AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to end the state’s opposition to federal Real ID requirements and to begin the process of redesigning the state’s driver’s licenses.

Without legislative action, Maine residents likely will be unable to use their driver’s licenses to board commercial airplanes starting in January because the state has yet to implement the stronger security standards. On Thursday, the Maine Senate voted 31-4 in support of a bill that directs the Secretary of State’s Office to issue new driver’s licenses that comply with the federal Real ID rules.

“If you want to see disruption and chaos back home because we didn’t act – not just this year but for the past 10 years knowing full well that the deadline was before us – then we will see that and we all will hear that. And we should,” said bill sponsor Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former secretary of state.

The bill, L.D. 306, is now headed to the House for consideration. Gov. Paul LePage has called for the Legislature to pass the bill.

If passed and signed as expected by LePage, Maine would get a grace period through a waiver from the federal Department of Homeland Security as the state moves toward federal compliance and new driver’s licenses.

Mainers would keep their current licenses until it is time to renew, and their next licenses would meet the new standards. It will take as long as a year for the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which issues licenses and identification cards, to get a new system up and running.

Maine is one of a handful of states that have refused to comply with the Real ID law and not received extended waivers from the federal government. Federal officials insist that the additional requirements – including digitized images of the card holder as well as federal access to a database of birth certificates and photographs – are necessary to help thwart terrorism.

Opponents of Real ID, including current Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, have warned that the federal mandates could violate Mainers’ privacy without enhancing security.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, a Manchester Democrat who formerly headed the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said it was “madness for our state to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to set up what will be a treasure trove for identity thieves.”

“With any centralized database, particularly when there are not enough resources to keep pace with the technology developed by hackers and thieves, it is not a question of if the data will be breached, but when and to what consequences,” Bellows said.

Both Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, called Real ID “a giant unfunded mandate” because Dunlap’s office has estimated it would cost $2 million to $3 million to implement.

Instead, opponents said Mainers can use passports or passport cards to get through airport security or gain access to federal facilities.

But lawmakers are under increasing pressure to adopt the Real ID requirements because some people already are being affected. Several hundred veterans have been turned away from a Department of Veterans Affairs health clinic on the Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire, and other workers have been denied access to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and other federal facilities.

LePage, a Republican, recently vetoed a bill that would have provided $15,000 to help low-income veterans obtain passport cards so they can access the New Hampshire VA clinic. He called on the Legislature to pass Diamond’s bill rather than “provide case-by-case carve-outs for groups being affected by Real ID.”

An attempt to override LePage’s veto failed in the Maine House this week.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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