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Coakley cites cost in opposing US law on driver's licenses

MARTHA COAKLEY Will address lawmakers MARTHA COAKLEY Will address lawmakers

A federal law that would tighten driver's license regulations infringes on civil liberties and would cost the state more than $140 million, the state's chief law enforcement officer plans to say in testimony at the State House today.

Joining a growing rebellion by states throughout the country, Attorney General Martha Coakley plans to argue before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs that the two-year-old Real ID Act would unduly burden Massachusetts.

"The Real ID Act was pushed through Congress in 2005 without meaningful debate or hearing on its implications for the states," Coakley said in a statement. "Not only does the Real ID Act call for sweeping changes in how states issue driver's licenses with limited time to implement the changes, but it does not consider the financial burden placed on the states."

The Real ID Act requires states to verify the identity of people who apply for or renew driver licenses, starting next spring, and to make sure they are American citizens or US residents.

At least 16 states have passed bills or resolutions opposing the Real ID Act, and more than 20 others have similar legislation or resolutions pending, according to the attorney general's office.

Yesterday, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina signed a bill rejecting the state's participation in the Real ID Act, citing the cost and the potential for long lines at Department of Motor Vehicle offices. South Carolina joined Montana, Washington, Oklahoma, and Maine in formally rejecting the act. Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire is expected to sign a similar bill sent to his desk last week.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said residents will be at a disadvantage if Massachusetts fails to adhere to the law.

"Citizens from those states who don't comply with the Real ID Act are going to be dissatisfied with their leadership when it comes time for implementation," he said. "There are going to be practical impacts on their daily lives. For example, they won't be able to use their driver's license for commercial air travel or to enter federal buildings. They would need to travel with a passport."

Coakley joined Governor Deval Patrick and other officials in opposing the act. Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke and Registrar of Motor Vehicles Anne Collins will express the administration's opposition at the hearing.

In a letter sent last month to the Department of Homeland Security, Collins said the stricter federal regulations would cost the Registry an extra $100 million in the first year and $40 million each year after that, three times the current funding level. The Registry of Vital Records and Statistics would have to find an additional $19 million in the first year and $360,000 above its usual budget every year thereafter. That would be more than five times the current funds commanded by the agency.

"The governor has expressed his opposition to the Real ID act for financial, logistical, and public safety reasons," said Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for Patrick. He said the administration will decide by October whether to comply with the act.

Senator John F. Kerry also opposes the act. "There are huge problems and potential unintended consequences with a national ID system, and I've seen no evidence that the current state systems are inadequate," he said in a statement yesterday. "This would be a national mistake and a disaster for the states. I applaud . . . Coakley for being so vocal about the financial burdens it would place on Massachusetts and for taking a strong stand."

Coakley will testify in support of a resolution filed by Senator Richard T. Moore, Democrat of Uxbridge. The resolution would prohibit the Legislature from enacting any laws or authorizing any appropriation to implement the Real ID Act, unless the appropriation is for a comprehensive analysis of costs or a constitutional challenge by the attorney general or until the federal government provides money to pay for it.

The Real ID Act, which Congress passed as part of a military spending and tsunami relief bill, requires state driver's licenses to be acceptable by federal agencies for "any official purpose," such as boarding an airplane, entering a federal building, opening a bank account, collecting Social Security, or applying for federal benefits.

If states are unable to meet the federal law's requirement by May 2008, they may request an extension by February 2008. Every US driver must carry a license that complies with the Real ID Act by spring 2013.

"We believe that to implement the federal government's requirements around Real ID are both logistically and financially impractical," Coakley said in her statement.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.