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How fight between feds and states affect you
By Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service


April 01, 2005

Washington - Moves by Congress to set national standards for drivers' licenses and birth records have state legislators protesting federal interference in state and local government operations.

Mike Balboni, a Republican New York state senator, said the federal government's "one-size-fits-all" policies are the latest in a series of unfunded dictates that Washington has handed down to the states.

"The increasing growth and expansion of these dictates is a real problem," said Balboni, chairman of a National Conference of State Legislatures committee dealing with the issue. "In the last five or six years, Washington has been more willing to encroach on areas that have been handled by the states."

He cited recent federal laws setting up new procedures for county election boards, altering state statutes on prescription drug charges in the Medicare program, and dictating education policies to the states. In many cases, these laws unraveled decades of complex compromises reached in state legislatures, Balboni said.

He complained that Congress fails to understand the complexities of state and local government agencies that are responsible for administering these systems and often doesn't provide the federal funding.

"It's 'we addressed it: you pay for it,' " Balboni said.

John Hurson, president of the organization representing state legislatures and a Democratic Maryland state delegate, said Congress is making state government unworkable.

The organization says the current budget being considered by Congress contains at least $30 billion in federal directives to the states that aren't fully funded. That's in addition to the $51 billion Congress shifted to the states in the last two years.

One of the largest of the unfunded federal mandates came with the No Child Left Behind Act, which established a national education policy and required the states to pay for new and expensive testing programs. Local police and fire organizations also protest that Congress hasn't provided much of the "first-responder" funding promised after the 9/11 attacks. That means fire and police departments still communicate over the same radio channels in most places.

Balboni cited the Real ID Act, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. It requires states to check the immigration status of new drivers and develop new tamper-proof and unified drivers' licenses. It also orders states to adopt stringent safeguards protecting information on birth certificate records from theft by potential terrorists.

Balboni said the birth certificate provisions would have a major impact on rural courthouses, many of which currently have only one employee responsible for keeping the records on local births, deaths and marriages, and no safes to lock up the information.

Privacy rights advocates already are trying to scuttle efforts to establish national standards for the nation's 220 million drivers, arguing that would lead to national identification cards.

The rules haven't been written for carrying out the standards, but under the legislation drivers would have to provide state or local governments with verifiable proof of their identity, date of birth, and citizenship or immigration status in order to get a drivers' license. The legislation also requires electronic verification of birth certificates, which counties would be required to retain in secured courthouse areas.

Immigrants would get special licenses, a proposal opposed by the National Council of La Raza, which fears distinctive documents will single out immigrants for discrimination. The National Center on Transgender Equality protests that relying on birth certificates to verify identifications will display the sexual origins of people who have undergone sex change operations and established new lives. The Gun Owners of America is campaigning against unified drivers' licenses as a thinly disguised effort to license gun owners since gun purchasers currently have to show their drivers' licenses to buy a gun.

Marvin Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union said securing birth records and establishing a national identification card doesn't ensure Americans will be safer. "Our privacy must not be swept away by Congress, especially when there has been little discussion on the ramifications of such a move."

Balboni said there are other difficulties counties will face enforcing the law. Many local police departments who process new drivers don't have ready access to federal immigration records to verify the immigration status of people. "There are areas where there's not a system for local government to carry out federal law," he said.

Jeff Lungren, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the provisions in the Real ID Act on drivers' licenses and birth certificate records were key recommendations of the 9/11 commission. Sensenbrenner is the leading sponsor of the legislation.

"We're trying to close the loopholes that made us vulnerable to terrorism _ that's the focus of the legislation," Lungren said.

"There's a minuscule amount of money involved," he said, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the measure would cost the 50 states and the District of Columbia $100 million over the next five years. "That's a small amount to pay for better security standards, and it closes a gaping national security loophole."


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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