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Legislative inaction on Real ID could be a real problem for Alaskans who travel or work on military bases

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 23, 2017

JUNEAU — A state-federal showdown over official identification appears increasingly likely to cause problems for Alaskans, whose driver's licenses could be rejected by airport security as soon as January without legislative action this year.

Alaska has an exemption from enforcement of the federal Real ID Act through June 6. After that, Alaskans' driver's licenses won't be enough to access military bases and other federal facilities — with the same restrictions kicking in at airports Jan. 18.

Alaskans would have to use another form of ID instead, like a passport.

Gov. Bill Walker this week has been pushing lawmakers to advance his bill bringing the state in line with Real ID's standards. But Alaska lawmakers from both parties have balked at it, arguing that its record-keeping and collection requirements enable the growth of the "surveillance state."

Legislative inaction could have far-reaching impacts — on travelers, teachers who work on bases and contractors expecting to do some of the $635 million in military construction that's forecast for Alaska this year.

But lawmakers are making no guarantees that Walker's legislation will pass this year — further escalating a long-running game of chicken with the federal government.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, at a meeting this week with reporters. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, the chair of the House State Affairs Committee where Walker's bill has sat for two months, pointed to 2008 legislation barring the state from spending money on Real ID. It passed 14-4 in the Senate and 39-1 in the House.

"There's a strong track record to look at that gives reason to believe this legislation may struggle to attract majority support this session," Kreiss-Tomkins said. He added, however, that he's optimistic his committee will reach a compromise to advance Walker's bill.

Congress approved the Real ID Act in 2005 based on anti-terrorism recommendations from the 9/11 Commission.

Half of states now meet the bill's standards. Another 20, including Alaska, have received extensions, and five — Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana and Washington — have been deemed "noncompliant" by the Department of Homeland Security.

Privacy advocates oppose Real ID's requirements that states share driver's license applicants' information with other states, keep copies of documents used for identity verification and store pictures of peoples' faces.

The Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has testified before legislative committees, said in written testimony to lawmakers that Real ID would create a "one-stop shop for identity thieves."

"It's such a nightmare for state governments — essentially extorting them to either require passports to get on military bases and have their state undergo this really onerous process, or to give up their civil liberties and privacy expectations," Tara Rich, the ACLU of Alaska's legal and policy director, said in an interview.

If lawmakers are going to approve Walker's legislation, she said, the group is pushing them to adopt it with as little infringement on privacy as possible, like by storing documents on paper rather than in a digital database that could be hacked.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Justine Whelan, didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Walker administration is trying to satisfy both privacy advocates and the federal government with its legislation, bill 34 in the Senate and 74 in the House.

The legislation would let Alaskans choose between Real ID-compliant licenses or "noncompliant" ones. Alaska and its boroughs, cities and villages would be required to give the same weight to each type, according to the bill.

"We're not forcing anybody to do anything," said Leslie Ridle, deputy commissioner at the state administration department, which includes the DMV.

The state this week began encouraging its employees who work on military bases to start the process of getting an alternative ID, since it can take up to two months for passport processing.

"We just don't want people to get caught unaware, unable to go to work," Ridle said.

Proponents of the bill argue that inaction could harm private industry and keep workers out of military bases. It's been endorsed by the Anchorage School District, which has five elementary schools on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, as well as the Alaska Trucking Association and the Teamsters union.

John MacKinnon, the head of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, the state construction lobby, said some members are worried employees without passports could be "shut out" from jobs on bases. The fight against data collection is futile anyway, he argued.

"People are worried about tracking devices and they have a smartphone — well, they're being tracked," MacKinnon said.

A substitute version of Walker's bill aimed at adopting even more privacy protections for the noncompliant IDs advanced Thursday out of the Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy. The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

Under the proposal, written by Dunleavy, the DMV would be required to produce the noncompliant licenses inside the state. It would also have to tell applicants how their personal data would be stored, and requires the state to get permission before copying or keeping documents used for identify verification.

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy at a committee meeting last month. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

In an interview, Dunleavy, a fiscal conservative, acknowledged his proposal could cost money. But he said it would be worth it to protect Alaskans' privacy.

"You've got a piece of crap," he said of the Real ID requirements. "We're trying to put a dress on it.

"Federal contractors, businesses, everyone's a victim here, of the federal government," Dunleavy said.

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