BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to remove a state law that prohibits Louisiana from issuing driver’s licenses that comply with the security measures of the federal REAL ID law, and a bill that would do that began advancing Tuesday in the state Senate.
The Democratic governor’s position is a reversal from his Republican predecessor, Bobby Jindal, who vetoed a similar measure in 2014 amid data-sharing concerns from conservative groups. Despite similar concerns raised Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee sent the legislation to the full Senate without objection.
Lawmakers said they worry continued refusal to comply with the federal REAL ID law could force Louisiana residents to need a passport or other federal documents to board domestic flights or enter federal buildings and military bases starting in 2018.
Under the proposal by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, Louisiana residents would get to individually decide if they want a license that has the security features to comply with the REAL ID or one that does not.
“We’re doing it as an option for our citizens’ convenience,” said Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco.
Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 to create national identification standards after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 20 states comply with the requirements, and most others like Louisiana have received temporary extensions, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Louisiana’s lawmakers enacted a ban in 2008 on meeting the federal requirements because of privacy concerns, but many of the most heavily criticized security features have since been dropped.
“There is not a chip in it, so it doesn’t know where you are,” Colomb said of the REAL ID-compliant license.
Staci Hoyt, deputy commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles, said to comply with the federal law Louisiana needs to scan into a database and store the birth certificates, passports or other documents used to verify the identity of people with drivers’ licenses. She said the state has been regularly scanning the documents for new drivers since 2012.
Other security features required of the licenses already are in place. REAL ID licenses would get a gold star indicating fulfillment of the standards, Hoyt said.
Opponents say allowing compliance with REAL ID would jeopardize people’s data privacy, allowing it to be shared across states. They also said compliance with REAL ID could cost the state millions — though the Office of Motor Vehicles and the Legislature’s financial advisers said no extra spending would be needed.
“Why does the state of Louisiana want the federal government to set the rules for our driver’s licenses?” said Kathryn Goppelt, a Gonzales resident who spoke against the bill.
Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, told opponents: “In this country, federal law trumps state law.”
Bill supporters added language that would prohibit the Office of Motor Vehicles from scanning or maintaining copies of birth certificates or other identifying documents of drivers who don’t want a REAL ID-compliant license.
Hoyt said the state database that contains the scanned documents for REAL ID-compliant licenses can’t be linked to other databases. She said only certain motor vehicle employees and law enforcement officials can access the data.