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Update, March 29, 2017: A bill that would jumpstart the process of Pennsylvania complying with the REAL ID Act passed the Senate 46-2 on March 28.

Good news, Pennsylvania: You probably can fly with just your driver’s license as your ID, despite reports that you’d need a passport.

The nightmare of Keystone State residents being turned away at airports next year for only having a driver’s license as proof of ID is getting less and less likely. Insiders say committees in the House and Senate should finalize and approve bills in the next two weeks pushing Pennsylvania toward complying with what is known as the Department of Homeland Security’s REAL ID Act, with eligibility for floor votes coming soon after.

“It’s on the move,” said State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon). “It’ll probably get voted on and bada bing, bada boom.”

Folmer would know. He’s religiously followed the REAL ID Act for 12 years. He’s the guy who sponsored the law that banned Pennsylvania from complying with it, in part putting the state in the difficult situation it’s in. Not only could our IDs be null-and-void at airports next year, Pennsylvanians risk being denied entry to military bases and other federal facilities by June 6 if their only ID is a driver’s license.

Both the House and Senate have bills that would repeal the current law and make the first steps toward complying with the REAL ID Act, which requires states to meet security standards for driver’s licenses set by the federal government. With one introduced by Philly House Democrat Ed Neilson and one by Westmoreland Republican Sen. Kim Ward, bipartisan support is basically guaranteed. Neilson met with Governor Tom Wolf’s staff last week, and he said the Governor was confident one of the bills would pass. Last week, a study revealed Pennsylvanians would have to spend nearly $1 billion on passports if the state didn’t comply with REAL ID, adding further urgency to the issue.

“The Pennsylvania Legislature,” said Brian Zimmer, president of Keeping Identities Safe/Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, “I think they’ll move legislation because the cost of noncompliance is a lot higher than compliance.”

That we’re even having this conversation is likely a surprise to most Pennsylvanians. Not being able board a flight to Florida with a driver’s license or other state-issued ID — um, what? And that the legislature and Wolf would be staring down a three-month deadline to get something done on an Act that has existed since 2005 seems equally surprising (well, maybe not).

But the story is more complicated. A few years ago, nearly everyone in state politics was convinced that denouncing the Department of Homeland Security’s requirement was the safe, fiscally smart move. The pressure to comply has only become a recent reality.

This is how Pennsylvania got into a situation that could conceivably cost residents close to $1 billion and what it will mean for all of us if Pennsylvania does start following the REAL ID Act.

‘I tried to fight the Feds, but the Feds won’

Back in 2012, the decision to make a law banning Pennsylvania from complying with the federal REAL ID act was as popular as the push to make Pennsylvania comply is now. Folmer led the charge.

He saw the Act as unconstitutional, dangerous because it called for collecting people’s information in a centralized fashion and, mostly, a waste of taxpayer money. PennDOT estimated compliance with the REAL ID Act could cost the state somewhere in the $100 million range to implement and $40 million annually to maintain. The bill, which became Act 38 of 2012, passed the Senate unanimously and the House 189-5. Tom Corbett approved, too, the Republican governor gaining rare praise from the ACLU.

Right now, Pennsylvania is one of seven states not complying with the act that have until June 6, 2017 to prove to the DHS they’re getting their act together. Another five have received no extension, and residents in those states already can’t use driver’s licenses to get into military bases and other federal buildings. It’s a drastic change from five years ago. In 2012, about half the country was opposing the REAL ID Act, either informally or through legislation like Pennsylvania passed. Folmer expected the Department of Homeland Security to drop its REAL ID requirement, especially after a state as big as Pennsylvania legalized its resistance.

So when the bill was passed, hardly anyone — Democrat or Republican — expected the day would come when Pennsylvanians wouldn’t be able to use their driver’s license as ID for domestic flights. They thought they’d be saving the state money and whatever headaches overhauling procedures for complying with REAL ID would entail.

“The goal was to say Pennsylvania is doing a great job in its data collection,” Folmer said. “I tried to fight the Feds, but the Feds won.”

Folmer celebrates the passage of SB3, the medical marijuana bill. He was the prime sponsor. Credit: SenatorFolmer.com

The purpose of REAL ID and the Philly connection

The point of REAL ID is all about strengthening security in the production and distribution of driver’s licenses. The Department of Homeland Security basically wants to make it harder for people to get fraudulent IDs and for states to grant IDs with equal scrutiny. The physical security of an actual ID card is a small component of the the REAL ID Act. The key parts of complying with REAL ID are about upgrading computer systems for security purposes, increasing storage of personal records and data and initiating background checks for employees handling the approval and production of licenses.

When the Act became federal law in 2005, after recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, terrorists with fraudulent IDs were the top concern. Now the law is being stressed to target identity theft and more common criminals who get IDs in multiple states or multiple IDs in the same state and have little trouble doing so because of lax oversight.

Philadelphia has had plenty of problems in this area in recent years. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a Grand Jury report exposing “historic security laxity and lack of concern on the part of PennDOT,” allowing criminals to obtain fraudulent driver’s licenses. Most of illicit activity tracked by the AG’s Office occurred in Philly. In a report from 2005, PennDOT created a spreadsheet containing expected fraud cases. Of 82 people who obtained likely fraudulent IDs in Pennsylvania, 81 received them in Philly, with more than half coming from two offices: one in Center City and one in West Oak Lane.

The AG’s report prompted PennDOT to increase security measures, enacting many of the same requirements and security protocols of the REAL ID Act, and PennDOT has maintained it would be mostly compliant if not for the state law barring Pennsylvania from following REAL ID. The most strenuous changes for Pennsylvania would likely be better capturing and storing people’s information and streamlining security protocols.

Folmer cites the recent security improvements as reasons why Pennsylvania’s current system is adequate and fears the possible hacking of the personal data centrally collected by the state under the REAL ID Act.

Zimmer considers a hack to be difficult. He said while this information would be a “honeypot” for identity thieves, they wouldn’t be able to access it through the internet. Under REAL ID regulations, the info would be protected in a way accessible only by certain background-checked employees.

Said Neilson: “In 2012, it was a different time then when they passed it. We were afraid to have all our stuff floating out there. By not complying you’re forcing everybody to get a passport. Well that’s a national database too.”

How REAL ID will affect you

Should Pennsylvania become fully compliant with the REAL ID Act, the only guaranteed change you’ll notice is a star in the upper corner on new driver’s licenses. The star is a symbol that a license is in compliance with the REAL ID Act, and Zimmer said it is equipped with a security feature that would make it difficult to be tampered with.

A REAL ID compliant driver’s license in Iowa has the star in the upper corner. Credit: Iowa Department of Transportation

You’ll also have make an in-person trip to the DMV, no matter what. The REAL ID Act requires each person with a driver’s license to update to a REAL ID compliant license by October 2020. The convenience of renewing online — as you can do now in Pennsylvania — will not be allowed for this first renewal.

There’s also the possibility of fewer locations at which Pennsylvanians could renew their IDs or apply for an ID for the first time, depending on how PennDOT adjusts its system to meet the REAL ID security standards. Maryland, for instance, has only four locations where driver’s licenses can be granted but has kept its other DMV centers open for all other services. The reduction in locations where licenses are made helps keep costs down, and as Zimmer points out, “Pennsylvania happens to have a budget crisis right now.”

These changes wouldn’t happen immediately. Lawmakers and experts anticipate it would be one to two years before Pennsylvania is fully compliant. As long as the General Assembly scraps the law banning the state from complying with the REAL ID Act and starts communicating with the Department of Homeland Security, the Feds are likely to grant extensions as the state gets up to speed with REAL ID, meaning entry to flights and federal buildings shouldn’t be an issue.

And for Folmer, the time that Pennsylvania will be following the REAL ID Act is not an if but a when. He plans to vote no, in protest, against the bill repealing his law and jumpstarting the state’s compliance but anticipates few others will join him.

“It’s going to go away,” Folmer said of the possibility of Pennsylvanians not being able to board a plane with a driver’s license next year. “The sun will still rise tomorrow, and cats still won’t be sleeping with dogs.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...