It was a popular idea five years ago: make sure every state had high-security driver's licenses to thwart terrorism at airports.
But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Real ID system faces opposition from states still reeling from recession.
The deadline for compliance has been extended twice, until Jan. 15, and may be extended again. If a state hasn't complied, its residents won't be able to use their driver's licenses to get on planes, into federal facilities or places like nuclear power plants.
Today, 17 states have enacted laws opposing compliance with Real ID, eight more approved resolutions opposing it, and two had one house of its legislature oppose the federal mandate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states aren't expected to comply by the deadline.
In New York and Maryland, officials are being forced to choose between a high-cost material that would require a switch to black-and-white photos, and a cheaper material that better matches strapped resources. Both are regarded as secure, though the former is favored by some in the security field.
A study by NCSL, the National Governors Association and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimated the Real ID program will cost states $11 billion over five years. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated the cost at no more than $3.9 billion.
“NCSL urges Congress and the administration to continue to work with NCSL and its members on alternatives to the Real ID,” the group stated in a position paper.
Real ID places numerous requirements on states, from setting standards on which paperwork drivers must present to mandating tamper-prevention features so that IDs cannot be counterfeited.
Two kinds of plastic used to make licenses are at the heart of the latest disputes, in New York and Maryland.
Teslin, a longtime standard, is made to have information printed onto it, like paper. Polycarbonate can be etched, but only accommodates black-and-white photos.
The industry regards both materials as secure, but polycarbonate is rated higher by some in the field, though at a higher price. Some government officials also don't like the idea of having only black-and-white photos on ID cards; Virginia is the only state to have them.
In May, the Maryland State Board of Contract Appeal upheld a complaint against the initial bidding process and required a re-evaluation. In Maryland, polycarbonate was 25 percent higher than the low bidder.
In New York, the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose what it believes to be the most secure card offered, made of polycarbonate and offered by a Canadian company, CBN Secure Technologies. Its bid was also the most expensive: $38 million above the current cost and 40 percent above the lowest bidder, which also met the state's specifications.
The apparent losing bidders are protesting the decision, saying CBN appeared to have some unfair advantage or that the decision was botched by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV denies both allegations, saying its ranking of bids gave greater weight to security than cost.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is investigating to see if DMV chose the best deal.
The losing bidders want a rebid, saying they could produce a polycarbonate version for less.
Newspaper editorials and state legislators called for a thorough evaluation of New York's choice, which was first reported by The Associated Press. The state convenience stores lobbyist said black-and-white photos will hinder the detection of underage drinkers and smokers, but it and a state senator backed off their original overall opposition after a stern rebuke by the Cuomo administration.
“Was it $38 million better?” the Glens Falls Post-Star asked in an editorial. “State bids should be awarded to the lowest bidder that meets the standards. We do not need the Rolls Royce of driver's licenses.”
The state's lengthy and technical “request for proposal” obtained by the AP tells bidders they must be compatible with the machinery that produces the state's cards. But New York doesn't require the cards be made of Teslin if a bidder can make a case for another material.
The specifications also make several references to “photo quality” images that can be copied in color and the need to make “color portraits for subpoenas and other authorized requests.” But they don't specifically prohibit black-and-white photos.
The state told bidders they “must provide … color options for demographic data and information tags,” which the losing bidders say can't be done on the polycarbonate card.
DMV spokeswoman Jackie McGinnis said the color requirements are for writing and other markings on the license, not the photo. She also said DMV won't have to change its system for polycarbonate cards.
DMV also noted that while “cost is a significant factor in this procurement … DMV has a special interest in incorporating advanced, innovative, dependable, and cost effective security technology into the documents it issues.”
That could favor a polycarbonate card, although other statements in the bidding document extol the virtues of the current Teslin card and “will give preference” to proposals that don't impose “a significant impact on current DMV processes” unless a new material “warrant the cost and effort to make the changes.”
“CBN Secure Technology Inc. will provide these features as needed,” she said.