Davis bristles at characterization of Real ID Act as unfunded mandate

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) insists that the Real ID Act, which outlines standards for issuing new driver's licenses, does not amount to an unfunded mandate, despite what state governments may say.

The congressman spoke prior to a panel discussion on smart cards held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Davis said even his wife, Virginia state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, has characterized the Real ID Act as an unfair burden on states.

"States can do whatever they want," Rep. Davis said. "It's not an unfunded manadate in that sense. But if they want to use them as federal IDs, they must meet our standards."

The Real ID Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush May 11, directs states to overhaul and upgrade their driver's licenses and issuance processes by 2008. The new IDs would be required for everything from boarding an airplane to visiting a federal building. If the license presented at an airport, for example, did not meet Real ID regulations, other proof of identification would be necessary.

What is unknown is whether the licenses themselves have to be smart cards containing biometric information about individuals. The Real ID Act requires the Homeland Security Department to make that determination. If DHS insists on biometrics, the cost of implementing federally compliant licenses is expected to be expensive.

The National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver has estimated the cost of implementing Real ID between $500 million and $700 million nationally. Increased costs, including additional staff and training, could force the price tag even higher.

"There are some federal funds available, but they are not going to cover everything," Davis said.

At least one expert took issue with Davis' view of the Real ID mandate, but doesn't consider it a problem.

Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, disagreed that the Real ID Act is not an unfunded mandate "or an underfunded mandate," he said.

"But I don't care," Atkinson added. States should adhere to the Real ID Act and, if necessary, raise the fee for issuing licenses to cover the additional costs, he said.

"Instead of $40 for a new license, charge $50. ? [States] will see a social [return on investment] in less than one year," Atkinson said.

The Progressive Policy Institute has been encouraging states to overhaul their driver's licenses since it released a 2002 report on the subject. Atkinson said a smart ID card is the best way to go in order to ensure security and authentication.

"A smart ID takes political courage," Atkinson said, because some privacy groups worry it will lead to a national database of personal information. He called the concern "ludicrous."

Brad Grimes is an assistant managing editor of Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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