Maine lawmakers gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that ensures several hundred veterans can continue receiving medical care at a New Hampshire military base despite Maine’s noncompliance with the federal Real ID law.
The legislation, L.D. 213, would set aside $15,000 to pay for passport cards for veterans who, as of Feb. 1, have been unable to use their Maine driver’s licenses to access a health clinic at Pease Air National Guard Base. An estimated 400 to 500 veterans from Maine use the VA health clinic in Portsmouth but are now potentially caught in the middle of a fight between the state and federal governments.
Maine is one of a handful of states that have refused to comply with the federal Real ID law, which requires enhanced security features on driver’s licenses.
For most Mainers, Maine’s refusal would only become an issue if the state remains noncompliant as of next January because that is when the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, will begin requiring all airline passengers to have Real IDs. But citizens without compliant ID cards are already being turned away at military bases, nuclear facilities and some federal buildings.
The Maine veterans who use the New Hampshire facility can still receive medical care at another VA facility not located on a military base. But Rep. Jared Golden, the Lewiston Democrat who sponsored L.D. 213, said that could require some southern Maine veterans to drive much farther distances.
Golden, a Marine veteran who serves as assistant majority leader in the Maine House, said he hopes the Legislature will approve a bill to fix the Real ID issue this year. But that bill likely may not take effect until September or October, and “that’s an awful long time for some of these vets to not be able to go to that facility.”
Golden’s bill – which passed the House on a 110-8 vote on Tuesday – is an “emergency measure” that would become law immediately upon the governor’s signature. The bill has already received preliminary approval in the Senate but requires a final vote.
“The faster we move, the better because it is a problem right now for some of these folks,” Golden said.
Golden’s bill would help some of those veterans pay the fee to obtain a “passport card,” which is a wallet-sized card that can be used at U.S. border crossings with Canada and Mexico. Individuals without a Real ID-compliant driver’s license can also use a regular U.S. passport, a military ID or another form of federal documentation to gain access to military bases and other restricted facilities.
Federal officials insist the additional requirements under Real ID – including federal access to a database of birth certificates and photographs that can be used with facial recognition technology – are necessary to help thwart terrorism in the post-9/11 era. But Maine and at least four other states have refused to comply with the law, often citing civil liberties concerns.
During a hearing last week on a bill to adopt Real ID standards in Maine, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap listed a number of instances where the U.S. government did overstep its bounds by using surveillance against its own citizens. Those included investigations into alleged communists during the McCarthyism era and surveillance of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dunlap also noted that the federal law allows the Department of Homeland Security to amend the rules at any time and without notice. “Later, Homeland Security may well decide they also need a thumb print, maybe an iris scan, maybe a component that includes a DNA sequence, maybe a complete breakdown of your status and history as a voter, or whether or not you have a Class 3 federal firearms permit or whether you own any firearms at all,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap’s office estimated that it will initially cost Maine taxpayers between $2 million and $3 million to comply with Real ID standards. But absent a legislative fix this year, Mainers may be unable to board a commercial flight without a valid passport or passport card.
The broader Real ID bill, L.D. 306, is awaiting legislative action.