards for information and security features that must be incorporated into each card; for application information to establish the identity and immigration status of a person before a card can be issued; and for physical security at facilities where driver's licenses and applicable identification cards are produced.
While the department and the law’s supporters maintain this effort seeks to reduce identity theft and to help fight terrorism, others argue it makes things worse.
Opponents of the federal effort have called the REAL ID provisions an invasion of privacy and a possible method to abridge additional freedoms currently enjoyed by Americans.
Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, said during Wednesday’s meeting that two consecutive presidential administrations have failed to appropriately address the nation’s immigration issues, “and yet the federal government turns around and says ‘we want to document those of you who are here legally.’”
“I just don’t like the notion that they want to document us, and control – and perhaps even limit – our ability to move through the country,” added Mensch.
Folmer said the federal government is overstepping its authority.
“We need to say ‘we have 10th amendment rights in this state, you [the federal government] shouldn’t be doing this, you have no business doing this and we’re saying no in PA,’” said Folmer, majority chairman of the committee, referring to U.S. Constitution's principle of federalism.
That part of the Bill of Rights provides that powers not granted to the federal government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people.
Folmer also called the federal act an unfunded mandate on the commonwealth at a time when Pennsylvania already faces a huge deficit.
But it is a federal law, and one, unless it is repealed or invalidated, with which states have to comply, said a few senators.
“I wish the federal government would not have done this, I think it’s wrong,” said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, “I wish they wouldn’t [have done it], but they did – that’s the point.”
Vance initially said she couldn’t support Folmer’s bill as long as the REAL ID act is a federal law.
Both Folmer and Mensch said when the federal government does something it shouldn’t, states should object to the federal actions.
“When federal laws are passed that aren’t right, and we just continue to comply to them, when is it going to end?” asked Folmer. “We have a duty, I think, to do this.”
“When the federal government is wrong, I think it is the duty of each state to say to the federal government ‘Hey, you’re wrong, let’s stop doing this foolishness,’” said Folmer.
He said if enough states push back against the federal law, the effort could convince the federal government to rescind it.
Vance and others, noting their objection to the federal law, explained their primary concern is what would happen to Pennsylvanians if the state refuses to comply and federal officials don’t abandon the REAL ID effort.
“If we do pass this [bill] in Pennsylvania, what happens to the [federal] requirement that we would need to have these identification cards to board commercial flights, to go into federal courthouses, etc.?” asked Vance.
Committee staff said it was their belief that other alternative identification options would be allowable under the federal law.
“But if that doesn’t happen, how do we board planes and go into [federal] public buildings?” Vance again asked.
“I want to make sure we’re not penalizing the citizens in the commonwealth, right now, who won’t be able to board a plane or go into a [federal] building” if the federal requirements aren’t waived or invalidated, she said.
“I think it [the Folmer bill] bears further discussion once it comes out of committee because I think there are serious concerns, and I think Sen. Vance has voiced some of those,” said Sen. Edwin “Ted” Erickson, R-Delaware.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, asked if it would be appropriate to insert language into the bill that would address Vance’s concern.Hearing the senators’ concerns, Folmer assured Vance he would work with her to develop something to address her concerns.
“I understand your concern,” said Folmer. “I would not want to hurt anyone down the road.”
Vance said given Folmer’s commitment to her, she would support reporting the bill from committee.
Before the final vote, the committee unanimously amended the bill in response to a request by the state Department of Transportation.
According to Folmer, the department expressed concerns that without changes, Senate Bill 354 is written so broadly that it would prohibit the department “from complying with any provisions of the Real ID law, including the department’s existing fraud deterrent measures and ongoing procedures to reduce fraud and identity theft.”
Similar legislation was approved by the Senate last session, but the session ended before the bill received a vote in the state house of Representatives. In 2008, the House approved a similar bill, but it didn’t get a vote in the Senate.
If the bill becomes law, Pennsylvania would join [at least]16 other states that have enacted such laws.