Harrisburg – On Monday, the House State Government Committee moved along a Senate measure that would put Pennsylvania on the road toward compliance with the federal REAL ID Act, which requires states to adopt specific, nationwide standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards in order to strengthen immigration enforcement and boost homeland security.
The debate, however, brought out some Republican members’ strong belief in protecting Pennsylvania and its residents from federal encroachment and limiting the power of the governor to charge citizens for a federally mandated identification card.
While the bill that emerged from committee Monday contains some of the core portions of the original Senate bill – requiring Pennsylvania to establish a two-tiered system of REAL ID compliance by creating A REAL ID compliant state-issued identification card for which one must pay an extra fee, as well as a state-issued identification card that does not comply with REAL ID that will be provided as currently issued – an amendment to the legislation did limit who will pay for those identifications. It also increases the number of required reports about REAL ID Act compliance and limits the ability of the Department of Transportation to comply with the federal requirement.
There was some urgency to the deliberations: Earlier this year, Pennsylvania was granted a compliance extension until June 5; after that date, state-issued identification cards will no longer be acceptable for access to US military bases and some other federal facilities.
As early as 2018, the failure to comply would mean Pennsylvania identification cards would not be accepted for air travel.
The original language would have allowed the entire burden of the cost of the IDs to be borne by taxpayers; the House amendment requires those seeking federally compliant identification to pay the full cost of that ID above the cost of a noncompliant state identification card.
Additionally, unlike the Senate bill that would have repealed the current Act disallowing Pennsylvania from complying with the REAL ID Act in any way – including communicating with the federal government about compliance – the House bill merely amends the current law and allows federal-state interaction only in order to carry out the implementation of a two-tiered system.
As the amendment was debated, Republican members of the committee doubled down on their concern that the REAL ID Act itself is an insult to principles of federalism embodied in the US Constitution.
“We don’t work for the crown, the crown of Washington D.C. – we won that battle in the 1700s,” said Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon). “This bill is a sad commentary that we have to make reasonable accommodations to those people that don’t wish to participate in a system that’s been mandated by a master 250 miles from us or so today.”
Democrats on the committee, while unanimously supporting the amended bill’s advancement from committee, opposed the substance of the amendment over concerns that the compliance design laid out in the legislation will be rejected by the federal government or that the new system will make things even worse for Pennsylvanians than allowing one, uniform system.
“For my constituents, they’re confused as hell, quite honestly, that they can’t get on a plane with an ID card and fly to wherever they want to fly,” said Rep. Steve McCarter (D-Montgomery).
Committee Majority Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) argued that the concerns Democrats – including the Wolf administration – have with the current form of the bill aren't substantive.
“All of the semantics and back-and-forth over the form rather than the substance is really ridiculous in a forum where people are elected to represent the 63,000 people per district and the hundreds of thousands of people represented in the room today; that we can’t have a legitimate debate about substance, because substance-wise, this language is solid,” he said.
REAL ID Act compliance is a priority for both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.
Speaking to the issue Monday morning, Gov. Tom Wolf noted the importance of Pennsylvanians being able to use their state identification as they see fit.
“I want to make it so Pennsylvanians can do what they want to do,” he said. “If they want to go into a federal building, they can use their state driver’s license and go into that federal building or go through airport security.”
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said Monday that he had not seen the changes made to the House bill, but noted the importance of the issue to Pennsylvanians.
“Obviously, it’s an important bill to get done,” he said. “We’ll look at what they did and, if it’s satisfactory, we’ll move it quickly.”
According to House Republican Caucus spokesperson Steve Miskin, the House will likely consider the bill on second consideration later this week.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.