Driver license

Montana will start offering the option of drivers licenses and identification cards that comply with the federal REAL ID Act at the start of next year.

As the state rolls out a public awareness campaign to educate Montanans about what compliance means, it's expecting to learn sometime in the middle of this month if it will be granted another one-year extension that will allow people to board airplanes and access federal facilities with their current state-issued drivers licenses.

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 on the recommendation of a committee formed after the 9/11 terror attacks. The act created minimum security standards for state-issued drivers licenses and identification cards.

Montana has long resisted complying with the act, saying the information required amounted to a violation of privacy and calling it government overreach. Over the years the state has been issued extensions on compliance, something administrator Sarah Garcia expects will happen again. The current extension expires Oct. 10. Extensions are granted if the state shows it is making an effort to reach compliance and will no longer be granted after 2020.

“We submitted our extension about six weeks ago,” said Motor Vehicle Division administrator Sarah Garcia. “We don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t get another extension.”

Including Montana, 17 states have extensions.

During the 2017 Legislature, a bill carried by state Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, gave Montanans the option of getting a REAL ID-compliant drivers license when they renew or get a new license. People can still get noncompliant licenses and ID cards.

REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses and ID cards will cost more. It's an extra $50 for a first-time license and for people whose license either expired more than three months prior or is six months away from expiring. For people who are within six months of their license expiring or less than three months after it expired, it's an additional $25. Replacing or renewing complaint licenses will include a $25 fee.

The fees will pay for the cost to issue the licenses. That includes adding additional computers and scanners to get images of the documents required to get a compliant license. So far $75,000 has been spent on equipment and the public awareness campaign, Garcia said.

Additional documents are required to get a REAL ID-compliant license. People must prove their full legal name, date of birth and confirmation of authorized presence in the United States. They must also prove their Social Security number and Montana residency, as well as document any name changes. That means people will need items such as a birth certificate, Social Security card or pay stub, utility bill or rental agreement and certified marriage license, for example.

There are about 40 facilities capable of issuing the licenses around the state, and Garcia said she hopes to have 24 stations able to issue compliant licenses next year. The division is bringing on 14 examiners to help issue the licenses. The employees are not permanent and can work elsewhere if demand is not high.

The division expects to be able to pay the costs of start up and for the extra employees through the additional fees. The division was granted authority to get a loan of up to $4.6 million to cover start-up costs that would be repaid once compliant licenses and fees are issued.

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A fiscal note for the bill estimated the fees would generate a little over $3 million in the first full year while costing $1.8 million, but it's hard to say how it will work out since numbers are based on estimates of demand for compliant licenses.

The state expects 83,759 early adopters to get compliant licenses and ID cards in the first fiscal year, which runs until June 2019. The next fiscal year it expects 182,270, then 142,375 the following and 154,287 after that.

“It’s really difficult because you don’t know how many people are going to come in and get this card right away,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the division is trying to be fiscally conservative in its approach to scaling up to issuing the new licenses and in building its public awareness campaign.

Students from Montana State Billings crafted the campaign, which will launch advertisements after the November election and includes a website, mtrealid.gov, where people can sign up for notifications about when and where complaint licenses will be issued and what documents they’ll need.

According to the fiscal note, the state has 885,000 driver licenses and ID cards in circulation.

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