AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci signed into law a bill to tighten standards for getting a Maine driver’s license, acknowledging that it was a tough issue for lawmakers but saying they did the right thing to pass it.
Baldacci wasted little time putting his signature on the bill after the Senate approved it Thursday night.
With the bill’s enactment, Maine joins 44 other states, including the rest of New England, in making legal presence a requirement for getting a driver’s license, the governor said. It also helps ensure Mainers won’t be put through extra security screening when they board airplanes or go to federal buildings.
“This was a difficult issue for many people in the Legislature,” Baldacci said in a statement. “But we have done the right thing. The laws regarding Maine’s driver’s licenses have been too lax. The Legislature has put the best interest of our people first.”
The bill was submitted by Baldacci under pressure from the federal government, which noted that Maine is among the few states that currently have no rules limiting licenses to legal U.S. residents.
A version of the bill reworked by the Transportation Committee called for 50 percent increases in the fees for driver’s licenses, but they were cut out of the bill that was signed into law.
In addition to requiring legal presence, the law directs Maine’s secretary of state to study the use of new technologies to reduce the risk of an applicant being issued more than one driver’s license, and to develop a plan to use a federal database to verify immigration documents of applicants.
It also requires that state credentials issued to noncitizens who live in the United States legally expire at the same time as the applicant’s authorized duration of stay.
The legislation passed as the federal Department of Homeland Security pressed Maine and other states to comply with the Real ID Act. Maine passed a law last year barring the secretary of state, whose office oversees motor vehicle regulations, from complying with Real ID.
Baldacci has sought to distance the newly enacted licensing law from Real ID mandates. In his bill-signing statement, he said the law “increases the security of our driver’s licenses and fulfills my commitment to the Department of Homeland Security.”
State Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan noted during a hearing on the legislation that it does not require the state to adopt any kind of federal identification card and “does not require Maine to participate in the Real ID Act.”
But the Real ID Act was very much part of the legislative debate over the driver’s license bill, and opponents see a direct link between Real ID and the new law.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said questions are being raised about the constitutionality of the Real ID Act and of a federal agency requiring a state legislature to pass legislation.
“The legal status requirements pushed on us by the feds violate our civil rights while doing nothing to make us any safer,” said Bellows. “For [the Department of Homeland Security] to have singled out Maine in this way was an extraordinary abuse of power.”